PowerPoint Presentation Tips

By James M. Durant III

Prepare, organize, present; a fellow GPSolo member once told me that life is no dress rehearsal. We have spent an incredible portion of our lives preparing for something great—something great for ourselves and for our families. Recall your decision to go to law school, the law school you chose, and the area of law that first interested you. We observed, trained, and learned to practice law. In doing this, we organized for ourselves an incredible journey of service to others—our clients. And as a result, we are in the presentation phase of life as we present ourselves to our clients. That’s it, a lawyer’s professional journey in a nutshell.

By analogy, we prepare, organize, and present every day as legal practitioners, just as we did with our life’s plan. However, our preparation, organization, and presentation are focused and aided with specific tools to ensure that we communicate the clearest message. Whether we are giving an opening statement, providing a proposal to a client, or teaching search-and-seizure law to a law class, the assistance of technological tools greatly enhances our goal of communicating the clearest message. Most of us rely heavily on Microsoft PowerPoint. I don’t profess to be an expert, but I have given literally hundreds of PowerPoint presentations. Similarly, I have seen hundreds of PowerPoint presentations. As life is no dress rehearsal, I offer to you some advice on presenting with PowerPoint.

First, as you gather your notes, understand that your PowerPoint presentation is not a substitute for your notes. On the contrary, each slide should only be a memory jogger. I recommend using the rule of three—that is, limit each slide to three important points. Slides full of data detract from your presentation. If you have a multitude of must-have notes, imbed them in the Power-Point as notes that only you can see in a paper copy of the entire presentation. I recently attended a PowerPoint presentation at the ABA Midyear Meeting in Orlando, Florida, and the gentleman presenting included in his slides actual paragraphs and multiple data points. He also included numerous bar graphs and pie charts. At one point, I simply wanted to leave and just obtain a copy of his slides to read on the airplane trip back home. His presentation was important, but it got buried in a data overload! If he had refined his presentation and used the rule of three, I might be able to recall his primary point. Instead, I only remember a garbled mess of facts and figures. Additionally, given the usually short period of time to present, overloading your slides will make you run through your presentation at Warp Factor Eight (that’s Star Trek lingo for fast). Speaking of speed, I recommend you limit your presentation—including questions and answers—to about 50 minutes. Any longer and you will lose your audience. Last, you have to know the room setup. Your data has to be clear, crisp, and readable to everyone in the room. The presentation I saw at Midyear could not be read by more than half of the room. The slides had too much information, and the screen was too far back. Additionally, the lighting was poor. Doing a PowerPoint dry run before a couple people will prove invaluable.

Another issue involving PowerPoint presentations concerns the content of the data presented. You cannot quickly jump into your presentation and expect your audience to stay with you. Use some type of attention getter. I have seen several people use a joke or picture to attract attention. However, be careful—this has to be done in good taste and has to be somewhat germane to your presentation. You must know your audience and their level of familiarity with your topic; ask questions early on to help you gauge their level of understanding. Next, you have to outline your presentation—like an opening statement. A simple introductory slide explaining your purpose and your intended outcome will give your audience a road map and enable them to better focus on your presentation. However, don’t spend too much time on the attention getter or the introductory slide. Remember your time constraints. Also, let your audience know that it is okay to ask you questions throughout the presentation. You should not be so tied to your presentation that you can’t take questions. They actually enhance your presentation.

And what about imbedded videos and pictures? The simple answer is yes. However, don’t overload your presentation. A couple pictures and one imbedded video for a 50-minute presentation is sufficient. And don’t put in a video simply because you like it. Make sure it is germane to your stated outcome and remember your audience. Similarly, graphs and charts are good, but use them judiciously. And remember, if your charts and graphs require you to stop and explain what is being depicted, they are too complex for your presentation. Keep it simple. Your choice of colors and labels is key in this area. Stay away from the teals, canary yellows, royal purples, etc. Reds, blues, and blacks are fine. And once again, make sure the audience can read your labels.

A note on handouts: This is an excellent practice! With PowerPoint, you can print handouts for your audience to follow and use to take notes. I recommend three slides per page for your handouts, and print them back to front on each paper. I once helped organize a conference on appellate practice. My staff had to get across the simple idea of vigilance in post-trial processing—a complicated area. We not only provided handouts with our slides, we also reproduced the presentation on CD. The comments we received were incredible. One person said, “Thanks for the note-taking sheets [handouts]. I found them very useful—they helped me to stay focused on what the speaker conveyed.”

Lastly: the speaker. You are the key to an outstanding PowerPoint presentation. Presenting in any forum is a leadership challenge. Everything from how you dress to how you articulate will determine how well you are received. I don’t want to get into Public Speaking 101, but here are a few simple reminders: Speak clearly and project. Eye contact is very important. Don’t talk to your slides; your audience needs to see your face. Make sure your outfit is conservative; loud clothing will distract. Don’t overuse a laser pointer either; you only need to use it a couple times if necessary. Don’t read your slides; assume your audience can read. Slides are memory joggers or notes for your presentation; don’t be tied to your notes. Don’t rush through your presentation; you are not selling a car or running an auction. Remember, you are dealing with technology and sometimes technology fails. Finally, relax; you are on display and you don’t want your audience coming away saying, “Wow, good information, but the presenter seemed nervous for some reason.” Remember to practice, practice, practice. You should be very comfortable with your material and able to convey your stated outcome from your presentation.

Prepare, organize, present—this is what we do. And when we do it, it is a reflection of our professionalism as legal practitioners. Yes, you have technology to aid you, but the ultimate conveyer of knowledge is you, the speaker. Whether arguing before jury members or addressing your daughter’s fourth-grade class during Career Day, you are conveying a message with a stated point. How you do it and what you use to convey this point will define you as a professional for that audience. You must spend an adequate amount of time organizing your presentation, putting your best foot forward. You must prepare by practicing over and over, and you must present in a manner that will carry the day for your intended message. It seems simple, but even the best orators follow some of the principles and advice given in this article. Again, life is not a dress rehearsal. When you are on stage, all eyes are on you, and the small things become meaningful and lasting. Good luck with your presentations.

The views expressed herein do not reflect the opinion of the Department of Defense or the Department of the Air Force.

Copyright 2010

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