A colleague of mine just suffered for two solid weeks (including weekends) developing a PowerPoint presentation for a senior leader. The process was painful and slow: Members of the team working on the presentation kept going around and around, adding slides, taking them out, revising them, and then doing it all over again.

The end result was, as my Dad likes to say, "a dog's breakfast," meaning a big sloppy mess: too many slides, too much information, a muddled message.

I was reminded of Christopher Witt's insightful 2009 book, Real Leaders Don't Do PowerPoint. Mr. Witt describes the problem this way. Too often, leaders "assemble as much information as possible and import it willy-nilly into PowerPoint. They don't organize it into a cohesive, meaningful whole. Why bother? . . . You can create any number of slides--hundreds, if you like--without ever tying anything together into a coherent or compelling idea."

Mr. Witt's advice is to approach a presentation completely differently: He counsels "sifting through the pertinent information, picking out what's valuable, and discarding the rest. Then tie it all together in a way that makes sense of it. Write out your one organizing principle or thought--your Big Idea. Then structure the information you've assemble to support your idea. Use only as much information as you need to prove or illustrate your main idea."

My experience is that, to truly deliver a compelling presentation, you need to step completely away from the PowerPoint. First, determine your objectives. Then, decide how to structure your story for maximum impact. And only when you've done so should you even open PowerPoint to create and collate slides.

Need inspiration for an upcoming presentation? Real Leaders Don't Do PowerPoint offers sound advice like this:

  • " As a leader, it's up to you to communicate a vision, a direction, a purpose, and the impetus for acting. The more you focus on imparting facts and figures, the less you'll be perceived as a leader."
  • "The easiest way to appeal to what your listeners want--in other words, to answer their WIIFM question--is to show how they can use your idea or proposal to: solve a problem of theirs . . .achieve a goal of theirs . . . (or) satisfy a need of theirs."
  • "A confused mind always says no . . . Being unclear is sure to make people resist what you want. Confusing people shuts them down. It makes them, at least figuratively, cross their arms in front of their chests, lean away from you, and say no way. So one of the first rules of speaking is: Be clear."

Despite his clever title, Mr. Witt admits that real leaders actually do use PowerPoint. They're just very smart about how to use the tool to tell a clear, cohesive story that engages the audience.