When the writer Gertrude Stein returned to Oakland, Calif., to visit her childhood home, she couldn’t find it, so she wrote :
“There is no there there.”
Unfortunately the same observation applies to many PowerPoint presentations when you search for the substance and structure beneath their flashy surfaces — there’s simply no “there” there.
This is partly due to the way most of us use PowerPoint — when we want to say something, we open it up and dive headfirst into the “surfaces” of the slides, asking questions about backgrounds, fonts, charts and animations. Without really putting much thought into it, we accept our 3 primary “structures” as the PowerPoint template, the bulleted list and the chart. Our 3 essential elements of “substance” are the logo we put on the Photoshop background, the text we insert into the bulleted list , and the numbers we enter into the charting tool. Maybe we’ll toss in a picture or diagram for good measure. There – mission accomplished.
Although this approach may accelerate our ability to produce large quantities of PowerPoint slides, it also sends us speeding toward wrecked understanding and missed opportunities. Because when we skim only the surface, we miss deeper opportunities to try other communication possibilities, we deprive ourselves of the ability to measure how we’re doing, and we systematically ensure our audience is bored, overloaded, and silent.
We have to flip our current approach upside-down if we want our PowerPoint to start making more sense. That means investing more thought first into the substance of our ideas and the structure appropriate for our audiences, that will lead to better surface results.
Tip: Try reversing your steps when you create your next PowerPoint and follow a 3-step sequence like this:
1. Substance. This is the phase where you locate the ideas you want to communicate. Write out each idea you have on a separate notecard, then lay out your cards on a table and sort, organize and prioritize them according to general topics and themes. You can also treat each slide as a digital note card in PowerPoint if you describe each idea in the headline of a blank slide, then choose View –> Slide Sorter to sort, organize and prioritize them according to general topics and themes.
2. Structure. Next, after you’ve captured your ideas, organize and sequence them according to the results you would like to achieve with a specific audience. There are no cookie cutters or wizards that make this easy — you simply have to work hard to learn the art of shaping ideas in ways that are the best fit with the human mind and personality. In PowerPoint, your Slide Sorter view is a flexible tool to storyboard your ideas in a way that will help you find a good match between your purpose and your audience.
3. Surface. Only after you have your ideas in a structured format, is it appropriate to find the graphical forms that will enhance your message. By keeping your options open until this point, you’ll be free to experiment with a variety of surfaces for your ideas — maybe a photographic overlay, split screen, a single word, or a PowerPoint blackout. At this point in the flow, your vision is the limit.
When you flip your current PowerPoint approach upside down and begin with your substance and structure first, you will make sure that beneath the surface, there really is a there there.