Optimizing Powerpoint Presentations

I give a lot of presentations, and I optimize things for a living, so it was just a matter of time for nature to take it's course and for me to start wondering what the hell I was doing.

See, there are a lot of different types of presentations (I'm talking about ones that use slides or PowerPoint here). There are presentations intended to inspire, presentations intended to sell, presentations intended to convince, and presentations intended to teach. Each type of presentation will require it's own format and style.

I do mostly the teaching type, and I love doing them. Like anything else worth doing, if it's worth doing, it's worth doing right. For years I've been a frustrated victim of PowerPoint and so-called "advice" on how to make a great presentation. Enough is enough. It's simply not fair to the audience for someone in a technical field like SEO to try to teach them using the wrong presentation style.

Bad Advice

It's not so much bad advice, as it is the wrong advice. If you go looking, as I have, on how to make a great PowerPoint presentation, you'll find that most of the advice boils down to: "Make a presentation like Steve Jobs". All pictures, little or no text.

What was the point of this again?

Maybe that's great advice for Steve Jobs, who is trying to sell you overpriced, proprietary hardware and software by making it seem really, really cool, but for someone just trying to teach people how to get better rankings or convert visitors into customers, cute graphics and drop shadows simply don't cut it.

People at search marketing conferences don't want to be inspired (they already are, that's why they have a site they want to promote), they want to get their money's worth by learning tactics and strategies they can actually take back and use. It's about being practical and effective, not about getting excited over the latest color available for the iPod.

You simply can't use a Steve Jobs / Seth Godin type of presentation to do anything other than inspire. There is nothing wrong with inspiration (I love Seths work), but inspiration won't fix that 302 redirect issue you have, or give you a checklist for finding good links.

The worst part is when you need to take notes. As an audience member, you probably can't write fast enough, (or perhaps were at the session next door) and may want to download and review the presentation later instead. Fat lot of good that picture of the monkey with a banana with no text will do then!

Presenters at technical conference learn this very quickly (assuming they even get invited back) and change their presentations to include examples, data and text so that the presentation will be more useful - basically helping the audience take notes, so they can spend the time listening to you rather than scribbling madly.

That's the point, really - avoiding too much note-taking or boredom. Inspirational presentations do this with big picture statements and great graphics, technical/teaching presentations do this by providing the notes so you don't have to write them yourself. Both accomplish the same goals, just in different ways.


This brings me to the next annoyance with technical/teaching presentations - information overload. These presentations are the opposite of inspirational ones - they are basically a speech or lecture in slide form. I've even seen people do the entire presentation simply by reading every line of every slide - horrors!

An old presentation of mine from 2006. Ouch.

I think these presentations are even worse than the inspirational ones, in that although it solves the problem of note-taking, there really isn't a reason to attend the conference anymore, is there? These presentations are boring - which is one of the worst insults you can give to a presentation, in my opinion.

The font size keeps getting smaller as more and more information is packed in, the number of slides increase dramatically, and many presenters find themselves fast forwarding or skipping slides due to time constraints. This is very, very annoying.

Showing me a smaller amount of information than you know is one thing, but skipping by slides of potentially juicy information because you ran out of time is unprofessional and frustrating.

Making the Ideal SEO/SEM Conference Presentation

So, what to do? How do you inspire people enough to make them interested in what you have to say, but at the same time, give them enough information that it's worth it for them to get inspired in the first place?

Well, let's break it down. What do you need to accomplish? You need to:

  • Make the presentation interesting and even entertaining to a live audience.

  • Free people from the necessity of writing a lot of notes. It's great for them to make "AhHa" notes to themselves as they listen, but they should not be trying to scribble down every word you say for fear of missing something. If your audience is doing this, you should have stuck with blogging.

  • Provide answers and resources, which you can use during the Q&A, as well as helping people who download your presentation. Although some people don't like to allow their presentations to be downloaded, they are missing the point (among other things).

    If your presentation is about your branding, then you are giving a commercial rather than a presentation and you should do everyone a favor and get the hell off the stage (unless the audience knew they were going to see a commercial in the first place). If you are trying to teach people, put a copyright notice on it, ask for a link and attribution, and let them download your notes.

  • Identify yourself. This is not only great from a branding and marketing standpoint, but it's also helpful to your audience, should they wish to contact you. How will they remember? You've let them download the presentation! It's now like a giveaway pen with your logo on it, except it's a lot more useful, more likely to be saved, and contains much better contact information. Virtual swag, and costs you nothing to reproduce!
The Perfect* Presentation

*A good presentation should be like a website - always being tested and improved. Perfection is a goal, not a state of being, especially for anything using computers.

Section 1 - Splash Page. This should introduce your presentation and yourself in a simple and easy to understand format - no marketing hype. Also the perfect place to point out where you can download the presentation, since the audience looks at this while you are being introduced, and it's really the only time they can/should take notes. They usually also look at this slide the longest, since it's a placeholder during the introduction. Never underestimate the value of a splash page. A splash page/slide has a job to do, and they are only useless if you forget that. Use it wisely and well, or don't use it at all.

Section 2 - TOC. As my old drill instructor said, "Tell 'em what you're gonna tell 'em, tell 'em, then tell em what you told 'em". Resist the urge to put in every slide - just the main topics and sections. This is the perfect opportunity to point out you have additional information at the end of the presentation that won't be shown (I'll get to this in a moment).

Section 3 - Visual Presentation. The main event! This is where you keep the graphics clean, the text light, large and punchy, and the entertainment value high. Don't go into excruciating detail. Provide an overview and enough information so that people will be introduced to what they don't know and what kind of questions they should be asking you and themselves.

Remember many members of your audience will only be interested in certain sections, and just want an overview on how it all fits together. But don't over correct and be too shallow. A good way to accomplish this is to do an overview on a topic or sub-topic and then give some specific, practical tips related to that topic or sub-topic.

Section 4 - FAQ. If you have one or two questions that always come up that are not easily addressed in section 3 - put them in here. This is an audience favorite, and establishes you as helpful and available, rather than just a lecturer. This section is optional, but recommended. It does 3 jobs - it answers questions, it signifies the end of the official presentation, and it provides a time cushion where you can easily skip this part or go into greater detail, depending on how much time you have, without making the audience feel they have been ripped off.

Section 5 - Resources. This is where you put all that juicy info that you can't put in the visual presentation because you'd need to use small fonts and crowded screens. Charts, data, links, a bibliography and so on can all be placed in here. This is a great incentive for the audience to download your presentation if they want, but if they only wanted an overview, they don't feel they are forced to. You can also put in the kind of information you may want handy during the Q&A part of the session, but didn't want to get into during the main presentation.

Section 6 - Contact information. This is more than just your name and email. You can include a company overview, services you offer and even things like special offers and discount codes. This is your reward and incentive for making the presentation useful and available for download. It's low-key and not pushy, but highly effective at getting your marketing message out without ruining the on-stage presentation.

Wrap Up

I hope this has been helpful to you (and your audience). If you decide to use this format, feel free to leave a link in my comments area to the presentation for others to see and be inspired by.


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