Everybody uses PowerPoint templates because everybody uses PowerPoint templates. As far as I can tell, that’s the only reason why we automatically use the same background for every PowerPoint slide, slide after slide. But is it a good idea? Certainly you and I have our opinions about the matter, but let’s move ourselves to the background for a moment and let the audience decide.
I’ll be honest up front — I don’t think pre-designed PowerPoint template backgrounds are a good idea, and I never thought they were. When I first started giving talks, I wouldn’t be shy about saying so. But then I learned an important lesson as a speaker: Why tell someone something, when you can show them the situation and let them say it themselves?
In the past I would simply make the declarative statement to this effect:
“PowerPoint templates are a bad idea because they guarantee your audience will be bored. Look around at other media — in television and film you don’t see the same visual, scene after scene. Plus, it constrains your creative options — it’s like you’re in art class and asked to solve a communication problem, but your instructor gives you a pad of paper with only blue pages and a yellow marker. Your solutions will always be blue and yellow, every time.”
Some people in my audience would vaguely nod their head, and some wouldn’t have any change of expression. I could see what I was talking about — why couldn’t they? And then it struck me — here I was advocating new and engaging ways for people to use media to communicate with other people, yet I wasn’t practicing what I was preaching. Why was I just telling people about the idea, instead of figuring out a way to let them say it themselves?
So I changed my approach. Instead of simply stating my own opinion, now I open up a typical PowerPoint in Slide Sorter view for the audience to see on the screen. Then I ask the question, “What words come to mind when you see this PowerPoint?” Whenever I do this, without fail, audiences make comments to the effect: “This is going to be boring.” “I’m going to go to sleep now.” “Just give me the slides and I’ll read them on my own — why do I need to be here?” As they see and say for themselves the point I want to make, we quickly make a common connection that sets the context for our next part of the talk — easy ways we can create PowerPoint without a cookie-cutter template.
What was the difference between the two approaches I had taken with my audiences? Before, I was making a declarative statement, which just lays out my own opinion and leaves no room for dialogue or thinking. This is the effect of the typical bullet point approach: Here is a list of statements; I’ve already thought this through so you don’t need to think; and you’re not invited to participate.
In my second approach, I was asking a question, which is actually an invitation to an audience to think, to connect, and to participate. They could look at the Slide Sorter view themselves, and see as plainly as I could that a PowerPoint template approach will systematically bore any audience. As many times as I’ve done this exercise, there’s no doubt in my mind that PowerPoint templates are a bad approach, because every audience has convinced me of that fact.
What would happen if every speaker were required to start off his or her presentation in Slide Sorter view, and ask the audience’s permission to go forward? Most presentations would end right there. The unhelpful PowerPoint template approach only continues because the Slide Sorter view of presentations never sees the light of day. But when we expose it to the bright light of a projector bulb, our cookie-cutter template approach will quickly fade to black.
Tip: When it comes to the PowerPoint template approach, don’t believe me. Ask yourself, and your own audiences. Look at your own PowerPoint in Slide Sorter view — what words come to mind when you see it? Now, project the same view onto a screen to a group of people, and ask them the same question. If you get the same responses I get, it’s time to trash the template, and start over with a blank slate (slide).