Twenty years ago, the ritual of the corporate presentation underwent a revolution: PowerPoint.

Since 1987, this Microsoft program has been lampooned by everyone from Dilbert to The New Yorker. It’s been decried as evil by Yale professor Edward Tufte, in his famous screed, “PowerPoint is Evil,” published in Wired. It’s even been banned in some corners of corporate America, as Scott McNealy, then CEO of Sun Microsystems, did back in 1997.

Despite its Rodney Dangerfield-like reputation that it gets no respect, PowerPoint at the same time has become all but synonymous with the word "presentation." Love it or hate it, nowadays very few people would even consider getting up in front of a room without it. Even Al Gore doesn’t leave the house without his .ppt docs.

“If you went back to 1987 you’d find it’s essentially the same program with that slide sorter view. Each version since has just added extra stuff on top. After 20 years of PowerPoint, people are ready for a change,” says Cliff Atkinson, author of “Beyond Bullet Points,” published by Microsoft Press.

Countless executives who groan at the mere mention of PowerPoint would agree: it’s time to pump things up. 

Primarily, there are two ways to do it. Take a more creative approach in designing your PowerPoint presentations. That, and investigate some of the newer technologies and applications that integrate with PowerPoint to create a richer, more multimedia experience with your audience.

Bullet points and boilerplate templates are so-o-o 1997

As his book title would suggest, Atkinson is not a fan of the overused and abused bullet point format and he’s an expert definitely worth listening to on the subject. Atkinson produced the courtroom PowerPoint presentation for the attorneys of the winning plaintiffs in the famous $253 million Vioxx judgment against Merck. Fortune magazine at the time credited his PowerPoint as instrumental in winning the case describing it as “frighteningly powerful.”

Here are some of the ways Atkinson suggests in taking a different approach. (He’ll have to forgive our format here).

  • Simplify, simplify, simplify. Too much information on the screen is perhaps the biggest mistake made in PowerPoint. Atkinson recommends having only one thought written like a newspaper headline or in a short sentence per slide.
  • Set the mood and tone. Does your presentation come with a sense of urgency or excitement about a new strategy or product, problem-solving, pioneering a new direction or the tone of a very formal briefing? Pick a color palette that will help set that tone. Make sure you don’t stray from the palette with a color that doesn’t match. Make key slides stand out with a specific color from the palette. Don’t use that color with the other slides.
  • Weave content into a narrative. Storytelling is a format that hooks in everyone. Like a good story, develop your presentation with a setting, a conflict, the characters involved, and what’s at stake. Think of the details in terms of “Acts” letting them unfold in a way that builds up to the solution that comes at the end.
  • Storyboard on paper first. That’s right: low tech, before high tech. Atkinson contends it’s often easier to conceptualize on paper, rather than on a computer screen. Put pencil to paper first, and then use that as a guide in designing your slides.
  • Make it human. “A presentation should be a conversation. Incorporate interactivity. The media should be transparent and not distract from you,” says Atkinson. One other tip: when you’re saying your most key thought, cut the PowerPoint to black. It will jar every set of eyes in the room away from the screen and force them to focus on you.

Gear up

While PowerPoint hasn’t changed much over the years, new technologies that integrate with it have. Here are a few that can help make your presentations more engaging:

Audience response systems. A number of vendors, such as Turning Point, sell or rent equipment that enables you to give all the audience members a keypad. You can poll the audience in real time with their answers aggregating into bar graphs, pie charts, etc. right into your PowerPoint.

Try a game show format. This is especially effective in training presentations. And again, there are numerous vendors to choose from who offer a combination of software and audience response gear to turn your presentation into a high energy quiz show format with the audience. Learning Ware is one such company offering a software package called GameShow Pro 4. Additionally, they offer ring-in pads for participating audience members to hit just like contestants on Jeopardy.

Slicker production value. Presentation Pro offers a number of PowerPoint-compatible solutions to make your presentations more eye-catching, including studio quality graphics and 3D transitions, software to incorporate video and sound and even a program to capture mouse movements to replay for demo purposes.