“Don’t make the fundamental error of thinking that your PowerPoint slides are your talk,” Dr. Nelson says. “The talk is what you say. A PowerPoint presentation is merely your audiovisual (AV) aid. Everything you put in your slides is either helping you make your point or hiding it.”


Published 6/1/2007
Carolyn Rogers

Putting the “power” in PowerPoint

Whether you’re speaking to a local community group, in a lecture hall or before hundreds of your peers at the AAOS Annual Meeting, it pays to have a dynamic presentation. Learning the basics of effective public speaking with PowerPoint is easy when you know “the rules.”

“We are trained to be doctors—not to be public speakers. So why are we surprised when our members do a lousy job as presenters?” asks orthopaedic surgeon David L. Nelson, MD.

And who gets hurt by this lack of training?

“We do—as AAOS members,” he says. “Ineffective instruction techniques lead to poor learning and comprehension. We need to do something about it.”

Dr. Nelson has been “doing something about it” during the AAOS Annual Meeting—teaching PowerPoint classes at the electronic skills pavilion for the past five years.

Slides do not = your talk
Learning how to give an effective PowerPoint presentation has very little to do with knowing how to change the typeface or adjust the color palette.

5 rules for formatting slides
When formatting your slides, keep this fact in mind: The visual cortex is bigger than the auditory cortex.

“Given a choice between reading words on a screen and listening to a speaker, every audience will ignore the speaker and read the words,” Dr. Nelson says. “It is simply the way our brain is built. The visual cortex is bigger than the auditory cortex. If you adhere to the following principles, your presentation will be much more successful.”

Rule 1: The first words out of your mouth must be the first words on the slide.
If you want to control the focus of the audience’s attention, the first words out of your mouth must be the same as the first words on the slide.

Why? Given a choice, the audience will always read the slide and ignore what you say. (If the slide doesn’t say what you’re planning to say—just change the slide!)

Just as important, when you finish reading the slide, always say something more to amplify the point. Otherwise, the audience will think you have nothing more to offer than the words on the screen.

Rule 2: Bring up a line/bullet point only when you are ready for the audience to read it.
People can read faster than you can talk, so don’t put any text on the screen unless you’re ready to be ignored or to read the words aloud.

“As soon as you put up a line of text, the audience will ignore what you’re saying and will read the words instead,” Dr. Nelson says.

Rule 3: Display a picture only when you are ready for the audience to look at it.
As soon as you display a picture or a photo, the audience will ignore both what you are saying and what you have written. Given a choice, they will always look at the picture and ignore everything else.

Rule 4: Use pictures/graphics to make your point, if possible.
Graphics will always make a stronger impression than words, so if a picture supports or enhances your message, use it. Just don’t display a picture of your kids, your vacation, or a clever “Far Side” cartoon unless you’re ready for the audience to ignore what you’re saying.

“Imagine that I’m the chairman of Amazon.com and I have to deliver some disappointing numbers at the annual stockholders meeting,” Dr. Nelson says. “When I’m giving my talk, I’ll flash up a provocative photo, and then blurt out the bad news… They’ll never hear me.”

Rule 5: Repetition is essential.
Everyone learns by repetition.

“Decide what the most important points of your talk are—limiting yourself to only two or three items—and repeat them at least twice during the presentation,” says Dr. Nelson.

Five levels of presenters
Dr. Nelson devised the following five presentation levels as a way to help speakers rate their current abilities and identify areas for improvement.

Level 1: Speaker knows how to create a PowerPoint talk.
A level 1 speaker is able to insert text and graphics, and knows how to control color, but does not understand how to use animation and transitions to control the audience’s focus of attention.

At this level, a speaker will most likely make the following mistakes:

  • Displaying all the bullet points on a slide at the same time
  • Using graphics or text slides that are too complex
  • Allowing the audience to read ahead on complex slides
  • Inserting cartoons that are funny but distract from the flow of the talk

Level 2: Speaker is able to use animation and transitions.
At this level, the speaker can incorporate animation and use transitions, but doesn’t know how to prevent the audience from being distracted by them.

Level 3: Speaker uses animation and transitions to control the audience’s focus of attention.
At this level, the speaker is able to do the following:

  • Use animation/transitions in a powerful yet unobtrusive manner, so that the audience is never consciously aware that these techniques are being used
  • Use graphics extensively, but only if they contribute to the flow of the talk
  • Construct all complex slides—either graphic or text—in such a way that the audience’s focus of attention is controlled

A level 3 speaker, however, is not able to give the talk without the PowerPoint presentation and cannot interact with the audience.

Level 4: Speaker can step away from the podium and continue to give the presentation.
At this level, the speaker is also able to take questions from the audience, answer them, and segue back into the talk with ease. A level 4 speaker, however, still equates the “talk” with the PowerPoint presentation.

Level 5: Speaker realizes that the “talk” is in his or her head.
A level 5 speaker knows that the PowerPoint presentation is merely an AV aid for the talk—not the talk itself.

At this level, the speaker can do the following:

  • Segue between the talk and questions with ease
  • Present the talk with or without the PowerPoint slides
  • Step away from the podium and interact with the audience
  • Change the talk on the fly to adjust to the level and interest of the audience
  • Move back and forth between speaking extemporaneously and talking with the PowerPoint presentation.

In addition, a level 5 PowerPoint presentation usually cannot be understood simply by looking at the slides without hearing the speaker’s words.

Upcoming issues of AAOS Now will show you how to move from level 1 to a level 5 speaker.

The next article in the “Putting the power in PowerPoint” series will address the use of animation.