Thursday, August 28, 2008

Bad Practices: Presentations that Cause Narcolepsy

Too many slides filled with unreadable charts that overwhelm audiences with data. Too much text on a slide not only strains the eyes of audience members in the back of the room, it can also distract them from the presenter’s message. Even poor colour choice can prevent colourblind audience members from being able to read slides. We cannot fault those who fall asleep, check email on their laptops, or decide to read the paper in the middle of our presentations.

One of the most common "bad practices" among population and reproductive health advocates, both in Africa and internationally, are presentations that bore our audiences.

So what is there to be done? We need to take responsibility for making better presentations. It takes more work on our part, but making our visuals and speeches more compelling can go a long way to improving the effectiveness of meetings and events to reach our goals. We have very important messages to make to both political and technical audiences, so we need to ensure that our key arguments are communicated clearly and compellingly.

Below, we have summarized some advice from communications expert Andy Goodman that can help us start the process of improving our presentations.

Most importantly, recognize what presentations are for. PowerPoint is not a document. You can and should distribute memos and reports to your audience to give them the details and information they need when they leave. Your presentation should not read like a document. It should not be an outline projected on a screen to prompt you on the key point of the talk—if you need prompts, you should carry index cards to remind you of the order of the points you intend to make in your presentation.

So what is a presentation for? Andy Goodman states that "your time at the podium is your opportunity to convey the essence of your proposal, shine a spotlight on key points of a report, or tell a story that brings your issue to life in ways that only live delivery can."

So PowerPoint should be used to provide visuals to dramatically illustrate your arguments in your presentation. With this in mind, Andy Goodman recommends that you

"Go heavy on images, light on text. Even when taking copious notes, most audience members will retain very little from your talk. The more you throw at them, the less they’ll tend to remember.

Putting text on the screen while you talk only compounds this problem. Not only are you presenting even more information, you’re asking the audience to divide its concentration between competing information sources. A compelling picture, in contrast, can provide an emotionally powerful backdrop that underscores points you wish to make."

So how can we do this? For example, if you want to make an argument about the high unmet need for family planning in Africa, you could use a large chart of data, drawn from a recent DHS or UNFPA report, listing a number of African countries, their current contraceptive prevalence rates, fertility rates, unmet need, and population growth rates. But the argument you want to make would not be communicated to a non-technical audience that does not know the difference between CPR, TFR, and unmet need (and even technical audiences are so used to seeing these statistics that data charts often do not compel action). Instead, showing a photograph of a young mother with a weary expression on her face, surrounded by five small children, a small child on her back, and pregnant with another child, would make a much greater impact on your audience than an overwhelming set of numbers. When you show the image of the woman, you can say something like "like this young woman, most Ugandan women want five children in total, yet, women in Uganda have, on average, between six and seven children." (Uganda DHS) . Your audience will clearly now understand your argument.

If statistics are important to your point, think about the best way to communicate the information. Graphs (such as line graphs, bar graphs, and pie charts) communicate information much more clearly than a chart with dozens of numbers in multiple columns and rows.

If you use text, reduce the amount to what can be read in a quick glance. If you decide to project more text, such as to quote a commitment in a regional declaration such as the Maputo Plan of Action or the Abuja Declaration from the African Summit on HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Other Related Infectious Diseases in Abuja, Nigeria, April 2001, stop talking and pause to allow your audience to read the statement: "The pause will call attention to the text, honors the audience members’ ability to actually read for themselves (which, amazingly, many speakers fail to acknowledge), and lets them 'hear' the words in their own internal voice, which is uniquely powerful."

Remember that the focus should be on you (and your arguments) and not on fancy visuals, animations, or slide transitions. Thus, here are a few more things to consider:

1) What is the major goal for your presentation? What knowledge do you want audience members to leave with? How do you want them to act on this knowledge?

2) Review your materials, and for short presentations, select just three key take-away points that your audience must understand in order for your major goal to be fulfilled

3) Support each of the three points visually (if one or two cannot be communicated well visually, do not force it)

4) Rehearse your visual presentation—it’s not just what you say that matters, but also how you say it. Make a backup plan about what to do in case if the power fails or if the projector at the meeting venue does not work?

For more information and advice, you can download Andy Goodman’s book Why Bad Presentations Happen to Good Causes for free at:

This book gives advice on how to avoid the most commonly made mistakes in presentations, how to structure your information in ways that help audiences absorb it, how to use PowerPoint more effectively, and how to deliver your talks with greater confidence. Please note that on the website, two versions of the same document are available—one for high-bandwidth and another for low-bandwidth connection speeds.

Source: and Andy Goodman. April 2004. Free-range thinking™, available at

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is helpful. I watched many bad presentations and have given some bad ones myself. The pointers in this article are helpful and I am going to pass them onto my staffs to make better presentations.