How to Analyze and Transform Your Presentation, Part 2

By Heather Baldwin
Last month we looked at Cliff Atkinson’s three-step program for analyzing any PowerPoint presentation. If you tried it out and realized your presentation could use some work, this month’s article will help you transform your slides from text-heavy snoozers to visually powerful storytellers. Atkinson, an independent management consultant and author of Beyond Bullet Points (Microsoft Press, 2005), says the transformation process consists of three steps.
1. Write a script to focus your ideas. “The single most important thing you can do to dramatically improve your presentations is to have a story to tell before you work on your PowerPoint file,” says Atkinson. And the way to tell that story is to write a script. As with a Hollywood script, yours should include all the key elements of the story – a setting, a main character, a conflict and the desired outcome, followed by development of the conflict, the framing of a climax and a decision that the main character must face to resolve the situation. Atkinson offers a template on his Website ( to help you develop your story.
2. Storyboard your script to clarify your ideas. When Hollywood filmmakers prepare to make a movie, they first work with storyboard artists to sketch selected scenes to show how things will look on screen. While you won’t need to sketch anything, you’ll need to use the same concept to plan your visuals so they support the story you’ve scripted. To start, think of your PowerPoint presentation not as a collection of individual slides but as slides related as frames in a strip of film, says Atkinson. Each slide should contain one statement that, in simple, clear and direct language, moves forward the story you created in your script. The statements should be no more than two lines. In the example Atkinson uses in his book, a pharmaceutical executive is trying to sell the company’s board on a new pill. His first two slides read: The pharmaceutical industry today is navigating a sea of change; Every board faces tough sailing through these rough waters.

Once you have in place what Atkinson calls your headlines, open the notes page and write out what you plan to say about each slide in complete sentences and paragraphs. “During the presentation, the headline will show the audience at a glance the idea of the slide and also will prompt you to improvise on your detailed written explanation with a relaxed voice that comes from knowing the topic so well,” says Atkinson.
3. Produce your script to engage your audience. In this step you add the visuals that support and help tell your story. As you begin to think about visuals, Atkinson says the most important thing to remember is that you’re not just designing slides, you’re designing a complete experience. “It’s easy to become absorbed in the details of fonts, graphics and animations while losing track of your spoken words and how the entire experience should help the audience understand your message,” he cautions.

Rule number one of this third step, he says, is to design the complete experience around the headline – that two-line statement that appears on screen during the presentation and summarizes the meaning of the entire notes page. From there, select at least three slides from the presentation and try three completely different design treatments. Show them to your team and test them on people unfamiliar with the presentation to figure out which works best. In the pharmaceutical example above, the presenter went with a nautical theme. On his first slide – The pharmaceutical industry today is navigating a sea of change – he chose a background showing a close-up section of a compass. His second slide – Every board faces tough sailing through these rough waters – showed an image of large, rough waves. Fill the slide with the image, making sure the headline is clearly visible over the photograph, and you’ve got a presentation that moves beyond bullet points to one that offers audiences a rich, engaging and memorable experience.