Successful Speaker Maria TIPS AND TALES

The Quarterly E-Newsletter of Successful Speaker, Inc.
Volume 4 – April 2008

“Don’t Make PowerPoint
Your Higher Power”

by Maria Guida

Copyright © 2008 Successful Speaker, Inc. All rights reserved.

“The advice in Maria’s Newsletter was of immense value. Her ability to give the reader insight into the audiences’ experience is wonderful and extremely useful. I look forward to more high-quality, value-packed Newsletters in the future.”
Mindy Selinger,
Link System Trainer

  1. When using PowerPoint, position yourself front and center; be sure that the position of the laptop and screen allows you to take audience focus throughout the presentation.
  2. Plan how you will maintain audience focus on yourself while the slides are being changed gracefully.
  3. Draw audience attention to your slides as infrequently as possible; when necessary, do it briefly and refocus audience attention on yourself as quickly as you can.


Successful business speakers command audience attention and project authority. They know that PowerPoint and other presentation software are no more than support systems. In order to persuade an audience — to “sell” any idea, product or service — the speaker should be the “star of the show” throughout the presentation.

When I attended a presentation given by Martha, an attorney with a major New York law firm, I observed a problem found in much public speaking today: a weak performance caused by an over-dependence on PowerPoint.

Unfortunately, many business speakers use presentation software when it is unnecessary, and others use it poorly when its effective use could be helpful. Within many organizations, the use of PowerPoint has become an unexamined habit, rather than a considered choice.

One reason for this is that many people fear public speaking and subconsciously welcome anything that can be used as a crutch. For Martha, as for many speakers, PowerPoint provided a false sense of security. She was using PowerPoint as a way to hide from her audience, allowing herself to be “upstaged” by the slides she had prepared.

This problem is rooted not only in speaker anxiety, but in the misconception that content is more important than the speaker — who, by nature, is content PLUS. The findings of a Harvard Business School study explain the “plus” factor: only seven percent of the success of a business presentation is based on content; a full ninety-three percent of the success is based on the speaker’s visual and vocal impact.

Before preparing slides with PowerPoint or other presentation software, consider the possibility that your message could be presented just as powerfully without it. You want you business audience to view you as an authority. You want them to feel that you are personally connected to them and will be accessible to them in the future. Any physical, cognitive, or emotional barriers you place between yourself and your audience can jeopardize these goals. Laptops, slides, projectors, and other visuals automatically create a degree of separation between you and the audience and make your talk less personal. Unless these tools are managed seamlessly (especially in presentations where technology is being demonstrated) they steal focus and diminish the speaker’s authority.

The theater provides a good analogy. An actor acting on a bare stage takes all the focus, because there is nothing else on stage competing for the audience’s attention. This does not imply that plays should never have a set, sound, costumes, or special lighting. It means that when these elements are added, they should enhance the actor’s work and not overshadow it.

In 1979, I was acting on Broadway in a play that was the first ever to cost over a million dollars to produce. Much of this money was spent on the three or four massive sets that moved on and off stage by means of new (at that time) and complex technology. Broadway insiders nicknamed it “the set that ate New York”, and theatergoers were not enthralled. They came to the theater to have a dramatic experience, not to observe technology at work.

I was reminded of this when I watched Martha read from her PowerPoint slides and repeatedly turn her back to the audience to change them. Her choice of location for the laptop and screen diminished her presentation success, because she positioned them in a way that compromised her power.

When you have arrived at a reasoned decision that your message will truly be best conveyed with the support of presentation software (because your audience would benefit from seeing charts/graphs or because they are learning about technology, for example), do the following: prepare your notes and slides and rehearse your presentation aloud (including your physical behavior) with the understanding that you — and what you say — are more important than words and images on a screen.

The position of greatest power for you as the presenter is directly in front of your audience at the center. The screen should be located on your left or right: visible, but less prominent than you are. (Also remember that you need some freedom to move within the platform area without having words/images project onto your body!)

If you are the one who will change the slides, position the laptop downstage of your body (toward the audience) and a bit to the left or right; this allows you to continue to make as much eye contact with the audience as possible as you use the keypad. It also increases the likelihood that audience members will have the fullest view of you.

If someone other than you will be changing the slides, work out a system in advance so that this person will know when to change each slide: (1) a subtle visual cue that does not force you to physically turn to the person or (2) an auditory cue based on what you will be talking about (or what you will say) before each slide is changed.

There are times when the nature of a presentation, the configuration of the room, or other circumstances makes it advantageous for the speaker to circulate throughout the audience. If this is your decision, be sure that everyone in your audience gets an equal opportunity to view you, and remember to use larger-than-usual gestures and maintain eye contact with as many audience members as possible. If you are the one who will control the slides while you are circulating, a wireless mouse will be useful. (Jennifer Shaheen, The Technology Therapist, can recommend a good one.)

Call audience attention to your slides as minimally as possible — and only when the slides display charts, graphs, or other visuals necessary for clarification of the ideas that you have already spoken about. Brisk, circular motions with a laser pointer or wireless mouse are the most graceful way to draw attention to something on a slide. Again, maintain as much eye contact as possible as you do this, and re-focus the audience’s attention on yourself as quickly as you can.

Reading from the slides, as Martha did, suggests that the audience should give more credence to written words than to the speaker. This is instant death for business presenters. Not only does this behavior diminish the speaker’s authority, but it supports the often-heard complaint that there was no real need for people to attend the presentation in the first place — that the presentation content could just have effectively been sent to the audience to read.

The speaker and the spoken message should be the focus of the presentation. Remember that the way we speak is different from the way we write; you will want to speak naturally and conversationally, using words that are comfortable for your mouth and for the listeners’ ears. Accordingly, what the audience reads on a slide should be different from what they hear. During your preparation phase, be sure that the text on your slides is no more than a brief paraphrase of what you will actually say.

When you use these techniques, you will enhance your image as an expert, and your audience will quickly realize that they cannot afford to “tune you out”. You will keep them on the edge of their seats.

Don’t make PowerPoint your Higher Power. Always be the “star of the show” – and sell more of your ideas, products, and services!

Maria Guida is the founder of Successful Speaker, Inc., providing communication skills training to Fortune 500 companies. Clients include UBS, Moody’s Investors Service, Citigroup, and NYSE Euronext. Maria is a former university professor; for many years, she worked as an actress on Broadway and television and was a principal spokesperson on national TV commercials.

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