The unspeakable horror of a bad PowerPoint presentation

The following story contains actual slides presented in actual presentations in professional environments. 

It was about four slides into the presentation. The presenter was losing me. I was unsure why I was in the audience. This was a problem, as the audience was just one. Me.

" A presentation needs to be an Indiana Jones movie, not the PowerPoint equivalent of Andy Warhol's eight-hour epic Empire."
Paul Edwards, Manager, operations strategy at ANZ 

The presentation was what one has come to expect in the corporate world: slide after slide of densely packed words, with bullet symbols offering the only relief. The project manager stoically ploughed through his slide pack, reading word for word what was projected on the screen.

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Illustration: Chris Kelly. Corporate caricatures & illustrations.

Sound familiar?

I've managed to build resistance to these types of presentations through repeated low-level exposure, much as one builds up immunity to illness.

I do try and focus on these presentations, respecting that the presenter has gone to the effort of researching and preparing, no matter how poorly put together and executed it may be. But this presentation was worse than most.

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When the next slide came up on the screen — this time an overcrowded diagram with illegible annotations —the 'A-Ha! Fairy' came to visit, bringing a flash of insight. I gently asked the presenter to stop.

I explained that the presentation was not cutting through, and a key problem was that he had too many 'noun' slides, and not enough 'verb' slides. His slides were talking about things (nouns); and none of his slides were talking about actions (verbs). A quick look through the rest of his pack showed this to be the case for the remaining slides.

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This is why the presenter was losing me. He needed his presentation to be an Indiana Jones movie, when what he was offering was the PowerPoint equivalent of Andy Warhol's eight-hour epic Empire.

We agreed that he should re-think his approach (and his pack), and re-convene the following week to try again. After a couple of iterations, his presentation was much better. There were fewer slides, and more of those were verb slides (40 per cent were verb slides). All of his slides were more interesting, and he was definitely more passionate in his delivery. Enthusiastic even.

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Since the day the A-Ha! Fairy visited I've spent some time thinking about the way in which information is typically assembled and presented. I've been informally collecting data on presentations: for any pack I have been party to as an audience I have attempted to categorise the number of slides that fit into noun (expository) and verb (action) categories.

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The numbers are in from my unscientific study of corporate slide decks. Of the slides I checked (I excluded title slides and Q&A slides), 583 (86 per cent) were noun slides, whilst only 94 (14 per cent) were verb slides.

This proportion felt wrong. Whilst I am not advocating a wholesale ditching of noun slides for verb slides (a sentence in English comprised entirely of verbs would be peculiar!), I wondered what would be a good ratio of noun slides to verb slides.

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A quick search online showed nouns typically make up about 20 per cent of words used, and verbs 15 per cent of words used (the remaining 65 per cent being other parts of speech, such as adjectives, pronouns, and prepositions).

In this simplified grammar of PowerPoint slides, using this relative proportion of nouns to verbs means that one would expect about 57 per cent of the slides to be noun slides, and 43 per cent verb slides. This is very close to the proportion in the finished slide deck described earlier.

Do you agree more verb slides are a good thing, or does it depend on the deck? What ratio of noun slides to verb slides works for you? What other techniques do you use to make your presentations more engaging and compelling? I'd love to read your thoughts in the comments.

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Paul Edwards is manager, operations strategy at ANZ

(PLEASE NOTE: not Paul Edwards, GM corporate communications at ANZ and Publisher of BlueNotes) 

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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