Avoiding death by PowerPoint

TED Talks feature some of the best presentations—and use of slides—ever given on this planet. The TED blog provides us with 10 good tips to creating better slide decks.

all-hands-preparing-to-fail-140715112322-phpapp01_Page_01My favorite tip is No. 1: Think about your slides last. This is absolutely critical for any presentation, no matter how short or unimportant. I like to start with an even simpler question: Do I even need slides at all? Believe it or not, most presentations do not need slides. Period.

People attending your presentation are there to see and hear you. They are not there to see your slides. If all they cared about were the slides, they’d wait for them to show up on a web site and just download them.

The other tips on the TED blog post are excellent. Go read and do your part to make deadly PowerPoint extinct.

Curse you MacSparky!

California attorney David Sparks has done it again. He’s releasing the latest in his MacSparky Field Guide series, Presentations. As some of you know, proper use of presentation software is a bit of a passion of mine, and I guess in the back of my head I’d hoped I’d write a book like this someday. But David has beat me to it.


In all seriousness, I’m really pleased for David and for everyone else. David does a great job in his Field Guides, and everyone will benefit from his wisdom on this topic. The bad and horrible use of presentation software hasn’t gone the way of the dodo, so we need as many books out there as possible to help make deadly PowerPoint extinct.

I’ve already pre-ordered my copy. I heartily recommend that you do so as well. Even if you don’t give a lot of presentations, you never know when you might be called upon to do one. And if you’re going to have to do one, it’s best to do it right.

[Updated on July 8, 2014 to improve the headline.]

Maybe if we labeled PowerPoint as a lethal weapon

Or at least put a warning label on it.

It seems so innocent, but PowerPoint (or Keynote for us Apple fans) can lead to huge problems. We know that PowerPoint misuse contributed to the 1986 Challenger space shuttle tragedy and the loss of the shuttle Columbia. Columnists have written about “death by PowerPoint.”

Now it looks as though PowerPoint may have contributed to unnecessary deaths involving the Chevrolet Cobalt, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Look, folks, PowerPoint is a tool. It has a specific purpose, just like a screwdriver has a specific purpose. You don’t use a screwdriver to remove a nail from a piece of wood. You don’t use a shovel to cut a hole in drywall. You don’t use PowerPoint to communicate detailed—especially critical—information.

You. Don’t. Do. It.

You tell the person verbally. Then you follow it up with a written document—not a lousy PowerPoint slide or printout of a slide.

I love using Apple’s Keynote, but I don’t use it every time I give a presentation. Some presentations don’t need visuals to reinforce the verbal message. Presentation slides should never, ever be used as a substitute for actual written information.

We lawyers are probably the least likely to use PowerPoint in this way. But we lawyers can tell our clients not to do it. Just think about the potential liabilities some creative lawyer will come up with when she learns your client misused PowerPoint to convey extremely important information.

Let’s end the PowerPoint misuse starting right now. Forward this to your clients and colleagues. Consider it your good deed for the day.

Life After Death by PowerPoint

While reading a roundup of the MILOFest (Macs In Law Offices) conference, I was led to this presentation by comedian Don McMillan. Everything in it is true. Although I’ve written about the best practices PowerPoint before, the topic is always worth exploring. In fact, I think a few posts about the wrong way to use PowerPoint is just what we need.

Two notes: First, I did not attend MILOFest. I would, but the location is a problem for me. MILOFest is held at Walt Disney World, and I’m not going to my favorite vacation spot to sit in a conference room. I’d end up blowing off every session to spend time in the parks.

Second, it’s been over a month since I posted anything here. There’s a simple explanation: I went to Disney World for a while back in October, and it disrupted a number of good habits (as good vacations occasionally do). I’m getting back into the groove, just slowly. Besides—I could post some drivel every day, but wouldn’t you rather wait for good, worthwhile stuff? 🙂

Your PowerPoint needs a STAR

Over the past few years, I’ve delivered a CLE presentation called “Why your PowerPoint presentation sucks, and how to fix it.” In a nutshell, I’ve argued that slides based on the principles seen a web sites like Presentation Zen are far more effective than slides full of bullet points and dozens of words.

If you really want to give a good presentation to your client’s board of directors, you need to come up with one more thing: a STAR. What’s that, you ask? STAR is the acronym for Something They’ll Always Remember. Nancy Duarte, a leader in presentation design, talks about it in her book Resonate. Give the audience Something They’ll Always Remember.

The best example of this I can think of comes from the late, great Steve Jobs. He was a master presenter, and he understood the concept of STAR well. When Steve introduced the MacBook Air several years ago, he picked up a manilla inter-office mail envelope and slid the laptop out of it.

The audience gasped (or maybe it was just me gasping that I recall). Yes, Steve could have shown photos of how thin the laptop is, but instead he put it into the context of something we could all grasp. It’s small enough to fit in an inter-office mail envelope.

Nancy Duarte gave a TED presentation late last year that was just published on the TED web site. In her 20-minute talk, she explains how great presentations can be analyzed and mapped against a single shape. She looks at the presentation where Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. She also shows us where Jobs gave the audience the STAR in the iPhone presentation. I highly recommend taking the time to watch this.

Finding the STAR in a legal presentation may not always be easy. In fact, I would say in most instances it’s pretty damn hard. But you need to look for it and use it. If your presentation to a board or CEO hopes to explain why the business should hire your firm, you want your pitch to stand out. A powerful STAR will do that for you—and it implies that your firm will have the same powerful persuasion in the courtroom. Find that STAR and use it—in the boardroom or in the courtroom. You’ll be glad you did.