Why Most PowerPoint Presentations Suck Book Review
The open candor of the author is a refreshing take on why so many presentations, well, suck. The underlying tenant of the book is that most PowerPoint users, even long-time users, don’t actually know how to use the software, aren’t trained in the basic principles of design, and haven’t learned how to present as a storyteller.
If you are looking for a book on how to learn PowerPoint, this book won’t give you that. I do recommend you read Part One first and then learn the basics of the software. After that, continue with Parts Two and Three to gain a better understanding of the software and learn how to use it well. In Parts Four and Five you will learn presenting strategies and more advanced features of the software.
Altman himself states that the book isn’t meant to be read cover to cover; rather used and referenced as needed. However, if you do decide to read it from cover to cover, the conversational tone, interesting stories, and multiple examples make it an enjoyable read.
One thing to note, is the book was published in 2012 so the versions of PowerPoint referenced are 2007 and 2010. However, many of the software tips can still be applied to newer versions of the software. Also, several of the chapters cover general design and presenting strategies; both are universal and timeless.
Overview of the Book
Part One: The Pain
The chapters in this part drive home the point that “the pain” is that of the audience because most PowerPoint users don’t know that they don’t know how to use the software effectively or really how to present.
I always considered myself to be an advanced PowerPoint user but started to wonder because I remember how easy it was to learn PowerPoint. Was I one of the those 30-minute people Altman talks about in Chapter One? I sighed a bit of relief as I continued to read through the chapters and I realized I can in fact call myself an advanced user.
The first chapter of the book, “The 30-minute syndrome,”sets the stage for the rest of book. Revealing that while PowerPoint users may have a general understanding of the software, which they probably learned in thirty minutes, most don’t learn beyond the basics. Unfortunately, most people don’t realize that there is more to the software than the basics. And, that their limited knowledge is actually contributing to their effectiveness as a presenter.
In Chapter Two, “The cram-everything-in obsession,” the author talks about the presentation slides we see too often — a list of bulleted paragraphs in 10pt font. Altman attributes this to the fact that most people write their presentation script as they are creating their PowerPoint. The end result being too much text, and then the inclination to just read the slide.
Chapters Three and Four, are short reminders that our presentations are not about showing off or being me focused. Educational research has found that a teacher has a very short window to hook the students at the beginning of a class. Spending that time on miscellaneous information is throwing away a chance to connect with the students. Altman would agree. As a presenter don’t waste your and the audience’s time by focusing on you – i.e. a five-minute introduction about your accomplishments. You goal right from the beginning is to focus on your audience. The slides and your opening statement need to reflect that.
In the next three chapters, the Altman focuses on misuses such as background images that compete with the text, overuse of custom animation,and excessive use of bullets points that are long phrases or full sentences. As mentioned before, the more text on a slide is almost a guarantee that you (the presenter) will just read your slides. Altman bluntly states that this “makes you stupid” or at the very least makes you look it.
Part Two: The Solution
If you are really serious about learning how to present well with PowerPoint, these are must read chapters. Altman covers fundamental features that every PowerPoint user should know but most don’t. Alongside an overview of the features, each chapter also includes step-by-step instructions on how to work with the different features.
Chapter eight, “Surviving bullets,” talks about bullet points beyond how to add them to the slide. Among presentation gurus that is debate about whether or not they should be at all. Altman does not hold to the belief that bullet points should be eliminated outright. He takes this stance that in the corporate world, this isn’t realistic and that when used correctly can enhance a presentation.
Of the techniques Altman provides to improve the use of bullet points is to limit each bullet point to three words. This makes the slides friendlier, reduces audience eye fatigue, improves your pace, creates intrigue, and makes you, the presenter, know the material better. Other recommendations to help keep you and the audience on track is to fade each point after it is addressed or enhance the point to make it more pronounced.
As an advanced user I was very happy to see an entire chapter on Slide Masters. Every time I co-present, I am always reminded how few people know about this feature or if they do know, they don’t really understand them. In Chapter Nine, “Thriving with masters and layouts,” Altman provides an excellent explanation of the Slide Master and its relationship to each slide layout option. He also discusses ways to use the layout options to make overall development easier and quicker.
In “The theory of the theme,” Chapter Ten, the author dives deeper into themes and discusses what they are, how they function, and what to consider if you decide to create your own theme. When needing to use company branding this is recommended by the author as it is easier to maintain consistency.
The next chapter, “Creating shows within your show,” is all about an underutilized feature called Custom Show. I fully admit that while I was aware of this feature, I’ve never used it. It is pretty cool – especially if you have to present the same content but need to modify the slideshow for each audience. Custom Show allows you to create one master presentation that includes all of the content you might need for various presentations and then by using this feature, you can suppress unneeded slides to create a customize presentation for your specific audience. This feature essentially eliminates the necessity of maintaining separate files. A good example where this might prove useful is giving a detailed presentation to your project team versus an overview presentation to a management group.
Part Three: Survival Skills for Non-Designers
This part focuses on what skills presentation creators should have to help make the overall process easier. Altman recognizes that the space in the book for this part isn’t sufficient to become a design expert. Rather he provides sound design advice in the context of creating slide decks and the ways we may present.
The section begins with Chapter 15, “The meaning of design.” Altman clarifies what he means by design — it is not decoration — but rather a process that helps deliver a message. He also reminds us that during the process you need to always remember 1) you are the presentation 2) it’s not about you (reread chapter 4 in the book) and 3) get away from the computer. He reminds the reader about what he calls the Triad of Presentation Design — 1) what you say 2) what you show 3) what you give. These are the core elements of a presentation and during the design phase each deserves time and attention.
Even though the amount of text on a slide was addressed in earlier chapters, this point can’t be stated enough. In Chapter 16, “Too much text!,” Altman discusses the four reasons why we use too much text: 1) you don’t know any better 2) you are addicted (e.g. you rely too much on your slides) 3) you want your slides to double as handouts (by the way, this is an illusion and a slide deck can’t be both) and 4) you are required to. It also includes several case studies on how to reduce the amount of text on each slide.
While the next two chapters “Designing presentations for remote delivery” (Chapter Seventeen) and “It’s nice to share” (Chapter Eighteen) are now a bit dated, they do provide some good nuggets of information on what to consider if you were presenting digitally, such as asynchronously or as a webinar, and uploading to the cloud. Altman addresses slide elements like typefaces, tone, navigation, what rules to bend such as adding more text, and what to consider when selecting a cloud-based platform
The last chapter in this section, “Real-world Makeovers” (Chapter Nineteen) shows four different “sucky” slide decks and what Altman did to redesign them. The before and after images show dramatic changes. And are an excellent resource to use for ideas to help convey a better message and be more visually appealing.
Part Four: Death, Taxes, and Public Speaking
This section focuses exclusively on improving your presentation skills. The chapters cover everything from ways to use your hands, some traps we might fall into when using our hands, and strategies to overcome nervousness such is laughing or slowing your speech. He also discussed room set up, where you should stand, and debunking different speaking myths like not looking at the projection screen. The final chapter is an excellent compilation of quotes grouped into the main themes 1) know your audience 2) be yourself and 3) story telling 4) nuggets of wisdom about public speaking in general.
Part Five: Working Smarter, Presenting Better
The last section gets into some advanced functionalities of PowerPoint but if learned and used, they make the overall design process and presentation smoother and seamless. As mentioned earlier in this review, the references to PowerPoint 2007 and 2010 make this section feel a bit dated. However, many of the strategies shared still hold true in newer versions of the software.
In Chapter Twenty-four, “Creating a smarter interface,” Altman at first bemoans the loss of PowerPoint 2003 functionality — sentiments I equally felt (and sometimes still feel). However, he quickly moves on and shares some techniques to make the overall interface more effective both for designing and presenting.
The next chapter “Creating intelligent presentations,” (Chapter Twenty-five) covers how to create hyperlinks and menus within the slideshow. This allows flexible navigation within the slide deck and is particularly useful if you are short on time. By using an embedded hyperlink, you can go directly to your concluding slide instead of quickly skipping past slides to get there.
While use of photos is discussed and demonstrated in other chapters of the book, “Fabulous photos,” (Chapter Twenty-six) discusses everything you need to consider when using photos in a presentation from image resolution to cropping to lighting to placement on a slide.
The last chapter, “Junk & miscellany,” (Chapter Twenty-seven) includes various tips, tricks, and advice that don’t quite fit into the other chapters. Altman talks about limitations when presenting with iPads, highlights keystrokes to know for reviewing a slide deck during the design process, talks about color schemes, and addresses issues with using tables.
As I conclude this review I have to admit it was one of my favorite books to review. The straightforward and not so serious tone makes it enjoyable to read. What sets this book apart is the combination of advice and techniques for both presenting and using the software. For hard-core Apple Keynote users obviously much of this book won’t help you use the Keynote application. However, as a user of both applications, there were several strategies that could be applied to other presentation applications such as youth employment placement of photos. Many of the techniques in this book are universal regardless of the application.