Results of the 2011 Annoying PowerPoint survey; Issue #245 September 27, 2011

Note: The results of the latest survey are available here.

PowerPoint Tip: Results of the Annoying PowerPoint survey

As I analyzed the responses and comments in the survey of “What annoys you about bad PowerPoint presentations?”, a clear theme emerged. Audiences are fed up with presenters who fill their slides with too much content and are then compelled to read it all to those seated in the room. Let’s look at the responses first and then the comments.

In looking at what the 603 respondents said were their top three annoyances, it was clear that reading the slides is by far the top thing that presenters do that annoys their audience. This has been in top spot for all five of the surveys I have done going back to 2003. Moving up one spot from the last survey, the second most annoying thing is the presenter filling the slides with full sentences of information instead of summarizing the key messages in bullet points. And rounding out the top three, is the presenter using fonts that are too small to read, probably because they are cramming too much information on the slide.

Here are the top five annoyances along with the percentage of respondents that selected them as one of their top three:

The speaker read the slides to us – 73.8%
Full sentences instead of bullet points – 51.6%
The text was so small I couldn’t read it – 48.1%
Slides hard to see because of color choice – 34.0%
Overly complex diagrams or charts – 26.0%

It is clear that the top three annoyances are separated from the rest by a significant distance and are clearly the areas presenters need to focus on. And yet, I think that these are only symptoms of the bigger issue of information overload. When a presenter feels that they have to include everything they have done or all they know on this topic, the slides will be a confusing mass of text and numbers that give the audience no clue on what the important takeaway should be. Presenters need to make better decisions on what content to include in a presentation so that the message is clear and understood.

In the survey, I also ask how many presentations people see on a weekly basis. The number of presentations people see is on the rise. When I look at the responses for people who see one or more presentation each day, it has risen 38.7% from the last survey in 2009 (from 14.2% in 2009 to 19.7% in 2011). Presentations are becoming a more common way of communicating in organizations and the quality of the presentations doesn’t seem to be getting better. This is reinforced by the result of the last question I ask on the survey. Almost 43% of the respondents said that over half of the presentations they see suffer from the one or more of the annoying problems I ask them to select their top three from. This is up from 39% in the 2009 survey, so the problems are more prevalent than before.

I also ask respondents to write in what else bothers them about the poor presentations they see and as in every other survey, people take the opportunity to tell me their strong feelings. The comments filled ten and a half pages of eight point type! As I read them all, three themes emerged.

First, their comments reinforced my conclusion that the root cause of the annoying behaviours was really due to presenters attempting to cram too much information in to the presentation. Many commented that presentations have become reports that are read to the audience. It is a trend that I am seeing in my workshops as well. Attendees are asking how to determine what should go in and what should be left out of the presentation. Because they are unsure, they default to including everything. Another contributing factor is the need to send the presentation by e-mail to those who could not attend the live presentation. In order to make the presentation make sense, the presenter basically writes their script on the slides. This will be a key area of focus in my writing and work over the next year. I am starting to teach strategies for questioning each piece of content to determine if it really contributes to the goal of the presentation. I am also teaching ways to include additional detail that is not on the slides presented during the live presentation, but is available when the slide file is sent to others (or used as a record of what was presented at the meeting).

The next theme is that presenters need to be better prepared to deliver the presentation. Some of the comments related to presenters who did not create the slides themselves and had not practiced with them before the presentation. The presenter ends up reading the slides and is not able to add anything to what is written on the slide. Audiences feel that this shows a lack of respect. Presenters need to be familiar with their presentation and invest the time to rehearse and make the presentation their own, even if the slides were prepared by someone else. Respondents also commented on presenters who lack the skills or knowledge of how to speak effectively or don’t know how to use the equipment when presenting. If you aren’t comfortable speaking or don’t know how the equipment should be used, ask someone. Get some training so that you don’t embarrass yourself at the front of the room.

The third theme was the continuing problem of poorly designed slides. From poor color choices to unreadable fonts, to spelling and grammar errors, the basics are still not being understood by too many presenters. If the content of the slide can’t be understood because of poor design, there is no way it can be an aid to the presenter. You don’t have to be a designer to create slides that are visually appealing. Select colors that have enough contrast, use sans-serif fonts in large enough sizes, and double check all text on your slide before presenting. When the presenter doesn’t even bother to get these basics correct, the audience feels that the presenter doesn’t care about the presentation, and the audience will naturally be less willing to listen and act upon the message the presenter is giving.

So what do I conclude from this survey? That presentations are becoming a more important vehicle for communicating, but presenters aren’t really getting any better at effectively using this important vehicle to get their message understood. To change the current state, it will take awareness on the part of the presenters and a willingness to do things differently. I ask that we all do our part. I will continue to share my insights and suggestions. I ask each of you to take the message to those who need to hear it. Together we can make a difference.