“Okay—this slide has more on it than we need to cover, so I’m going to skip over it. Oh, and this one, too…”
“Try to ignore the big red box on the left of this slide; I’m not sure exactly…what…that is. But look over here in the bottom right corner…”
“Next, let’s talk about understanding each other’s priorities. I know the slide says ‘Application,’ but I need to talk about priorities first…”
You’ve seen it happen: presenters doing the best they can with PowerPoint slides they didn’t create. Before long, their presentations become less about content and more about battling the slides. Who will win? Unfortunately, the slides will. They’re bigger, brighter, more colorful, and they’ll definitely steal focus from a presenter. The presenter doesn’t stand a chance…
…unless he or she keeps the audience’s attention focused on content, rather than on the disconnect between what’s being said and what’s being seen. Here are three ways to win the battle when handed someone else’s slides.
Solution #1: Don’t use them.
Many presenters use twice the number of slides they really need anyway. Remember that you are the presentation, not your slides, so ask: might it be better to let the audience focus on you rather than be distracted by slides that don’t jibe with what you’re saying?
Solution #2: Edit them.
If you’re obligated to use pre-made slides, as when they’re part of a training or facilitation kit, check to see if you can edit them. Depending on how much leeway you have, you may be able to
- delete information on the slides that doesn’t relate to your content and that might confuse or distract your audience.
- revise the slides’ main headers so they follow the flow of your organization, not someone else’s.
- turn off builds or animations that don’t match your delivery style or pacing.
- use only the slides that apply to your presentation or training. Avoid “skip, skip, skip” by using PowerPoint’s “Hide Slide” command to conceal extraneous content.
- fade back unimportant text that can’t be edited by changing to a very light font color; highlight important points with a bold color. Similarly, fade back fixed images by increasing their transparency; highlight important areas with circles or arrows.
Solution #3: Show them who’s in control.
Whenever you present with slides—whether you’ve created them or not—it’s your responsibility to direct the audience’s attention so visuals support what you’re saying, not compete with it. When the slides aren’t yours, that responsibility becomes greater. So take presentation control:
- start each slide with an orientation. The moment each slide appears on screen, answer the question the audience is asking: “What am I looking at?” Announce the slide clearly: “This chart shows the projected gross income for the next three years.”
- direct attention vocally. After giving an orientation, point out why this slide is important: “…and this projection highlights our biggest challenge moving forward. Take a look at the information in the blue box…”
- direct attention physically. Move close to the slide to gesture and point. Close the gap between you and the image so the audience has you always in their sights.
- don’t apologize; contextualize. Rather than giving excuses and defining the slides as wrong, let the audience know where they came from, what they were originally used for, and how/why you’re using them today. “These slides were originally created for the two-day version of this training, so they have more information than we’ll be covering. I’ll point out where we’re focusing our attention this afternoon.” Or: “A lot has happened in the short time since my colleague Pam created these slides. I’ll point out what information has changed…”
- take them away. In PowerPoint, hitting the letter B on your keyboard will take you to a black screen. This is incredibly useful if you want to take away a distracting visual after it’s made its point, and redirect the audience’s attention to what you’re saying or to discussion in the room.
Bottom line: using someone else’s slides forces you to focus on your content. Do so by altering the slides as much as you can and guiding the audience’s focus as you present.
John Capecci of Capecci Communications (Minneapolis) is a trainer and consultant who offers personal coaching, group workshops, and webinars on communication effectiveness.