January 25, 2011

Using PowerPoint to advance your mission

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Image by Ed Yourdon on Flickr (CC BY SA)

Guest post by Deborah Elizabeth Finn
Technology for the Nonprofit and Philanthropic Sector

deborah-elizabeth-finnMost days of the week, I tend to think of information technology as morally neutral. But I do find some applications to be irritating or counter-productive – especially as they are often used in the nonprofit/philanthropic sector.

PowerPoint falls squarely into that category.

I came to that conclusion years ago, and Microsoft’s recent enhancements to the world’s most popular presentation software haven’t changed my mind. My view is based on two questions that I asked myself:

(1)  When have I enjoyed giving a presentation based on PowerPoint?

(2)  When have I enjoyed or learned a lot from someone else’s PowerPoint presentation?

Although I try to avoid giving PowerPoint presentations these days, I had no trouble answering Question No. 1 on the basis of previous experience. I almost always liked it. It’s great to have my talking points, my graphic displays and my annotations packaged in one document. It’s very convenient — assuming there’s no equipment failure on the part of the projector, the screen, the computer or the storage medium that holds the PowerPoint document (not always a safe assumption).

In short, PowerPoint is designed to make presenters reasonably happy. Except in cases of equipment failure.

The answer to Question No. 2 is a little more difficult. I can be an exacting judge of how information is presented and of whether the presenter is sensitive to the convenience and learning styles of the audience.

Perhaps the presenter put too many points on each slide, or too few.  Perhaps I was bored, looking at round after round of bulleted text, when graphic displays would have told the story more effectively. Perhaps I wondered why the presenter expected me to copy the main points down in my notebook when she knew all along what they were going to be. Perhaps the repeated words, “Next slide, please,” spoken by the presenter to her assistant seemed to take on more weight through sheer repetition than the content under consideration. Perhaps there were too many slides for the time allotted, or they were not arranged in a sequence that made it easy to revisit specific points during the question-and-answer period.

In short, with a few spectacular exceptions, PowerPoint as a medium of presentation does not tend to win friends and influence people. 

How to put your presentation skills to good use

However, all is not lost.  If you have struggled to attain some high-level PowerPoint skills, and your role in a nonprofit/philanthropic organization calls for you to make frequent presentations, I can offer you advice in the form of the following three-point plan:

  1. Knock yourself out. Create the PowerPoint presentation of your dreams. Include all the bells and whistles. Be sure to write up full annotations for each slide.
  2.  
  3. Print out this incredible PowerPoint presentation as a handout and give a paper copy to each person at the beginning of your talk. As a bonus, you can also tell your audience where they can view or download it on the Web.
  4.  
  5. Pare down. Cull out all but five or six slides for each hour of your planned presentation. These should include only graphics that must be seen to be believed and text that is more effective when read silently than when spoken. This severely pared-down version will be the PowerPoint document that you will actually use during your presentation.

I realize this may not be entirely welcome advice, but it will help you serve your organization’s interests by connecting more effectively with your audience. After all, that’s why you’re giving the presentation.

If you still believe that PowerPoint is the best tool for engaging stakeholders in your mission, my final advice to you is to review the PowerPoint version of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

Deborah Elizabeth Finn is a consultant who helps nonprofits and philanthropies achieve their missions, mostly through strategic use of information and communication technologies. She is especially passionate about bringing unmet needs and under-utilized resources together seamlessly and about fostering the relationships and communities that make this possible. Follow her on Twitter at @deborah909.
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  • Excellent post! We've RT on our Twitter and relay on our blog (http://bit.ly/erYhii).

  • Jim Girard

    I have always hated PowerPoint presentations because the one's I was forced to sit through when PowerPoint was a new tool were presented in a such a way that the presenter seemed to assume that the audience was both deaf and stupid.

    However, after reading your take on it, Deborah, I think I would enjoy the way you use this tool – the way it was meant to be used, creatively. Excellent points!

  • Great article – I just linked to it from facebook!

  • Deborah – good post. For further reading on improving PowerPoint Presentations, I highly recommend Andy Goodman's "Why Bad Presentations Happen to Good Causes." It's a VERY short book and well worth the time for improving your slides. For more thoughts on designing great slides, I'd recommend "Presentation Zen" by Garr Reynolds.

    I think your idea of giving out the detailed presentation on paper beforehand is a good one. I have done something similar – creating a one page handout of the key ideas I want the audience to take from the presentation. It takes a little extra work, but it saves a few trees and I find that it helps me to distill my presentation to its core message.

  • Note The online social activism sector is growing all the time and sharing information and ideas is crucial to continuing that growth and the very impact on society. Note The online social activism sector is growing all the time and sharing information and ideas is crucial to continuing that growth and the very impact on society. Note The online social activism sector is growing all the time and sharing information and ideas is crucial to continuing that growth and the very impact on society.

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