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PowerPoint Lessons at 30,000 Feet

I was flying to Houston recently and sat next to a woman who was working on…you guessed it… her PowerPoint presentation. We started up a conversation, and before she knew what I did for a living, she confessed that she really couldn’t take the time to chat because she was giving a presentation the next morning and she wasn’t ready. She sat there frantic and breathing hard and I could see her anxiety mounting. That’s when I told her that I was a presentation skills coach.

I asked if I could see her PowerPoint. It was, in a word, atrocious! But it was nothing I hadn’t seen before. There were the usual offenders: Lines of text in 8-point font, lots of dense graphs, mixed up font styles and sizes, no color scheme to speak of, and no images, photos or video. For me to sit next to someone like this and not intervene would be like a doctor sitting next to someone who was having a heart attack and ignoring the signs. It’s not in my nature.

So I pulled out my laptop and showed her the PowerPoint presentation we use in our programs. Then I did a short lesson of the best practices of PowerPoint design and development. Her response? “Yeah, I’ve heard all that before!” Then she confided, “I know what to do. I even promised myself I was going to start earlier this time and make sure the PowerPoint was done well in advance so I could practice, but I ran out of time.”

Lucky for her, I was on the plane that day. I quietly asked her if I could help. She agreed. I took over her keyboard, and in less than 30 minutes we edited her deck. Without access to the internet we were limited in photo and image selection, but the final product was a whole lot better than it was before.

Then I listened to her message. Together, we made some changes there too. We came up with concrete transitions between slides, created a brand new hook and final thought, built in a few stories… and voila! She was ready to go. Her delivery was good and she has a beautiful smile and good vocal skills, but I don’t think those qualities could have saved her original PP deck. It would have sunk her presentation for sure.

So, once again, here are a few reminders to all of you who have heard all this before:

  • Do develop your message first and create your slides after.
  • Do use variety in the design. One photo will say more than 30 lines of 8-point text.
  • Do select a template complete with colors, font style, and size that is clean, simple, relevant and consistent with your message.
  • Don’t overdo it. Even with highly technical slides, edit, edit, edit.
  • Don’t think your slides are more important to the audience than you are. They are not.
  • Don’t wait until the last minute to prepare!

The next day I got a phone call from my new friend. She said, “I felt really good. I didn’t blow anyone away, but at least I didn’t embarrass myself with terrible slides. And for some reason I wasn’t as nervous as I usually am.”


I travel often for my work. Maybe one day we’ll sit next to each other. If we do, don’t be alarmed if I glance over at your screen, take over your keyboard, and redo your slides. I just can’t help myself.

April 25th, 2011 | Permalink | Trackback | Bookmark and Share

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