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ATD Blog

Liberate Yourself From PowerPoint

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

PowerPoint is a powerful tool. But how many of you groan when that projection screen comes down and someone loads their presentation? While most of us rely on PowerPoint (who hasn’t been asked to use it in their careers?) many also feel that it is overused and ineffective.

The truth is that many presenters are not using PowerPoint as effectively as they think. Often, slides serve no better purpose than to distract the audience from the presenter. And in the worst cases, PowerPoint is nothing more than a script. One LinkedIn user summarized the plea of nearly everyone asked to sit through a PowerPoint presentation: “Please, for the love of all good things, don't make me read your presentation while you recite it aloud.”

Why PowerPoint May Not Be As Effective As You Think

Some people have been using PowerPoint in their presentations for so long they cannot imagine doing it any other way. Perhaps they have never done a presentation without it! Or it could be that their boss, team, or organization requires the use of PowerPoint without much justification as to why. I would encourage people in these situations to consider my reasoning behind why PowerPoint may be undercutting their presentations rather than supporting them.

Written communication is different from spoken communication. Think about the last time you decided to call someone on the phone rather than send a text message. Or the last time you shot a colleague an email rather than popped into their office. What influenced your decision? We evaluate the pros and cons of written versus spoken communication every day, yet rarely do we apply the same level of diligence to our presentations.

Developing powerful visual analogues is a skill in and of itself. Many presenters resort to reading their slides verbatim is because they lack the skill to create compelling visuals. The truth is most of us are not artists or graphic designers. So why not face the facts? Unless someone is working with data-driven graphs, pre-existing images, or someone with the design skills to translate complex ideas into visuals, requiring them to generate content for slides is setting them up to fail.


Emotional content is lost in PowerPoint. Some writing styles are good for communicating emotions as well as information, such as novels or poetry. But in the case of bulleted PowerPoint slides, all nuance is lost. It may be easy to say that emotions have no place in business and facts are what matter. But the ability to place facts in an emotional context makes one’s points much more memorable and often makes the difference in persuasive arguments.

Preparing to Present Without PowerPoint

If you’re ready to experiment with presenting without PowerPoint—or you already know you need to let it go—here are some ways to prepare:


Create an outline of your presentation and figure out what points you are trying to make. Ask yourself what it is you are really trying to get across to your audience, point by point. What are you trying to make them understand? What perspective are you trying to communicate? What argument do you want them to support? Then, consider whether words or visuals will be more effective in making those points. If you need visuals, which ones? Where or when should they be used? And what words will you need to use to support those visuals?

Investigate ways to substitute spoken words for written ones. Many people shifting away from PowerPoint may find it difficult to break the habit: “I don’t know how to make sure everyone understands what I’m saying here. I would have just used PowerPoint to solve this problem before!” Use those moments as a guide to help you improve your public speaking. In those moments where you think the only way to explain something is with text, ask yourself how you could use nonverbal aspects of spoken communication to solve the same problem.

Practice, practice, practice. As if you were doing the real thing. Out loud. The biggest thing preventing people from improving their spoken presentations is a lack of practice. There are many aspects to a good presentation aside from the words themselves: tone, gesture, eye contact, and posture, not to mention things as simple as annunciation and memorization. Something that looks good on the page may not necessarily sound good in the conference room. The only way to find that out—and make the appropriate adjustments—is to practice your presentation as if it’s the real thing. Think of yourself like an actor in rehearsal. That means speaking aloud, including any movements or gestures or, yes, slide changes you may need to make. Even if you think about these things as you prepare your presentation, you are far less likely to deliver them without actual practice.

Of course, this doesn’t mean everyone should drop PowerPoint from their presentations. PowerPoint is typically best used when:

  • Communicating Remotely: For remote teams, PowerPoint can be a helpful visual stand-in for a presenter who is either not in the same room or not viewable via webcam.
  • Communicating Through Language Barriers: PowerPoint can be invaluable when there are mixed levels of language fluency in a group. In such a case, written words are far less likely to be misunderstood or misinterpreted than spoken words in the same context.
  • Shared Visual Reference Points Are Critical to Understanding the Presentation: It may seem obvious, but PowerPoint is an ideal tool for sharing images or visual data with a group of people in the same place, at the same time. This includes graphs, exhibits, photos, diagrams, or any other information that is better communicated visually.
  • It Is a Standalone Presentation Rather Than a Visual Aid: Some of the most effective uses for PowerPoint presentations are not as visual aids but rather as standalone or takeaway documents. Consider these examples from Google and Pixar.
About the Author

Bruce Tulgan is an adviser to business leaders all over the world and a sought-after keynote speaker and seminar leader. He is the founder and CEO of RainmakerThinking, a management research and training firm, as well as RainmakerThinking.Training, an online training company. Bruce is the bestselling author of numerous books, including  The 27 Challenges Managers Face, Not Everyone Gets a Trophy, It’s Okay to be the Boss, Winning the Talent Wars, FAST Feedback, and the classic  Managing Generation X. His work has been the subject of thousands of news stories around the world. He has written pieces for numerous publications, including the  New York Times, USA Today, the  Harvard Business Review, Training Magazine, and  Human Resources

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Design is almost always more important than the tool. Too often with PowerPoint, people jump to development without consideration of design. And way too often, people seem to believe that "I have a PowerPoint, therefore I have training!" This is a myth that often leaves learners in the lurch.
Yet, if you have well-designed instructional content, PowerPoint can be a simple and highly effective tool to implement that design.
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I think what's ineffective is not the tool itself (PowerPoint), but rather the instructional design. PowerPoint is the best tool for lectures, hands down. However, lectures themselves are only effective under certain circumstances. Sound instructional design involves being able to tell whether or not PowerPoint/lecture is the most effective teaching method based on the training needs assessment.
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Since we're speaking about speaking clearly, annunciation (as used in the article) is an announcement. To speak your words clearly is to enunciate.
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