“I love your presentations. I was wondering if you could give me some advice on developing PowerPoints,” one of my first-year advertising students asked me after class last week.
Talk about an uncomfortable position. I was flattered. But the problem is that this young man is enrolled in a presentations class where students are being taught some pretty rigid rules—rules that I break every day.
At first, I wasn’t sure how to respond, but I was honest.
“I’d probably just stick to what your presentations instructor is telling you,” I said. His hopeful face dipped into a frown.
“What I’m trying to say is that you need to learn to walk before you can run,” I said. “I break all the rules and, if you do what I do, you’ll just get in trouble.”
In first-year presentation class, I imagine that students learn to use no more than 10 slides in a 20-minute presentation and they are told they should use no more than three colours per slide and list no more than five points.
I studied those rules of slide design and presentations and, for a while, my slides were adequate but mundane. Then I started to learn from some of the masters like Garr Reynolds, Nancy Duarte, Tom Peters, Steve Jobs, and Ron Hoff.
I stick to the three colours rule and I minimize the number of points I include in slides, but I do everything else intentionally wrong.
Sometimes, in a 1o-minute presentation, I’ll have 30 slides that flash by in seconds. My slides rarely have text, but often feature loud bursts of music; swirling snippets of video; and brilliant photos. My text sometimes shifts so rapidly between 140-point fonts and 18-point fonts that students have to crane their necks back and forth like gobbling turkeys to catch one image as it explodes into another.
My presentation on comma splices last week drew class-wide applause and exclamations of “Frank, you do the best PowerPoints!”
It was a shining moment. After all, only three years ago, I struggled even to figure out how to open the PowerPoint software, never mind add sound and images and video.
But back to the student who, last week, was asking me to reveal the Holy Grail of presentation tips.
We talked about colour and avoiding large amounts of text and steering clear of the evil “slide-ument,” Garr Reynolds’ word for a photocopy of slides that lecturers too often give to their audiences before speaking. These handouts serve as poor information documents that only help to tune out audiences.
At the end of our chat, I suggested the student do as his presentations teacher tells him. I showed him a couple of Youtube videos with funny names like “Pimp Up Your PowerPoints” and “How to Present like Steve Jobs,” and I wrote down the names of some of the best books on presentations before rushing off a to student meeting.
Did I fail the young man?
I don’t think so. After all, how could I tell a student that my work is good partly because I do everything wrong?