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Career Success
JAN 29, 2021

The Top 5 Mistakes That Will Kill Your PowerPoint Presentations

By Melissa McIvor, With Henrik Bergqvist
iStock/TadejZupancic

The time has come. Your big presentation is about to begin. You’ve got everything you want to say (in only fifteen slides!) backed up by data (in colorful charts!), and you can get through the whole thing in just five minutes (memorized to the letter!). You log into the Zoom room. This is it. Deep breath.

The next thing you know, everyone’s sipping coffee, typing, squinting at your slides, muting to talk to someone off screen . . . Is anyone even listening?

Who among us doesn’t dread being the presenter who explains things poorly, rushes through convoluted slides, or tries to open with a joke that didn’t land? What you may not realize is that trying to cover all those bases causes more problems than it solves.

Henrik Bergqvist is the cofounder of Pickit, the reigning add-on in the Microsoft Office store that’s “on a mission to end Death by PowerPoint.” When it comes to bad presentations, he’s seen it all. Here are his top five things not to do if you hope to win people over with your next slideshow.

#1 Packing in too much

The urge to fill slides with information comes from the fear that the audience will miss something, especially if time is short. Unfortunately, the result is often that the audience misses everything.

Bergqvist says overloading slides is both the biggest and most common mistake people make. When sharing Pickit with companies large and small, he frequently hears people insist they have to squeeze as much as they can into their slides—they only get five minutes to present!

Bergqvist has one word for that: madness.

What’s the fix?

“Some people think, ‘The more, the better,’ but it’s the total opposite,” says Bergqvist. Too much information on a slide repels interest, risks misunderstanding, and makes your presentation forgettable. “To engage or persuade, it doesn’t take 10,000 words on a slide. If you just have three slides with three images, you make people curious. That’s how you get that extra hour.

If you want more than five minutes to discuss your ideas with management, get their attention by scaling down, not up.

#2 Letting the story slide

If the top presentation killer is crowded slides, a close second is forgetting your story.

Presentations aren’t meant to be table reads for slidedocs. “Our brains work with structure,” says Bergqvist. “If we get information in a structured way, we can connect, we can remember, and we can follow. If we can’t follow, we log out. It’s like watching a bad movie.

Think about it: when was the last time you went to see the sequel to a bad movie?

What’s the fix?

“Every presentation is a chance for you to make an impact,” says Bergqvist. “Even if it’s just a Monday meeting, it’s about the story.” He urges presenters to remember that basic storytelling is done in three acts:

1. The first act, in which everyone gets familiar with the basics

2. The middle act, in which you (the storyteller) elaborate on the problem

3. The third act, in which everyone comes to a resolution

How many slides do you need to cover all that? In most cases, Bergqvist insists three acts means three slides. The simple structure of one act per slide will guide the story, images will enhance an emotional connection, and most importantly, your audience will connect. So get your story structure straight.

#3 Focusing too much on the facts—and graphs

Facts are important. Without them, we’d have no data to target users, identify their needs, or track goals. We’d have no way to make reliable charts, tables, or graphs.

But when was the last time you wanted to sit through a presentation that was nothing but graphs?

The danger of filling a slide with a graph (be it flashy or simple) is real: “People will try to figure out what the hell it is. They’ll look at it, and you will start looking at it, and then everyone will be trying to figure it out on their own.”

And just like that, you’ve lost your audience.

What’s the fix?

Bergqvist’s advice regarding data-heavy visuals is both clear and unconventional: “If you have a chart and you want to present that chart—you shouldn’t show that chart.”

Instead, summarize the key data point into a sentence (“The average turnaround is 24 hours”) or better yet, a phrase (“Avg turnaround: 24hr”). Add in a nice image for an emotional impression, and you keep your story moving. Then, if people ask where you got the information, you a) know you’ve got their attention, and b) can direct them to the full data later.

Despite what many of us have been led to believe, facts do not trump story. It’s not that data isn’t important—it’s just not right for a presentation. You, as a human who can engage with the audience, are more powerful than any graph.

#4 Forgetting the human element

The shorter your presentation, the more pressure you’ll feel to be prepared. Traditionally, “preparing” means a lot of data collection and memorizing what you want to say. And yes, practice can help you organize your thoughts and prevent rambling. But at least some of what you say has to be organic.

The worst thing you can do is rely on your slides to carry you through.

“If you have a lot of things on the slide or you turn around and start to read,” says Bergqvist, “you almost become like the audience. No one is really leading the conversation.”

What’s the fix?

As the classic song lyric goes, “Make ‘em laugh!”

We’re not all comedians, of course, so it doesn’t necessarily have to be laughter you share with your audience. It doesn’t even have to be confidence—who doesn’t sympathize with someone feeling nervous? (Though you don’t want to dwell on that too much.) The goal is simply to get people to lean forward in their seats and think you’re interesting, even just interesting enough for a few minutes of their time.

Don’t fall into a robotic recitation of slide notes. If your audience wanted to read a report, they’d go do that. But as Bergqvist puts it, “Presentations are about connecting on a human level. It’s always about that.

#5 Failing to adapt

2020 was an exceptionally long, grueling lesson in adaptability. And adapting will continue to be important, whether it’s to new technologies, presentation environments, or something we haven’t even thought of yet.

Change is hard, but you know what happens to everyone else if you stop adapting? Absolutely nothing. The rest of the world keeps going—learning about new technologies, innovating, and making new connections. Your boss or organization won’t take note of people who dig their heels in (at least, not in a good way). They’ll take note of the people moving forward.

What’s the fix?

For the time being, every presenter should learn to adapt to an in-person audience and an online audience.

Bergqvist says there are two things you should do for the online crowd. First, stand up. Your body language may not show, but it will still be clear that you’re more engaged. Second, choose a single person to “talk to.” Resist the urge to count out the attendees as they file in (“24 people in the room . . . now 57! Now 73 . . . “) or say “Welcome, everyone.” Instead, silently pick someone and talk to just them: “Welcome. Great to have you here.” This will keep you focused, make you much more engaging, and probably help calm some nerves.

Bergqvist also notes that slides work a little differently online and in person. On a big stage, each slide gets just one second to make an impact and deliver its message. Online, you get a little more time—three seconds.

“Being engaging is, of course, a little bit tougher remotely,” says Bergqvist, “but we, as an audience, are starting to become more OK with this.”

Translation: presenters and audiences adapt.

Developing and leveraging your power to make emotional connections in presentations will also sharpen critical skills for the information age. Storytelling is one of the key skills the robots can’t take over from us. So stop getting in your own way and start making your presentations short and sweet for maximum engagement. The time has come.


Want more presentation advice from Henrik Bergqvist? Download the Pickit add-on for Microsoft PowerPoint, and you’ll get access to the Pickit Academy, where you can access his weekly webinar, as well as tips and tricks for better presentations.