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.
In 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.