Death By PowerPoint: The Death March

Ever been on a PowerPoint Death March?  The lights are dim, the presenter drones on and on.  You’ve lost all sense of time and place.  You are long past the point of caring.  You eye the door furtively but you are not sure you can make it there without waking up the boss.  You are trapped on an endless PowerPoint Death March.  Read on to recognize the symptoms and interventions you can use to save your team from this menace.


Signs you are on a PowerPoint Death March

The Endless Slide Deck.  You pick up a copy of the slides handout to take notes on.  You notice there are nine slides per sheet, and about 20 sheets.  Not a good sign.

In the old days of overhead projectors and actual transparency slides, if the briefer walked in with a stack of slides taller than your cup of coffee, you knew you were in trouble.  At least you had a chance to bolt out the door before the presentation started.  These days, there is no way to tell.  Just because modern advances make it easy to make a lot of slides doesn’t mean you should.  More is not always better.

If the first thing you do when you are told to give a presentation is open up PowerPoint, you are already moving in the wrong direction.  Here’s a better approach:

  • Decide the main points you want to convey
  • Outline how you will support each one
  • Choose a way to hook your audience’s attention
  • Come up with a strong, memorable conclusion
  • Decide what stories to tell, examples to use
  • Think about tools, not just PowerPoint, you can use to aid your presentation

Notice that PowerPoint is near the end, and only one part of your complete tool kit.  In fact, if you use it at all, try to do the least possible with PowerPoint.  Less is usually more here.

Lost in Space.  The presentation goes on and on, but you have no idea if you are nearer to the beginning or the end, or exactly what the point of the speaker is.  You check your watch.  Again.

People need a sense of place, where they are and whether or not they are making progress.  There are a couple good ways to do this:

deathmarch 0Have an Agenda.  After you hook the audience and have their attention, show them what you are going to talk about, kind of like a table of contents.  This will give them a sense of the journey you are going to take them on.  Every time you move to a new phase of the presentation, show a copy of the slide, with the next section highlighted, and the stuff you have already covered greyed out or in a dimmer color.

deathmarch 3Make a Graphic Agenda.  Instead of just a list of stuff you’ll cover, how about making each part of your presentation a shape or part of a bigger picture.  As you introduce each new subject, add a piece to the shape you are building.  It’s easy to see where the presenter is headed, and it’s more pleasing to the eye.

Use a Status Bar.  You know how when you download something you often get to see a status bar that moves across the screen as the computer makes progress?  Do something like that.  This way you don’t have to keep showing the agenda slide, but people will know where they are.  It could be dots across the top of the slide, a pointer of some sort, or even something you are building, so they will know that when it’s done, the brief is done.

deathmarch 1deathmarch 2







Time Warp.  It was supposed to be a 50 minute presentation; an hour and a half has gone by with no end in sight.  Your caffeinated beverage is long gone.  You are thinking about lunch.

This is a sure sign of someone who has not rehearsed.  Good presenters will be sure to practice their pitch a few times.  Best to do it in front of a live person and get some candid feedback.  But before you do even that, do some simple math.  If you have 50 minutes available and 100 slides to get through, that’s 30 seconds a slide.  Unless you are the guy who reads the fine print at the end of TV car ads, you’re never going to get there.

The actual presentation will go about 10% longer than your rehearsal, and don’t forget to allow time for questions.  Plan your time accordingly.

Purple Haze.  The monotone voice is soothing you to sleep.  The dark room is not helping.  Endless statistics in swirling grey half-tones seem to suck the oxygen from the room.  The slides all seem to look the same.  You look at your friend across the table – his eyes are at half-mast and there is a little line of drool starting down the left side of his mouth.

People need variety, something to keep it interesting.  You know how the eye is attracted to movement?  Same thing for the brain.  When you rehearse (note the emphasis!), if you find that the groove you are in is becoming a rut, change things up a bit.  Here are some ideas.

  • Put a picture in among the graphs and tell a relevant story
  • Show a short, relevant video
  • Work some humor into the presentation
  • Give real world examples of what you are talking about
  • Have an actual object, hold it up, show it off, pass it around
  • Walk around the room a little – even that will cause people to sit up a little bit
  • Get some audience participation – ask some questions, get a show of hands; get them involved somehow
  • If it’s going to go long, plan a break in the middle.
  • Give them something to discuss while on break, and ask for input when they get back
  • Start with a brown paper bag; display it prominently; every once in a while, pull out something relevant to your discussion; people will stay curious about what else you have hidden in there; maybe it’s candy to give out at the end…
  • Use your imagination, do something different or unexpected

The Takeaway

Design your presentation to be as clear and concise as possible and minimize use of the PowerPoint crutch.  Beyond that, one of the best things you can do is rehearse in front of a real live person who will give you some honest feedback.  Use a stop watch, try to keep it interesting.  And if you find you have to wake up your rehearsal partner, make some adjustments, and try again.

Concerned about other PowerPoint threats to your well-being?  Be sure to familiarize yourself with the Shotgun Slide and the Machine Gun Slide.

Remember:  PowerPoint doesn’t kill presentations, presenters kill presentations.


Question:  What other ideas can you suggest to prevent a long slog through the desert?

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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