If not PowerPoint, then what?

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Last week’s column on the dark side of PowerPoint inspired a flood of letters. Few readers disagreed my basic premise, shared by design expert Edward Tufte, that the software sucks. But a number of you threw up your hands and said, “OK, Daphne. But let’s get practical here. What can we use to replace it?”

Good point. Here are five suggestions to keep in mind the next time you’re tempted by the siren song of PowerPoint:

1) Don’t write in PowerPoint; instead, mindmap. Let’s talk worst-case scenario and imagine your boss has said she’ll fire you if you don’t use PowerPoint. Well, okay, you’re stuck with the beast. But don’t use it as your planning tool. As I explain in detail in my book, your brain is made up of many different parts. One part (the linear/logical part) excels at making outlines but isn’t very inventive. Another part (the creative part) is a star at coming up with new ideas and connections. But here’s the thing: Only one part of your brain can have control at any given time. And when you write — whether it’s an article, an essay, an advertisement or a presentation — you want the creative part of your brain to be in charge. PowerPoint will not let this happen. The solution? Switch to mindmapping. (If you signed up for my newsletter, you should have received my free ebook on mindmapping. If you missed it, sign up now!)

2) Forget about text and instead, use photos, illustrations and videos. Your visual display should support your speech, not supplant it. After all, what’s the value of talking while others are reading? I’ve mentioned Erin McKean before (pictured above), but in case you missed her marvelous 18-minute presentation to the TED group, have a look now to see how visual images can enhance a speech. Be aware that you can get good quality photos, inexpensively, from sites such as istockphoto. And keep in mind that custom illustration is not as expensive as you might think. Talented illustrators work in the newspaper and book industries and are often available for hire at reasonable rates. Contact your local paper or publisher for some names.

3) Have a point. Too many presenters simply do a data dump on their unlucky audience. Always remember that your presentation should be driving to a clear and inexorable conclusion. Presenters like PowerPoint because it makes them feel in control — and, it’s true, that the nice shiny bullet points lined up neatly one after another do give an overall impression or patina of order. But really, what your presentation needs most is a main point. NB: This is not the same as having a subject. For example, “customer service” is a subject. But “retail firms should spend 25% of their budgets to improve customer service” is a point. Have one of those and your presentation will soar.

4) Give handouts created in whatever software works best. Let’s say you have some technical information you need to impart. Why would you want to constrain yourself to the teeny-tiny field offered by PP? Small and unwieldy, PP slides can hold only 15-95 words. Instead, present your information in the best way imaginable (this may be using an Excel spreadsheet, or may involve having something created in InDesign) and then hand it out on 8.5 x 11 paper. Your viewers can then consider your wisdom at their leisure — and you can have your branding and contact info at the bottom of the page.

5) Consider using no technology at all. You may have heard the advice “to zig when everyone else zags.” In my speeches for the last few years, I have used no technology. Zip. Zilch. Nada. This not only makes me stand out from the crowd (there’s that crazy lady who doesn’t use PowerPoint) it also takes away a lot of stress. I don’t have to carry around a laptop loaded with slides. I don’t fret about the length of extension cords. And I have no fear of power failures. I don’t just talk, however, I encourage audience participation with exercises, using, wait for it, a paper and pencil.

Some things just never go out of fashion.