Aristotle’s Top 10 PowerPoint Tips

Western philosophers have been mapping a course to clear communication for more than 2,500 years, but judging by many PowerPoint presentations today, you would think we completely missed the boat. That means it’s time for us to hit the PowerPoint pause button, circle back and catch up with the past.

aristotleIn their study of rhetoric, the ancient Greeks described how people can persuade by appealing to reason, emotion, and the character of the speaker. Has anything changed since then? Nope. The only thing new today is the additional power of projected media to help us make our case.

When you work in PowerPoint in a storyboard view, it can be a very powerful way to capture, distill and arrange your thoughts. But PowerPoint is also a visual design tool, and we’ve unfortunately fallen victim to an unfortunate side-effect — obsessing over the surfaces of individual slides at the expense of the structure of the argument across slides. In many cases, there is no rhetorical structure whatsoever in a PowerPoint presentation, only a loosely-related string of lists. Instead of a strong and clear argument, we get a weak and fragmented assortment of ideas that muddy up the minds of the audience and the speaker.

We need to shift our obsessions in PowerPoint from the pretty surfaces of the slides, to the neglected structures beneath them. A practical solution is to discipline ourselves to begin every PowerPoint first without any background templates or visuals whatsover — just headlines and storyboards. Only after the ideas are strongly in place, should we give ourselves permission to work on the visuals.

In his 1928 book titled Greek Rhetoric & Literary Criticism, classical scholar Rhys Roberts distilled Aristotle’s 3 books of Rhetoric into 10 classical tips that can still re-orient our PowerPoint in the right direction today:

1. Be logical.

2. Think clearly.

3. Reason cogently.

4. Remember that argument is the life and soul of persuasion.

5. Study human nature.

6. Observe the characters and emotions of your audience, as well as your own character and emotions.

7. Attend to delivery.

8. Use language rightly.

9. Arrange your material well.

10. End crisply.

Ask 1,000 gurus for advice and they’ll give you 10,000 tips, but why not make your life easier by simply listening to the guy who said it first and said it best? Aristotle may not have been an expert in PowerPoint, but he was an expert in crafting the structure upon which any successful series of PowerPoint slides must stand.

Tip: Before you start working on your visuals, view your PowerPoint slides in Slide Sorter and check them against this 10-point checklist of tips. Are your headlines logical, and orderly? Have you researched your audience? Do you have a crisp ending? Practice giving the presentation to your team with only the headlines, so you can attend to your delivery. When your headlines, storyboard structure and delivery have all passed the bar of Aristotle’s Top 10 Tips, then it’s time to start working on your visuals, confident they have a solid foundation to rest upon. This way, even if your laptop fails and you don’t have a PowerPoint to work with, you’ll know you have 2,500 years of history to guide your sails on a clear course toward results.

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11 Responses to “Aristotle’s Top 10 PowerPoint Tips”

  1. Beyond Bullets – Aristotle’s Top Ten PowerPoint Tips

    Beyond Bullets and Aristotle – a winning combination for presenters.

  2. “Beyond bullets – Aristotle’s Top Ten PowerPoint Tips”

    From Dennis Kennedy: “I [make] no secret of the fact that I am a huge fan of the Beyond Bullets

  3. “Beyond bullets – Aristotle’s Top Ten PowerPoint Tips”

    From Dennis Kennedy: “I [make] no secret of the fact that I am a huge fan of the Beyond Bullets

  4. Aristotle and Powerpoint

    beyond bullets: Aristotle’s Top 10 PowerPoint Tips Great post about Aristotle’s Rhetoric and how it applies to PPT (and frankly any kind of communication). Just goes to show you how few new ideas there really are and how useful it…

  5. Aristotle and Powerpoint

    beyond bullets: Aristotle’s Top 10 PowerPoint Tips Great post about Aristotle’s Rhetoric and how it applies to PPT (and frankly any kind of communication). Just goes to show you how few new ideas there really are and how useful it…

  6. Jason Koulouras says:

    Thanks for this post – it is a great one and of immediate value for something that was nagging me about one of the powerpoints crossing my desk.

  7. Tony Ramos says:

    PowerPoint users can benefit from one more key teaching from Aristole: the golden mean.

    Human virtue may be found in the balance, or mean, between the two vices of excess and deficit on almost any dimension (e.g., between cowardice and rashness lies courage, between secrecy and loquacity lies honesty, etc.) See http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/nicomachaen.html.

    If alive and PowerPointing today, he’d probably choose something between BlankPresentation.pot and DitheringDayGloWithKlaxons.pot once he’s nailed his content. We all should.

  8. Reason = Logic + Emotion

    Cliff Atkinson writes a great blog about using PowerPoint as a communications tool: Beyond Bullets. I highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in learning how to present more effectively. One my favorite posts on Cliff’s blog is “Aristotle’s…

  9. Interesting Thoughts

    Combining Logic and Emotion. Powerpoint tips from Aristotle. Leaders and Followers. Levels of Consciousness and Raising your Consciousness. Rules for Evil Overlords….

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