10 deadly PowerPoint mistakes and how to avoid them

“PowerPoint has become a crutch for those who lack the skills, time, and commitment to create an effective presentation.”

Too strong a statement? Perhaps, unless of course you’re one of the many presenters who rely heavily on PowerPoint, then that’s just some sound advice from a veteran organizational performance consultant.

My good friend and fellow “marketing geezer guru” Bob Bly wrote an article a few years ago titled; “Why I Hate PowerPoint”. In his well-written rant, he identified most of the problems every presenter has with this technology: overuse and overreliance on the product, and the presenter’s inability to use this technology effectively. Since then he has modified his booth and uses PowerPoint very effectively and includes it as part of most of his presentations. However, the original statement from him is still very true.

Ruth Marcus of The Washington Post noted, “Supporting a PowerPoint presentation is rarely informative and never efficient. The inevitable cute graphics: why think about a difficult problem when you can spend your time searching for clip art or experimenting with fonts? Add a Bullet from insult to injury from having to sit through it.”

Marcus concludes, “The seductive availability of PowerPoint and the built-in drive to reduce all topics to a series of short bullet points removes nuance and allows, even encourages, the absence of serious thought.”

Even Wired Magazine’s technology advocate Edward Tufte adds: “PowerPoint can help speakers summarize their talks, but speaker convenience can be punishing for both content and audience. PowerPoint’s standard presentation elevates form over content, betraying an attitude of commercialism that turns everything into a sales pitch”.

How does a presenter escape the seductive trappings of PowerPoint? As in golf, the best way to get out of a trap is to avoid it entirely. Here are the ten most common PowerPoint traps and how to avoid them:

1) Trusting that the technology is working properly – Too often I sit in a conference or meeting and watch the presenter struggle to get the presentation on the screen. At a recent conference, with over 450 people in the room, I saw a presenter waste half of her 90 minutes trying to get the technology to work properly. There were two A/V techs onstage playing on her laptop, and who knows how many backstage sweating. She made comments about what she wanted to present to us. She added that she had some really cool slides, pictures, and diagrams to show us, but she couldn’t because the program didn’t work. Tip: Don’t expect it to work flawlessly. Get to your presentation loaded and tested before anyone else is in the room. Find the tech contact (A/V person) and make sure your program is loaded and working properly. There are many versions of PowerPoint – later versions of your presentations won’t run on older computers or earlier versions of the software. Waiting until it’s your turn at the lectern is too late and will almost always prevent you from concentrating on your presentation. Get to the meeting room before the day starts, especially if you’re speaking over the course of a day or among other presenters.

2) Presentations Lost in Cyberspace: For most of my professional speaking engagements, I send my presentations ahead of time to the technology contact to preload and test. “Lost,” “MIA,” “Never got it,” and “I must have misplaced it” are the three most common responses we get when my executive assistant calls to confirm we’re ready to go, long before we get on the plane. . Tip: Keep a backup of your presentation in your pocket. Don’t pack it, don’t trust email. Sure, sending it in advance is appropriate, but bring a copy with you. Also have a hard copy on hand as well. If the entire program dies, or the technology fails, you’ll have a hard copy to refer to.

3) Too many things on one slide: This one kills me. How many times have you seen a PowerPoint presentation where the speaker tries to fit every word on a slide using microscopic numbers, letters and words? And, they always preface the slide with some stupid comment like: “This might be a little hard to read…” A little!? The public needs a telescope to see anything. The presenters make excuses and apologize. They say, “You’ll have to forgive me…” No, we don’t! He or she is presenting. It is your job to get the message across without the need for forgiveness from the audience. Tip: Print the slide. Place it on the ground. Stand on it. If you can’t read it, the font is too small.

4) Too Many Different Fonts – In an effort to make the presentation lively and interesting, presenters use dozens of different fonts. This practice distracts and diverts the audience’s attention from important content and places it on unimportant elements: fonts and fluff. Tip: Keep your font count to two or an absolute maximum of three different typefaces. Vary the size, not the font.

5) The “animation button”: How many ‘inputs’ can one line make? At least 34 different entry animations: left to right, right to left, top to bottom, box, circle, diamond, checkerboard, flash, wheel entry, wedge, sweep and slide, and much more. Tip: Pick an animation style and stick with it. If you must rely on the “oooo” and “ahhh” of your audience, you’ve lost them.

6) Reading the slides: It is assumed that your audience knows how to read. If this is true, then reading all the information on the slide is a waste of time and considered very boring for your audience. Certainly reading a line or two for emphasis is appropriate and can be very effective, but reading the entire slide is wasteful. The audience will mutter under their breath, “Hell, I can read, why didn’t you email me the presentation?” Tip: Highlight your point with bullet points and amplify each one with its own verbal narrative.

7) Read your slides (with your back to the audience) – Presenters who address the screen instead of their audience are unprofessionals. The slides are right in front of most speakers on the laptop lectern or on the table in front of them. Tip: Use the laptop screen instead of talking to the screen. Some programs and video cards allow the presenter to preview the next slide while the audience views the current slide.

8) Room blackout: The public came to listen and see the presenter. Hiding the room may allow the screen to be seen more clearly, but it takes the presenter out of the presentation. A dark room eliminates physical actions, hand gestures, nonverbal cues, and body language from the speaker. Negates the effect of facial expressions and emotions. A dark room prevents participants from taking notes. Tip: Discuss the lighting in the room with the people on the premises before the event. Be proactive and make sure the projector is powerful enough to illuminate the screen in a dimly lit room.

9) Add embedded video or sound clips to your presentation: PowerPoint is a very powerful tool, but it continues to be challenged by adding embedded video and audio, especially when done by a non-tech person. Tip: If you want to use audio and video in your presentation, make them separate from the PowerPoint program. Even if you can successfully embed audio and video, you’ll still need to link the audio output to the ‘home system’ or provide the right audio amplification and speakers for your audience.

10) Tell audience not to take notes: The speaker says, “Hey, don’t worry about taking notes. I’ll send you this presentation after the meeting.” Really? The audience thinks, “Hey, why didn’t you send it to me so I didn’t have to waste a whole day coming here listening to you read something you could have sent me?” Tip: Encourage note taking. Amplify each line of your presentation with interesting relevant stories. Provide strong examples. Create a dynamic narrative that drives your point home. Remind them to write down a particular point. e.g; “This one is worth writing.”


PowerPoint (as well as Apple’s Keynote) is an amazing tool. You must use them wisely. It shouldn’t be a crutch or related to replace hard work, proper planning, and exceptional presentation skills. PowerPoint is one of the many important tools available in your ‘presentation toolkit’.

Reminds me of an old adage: “When all you have is a hammer, all problems look like a nail.”

Choose your tools wisely, keeping in mind that the overall goal is to present your message effectively and efficiently. Use the right tools at the right time and in the right amount.

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