Harvard research shows PowerPoint doesn’t work

New research from Harvard University shows that using PowerPoint could be damaging your presentations. 

I can almost hear you thinking, how can that be true when so many people use it?

For many business people, it's almost impossible to give any presentation, or run a team meeting, without PowerPoint. 

Let me elaborate on just why it might be so harmful. More importantly, I'll also explain what you can do to stand out from the crowd with your next presentation.

Here's what the Harvard Researchers did.

Harvard’s Department of Psychology published the study in the journal PLOS ONE titled, ​Does a Presentation’s Medium Affect Its Message?

The research was carried out to compare the effectiveness of the three most common presentation formats:

  • Verbal only
  • PowerPoint
  • Prezi

In case you've never heard of it, Prezi is an alternative presentation software system. You can have a look at it at Prezi.com. 

Experienced presenters were asked to design and deliver presentations to an audience of volunteers via Skype. Researchers at Harvard provided them with the necessary context, instruction and time to prepare their presentations, randomly assigning them one of the formats with which to make presentations. 

The audiences were then surveyed to judge the impact each presentation style had. The results could change the way you present forever.

The Results.

The study produced some startling results.

Prezi outperformed both PowerPoint and Verbal presentations in all areas.

Participants concluded that talks using Prezi were more organised (by 13%), engaging (by 16%), persuasive (by 22%), and effective (by 25%) than both PowerPoint and oral presentations.

The study also showed that most of the audience saw the Prezi presenters as “more knowledgeable and professional.” 

They also rated the visuals from Prezi presentations as more “dynamic, visually compelling, and distinctive” compared to PowerPoint.

PowerPoint was rated as no better than verbal presentations without any visual aids.

Consider that for a moment. Your audience will be just as happy with your presentation if you do it without any slides at all. 

In short, that means your PowerPoint slides are having virtually no impact. All of that time you invest in designing slides could be completely wasted.

The conclusions of the study show that PowerPoint is letting you down in key areas, such as improving information transfer to your audience and creating a positive impression of your brand (and you). The use of PowerPoint to make presentations neither helps to engage audiences, nor to understand the information presented to them.

What does all this mean for your next presentation?

Your choice of presentation medium strongly affects how your audience absorbs your content. It also gives them ideas about you and your brand. 

Of course, the easy answer is to ditch PowerPoint and use Prezi instead.

The problem with this is that Prezi isn't for everyone. Not everyone will want to invest in learning new software.

So what's the solution?

In my experience, PowerPoint is often ineffective, not because of the software itself, but rather, because of the way we use it.

It is estimated that over 30 million PowerPoint presentations are delivered everyday throughout the world. Sadly, most of these are packed with a never ending array of long-winded bullet points and dense graphs and charts.

This is where people run into trouble. The slides are usually written as notes for the presenter, with very little thought as to how they will be perceived by the audience.

5 tips for more engaging presentations

Give Prezi a go.

Prezi is a presentation tool that allows for new kinds of visualisation, including movement that improves engagement with the audience. It does away with the monotonous linear, slide-by-slide style of PowerPoint. 

It usually available for free via the web.

Go in "naked".

Try presenting without any software at all. This ensures your audience is focusing on you and what you have to say and not on the screen.

Some of the best presentations I have ever seen have been without slides at all. Just a speaker relaying interesting and relevant stories in a compelling style.

Try the Flipchart.

Using a Flipchart is much more engaging. It ensures you only reveal information at the relevant time. 

Slides often fail because your audience can read your bullet points ahead of your presentation. This invites them to switch off. 

A Flipchart avoids this completely and is a superb way to facilitate healthy debate and discussion with your audience.

Prepare in analogue.

Prepare your presentation on paper rather than in PowerPoint. It will avoid the reliance on bullet points. It also allows you to think of any visual aids you might use separately and therefore how they might enhance your key message.

Keep it simple.

Keep any slides that you use minimalistic. That means few, if any, bullet points. Instead use pictures and images that help to tell a story and enhance your messages. 

Use graphs and charts that contain only the essential information to emphasise your point.

For more advice on how to improve your presentations, download your free guide, "seven quick and easy steps for successful public speaking" here.

About the Author Paul Lucas

For over 20 years, I’ve been helping leaders, managers and sales teams get better results by improving their communication and influencing skills. My training is founded upon extensive research and analysis. Helping you to understand the specific behaviours, techniques and strategies of the world’s best speakers and influencers provides the platform to transform your presentations and sales skills.

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