How not using PowerPoint can make you a better presenter

This morning I began writing a response to a comment posted on yesterday’s blog by Olivia Mitchell but as I did it slowly evolved into a post – so here it is. Olivia’s comment can be seen on yesterday’s post – Warning: PowerPoint may cause template thinking syndrome.

Olivia – thanks for some really good questions that have given me the opportunity to clarify CreativityWorks’ stance on some important issues.

Do I think that it’s better not to use PowerPoint at all? Yes, I do – and I’ll tell you why. In my experience, when clients are encouraged to cure themselves of PowerPoint template thinking more often than not they are amazed to discover that it’s not as essential to the success of their presentations as they thought – a bit like the reformed alcoholic who discovers that enjoying a party doesn’t always depend on having a drink.

Thinking of PowerPoint as your slave rather than your master fundamentally changes your relationship with it. It allows you to spend more time on the important parts of your presentation – the core message (proposition) and words. As a result PowerPower if used at all becomes an occasional accompaniment, not a guiding light. Many presentations, and presenters, find they improve dramatically when they abandon their knee-jerk reaction to the use of PowerPoint.

Martha and I had proof of this recently when we got feedback from a client who had worked with us on the closing keynote for a major conference. He’s a senior government adviser and he excitedly told us that he was the only one of ten speakers who didn’t use PowerPoint. He was delighted by the positive response of his audience – indeed, many of those who came up to talk with him afterwards could remember many of his points word-for-word.

This brings us to your question about exploiting the visual part of your audience’s brain so that they learn more. Visual thinking is at the heart of CreativityWorks’ approach. The best communicators use visual language – people can see what they mean. Just as it’s often said that “the pictures are better on radio”, we believe that the best way to engage the visual brain of an audience is to express your message in visual language.

In November 2007, Liberal Democrat Vince Cable stood up in the House of Commons and criticised new Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s vacillation over whether or not to hold a general election. He said: “the House has noticed the Prime Minister’s remarkable transformation in the past few weeks – from Stalin to Mr Bean.”

The juxtaposition of two such incongruous images – Stalin and Mr Bean – brilliantly encapsulated Gordon Brown’s fall from grace. No one listening had to make an effort to remember Cable’s imagery – and the power of Cable’s metaphor was so great that Brown’s brand has never recovered from it. I’m not sure that anyone would argue that Cables lampoon would have been even more effective if he’d been given special dispensation by the House of Commons to use PowerPoint!


  1. I couldn’t agree more with the point that one cannot be a slave to PowerPoint while delivering a speech or a presentation. I often use PP as I deliver presentations or trainings in which I need to show data or images. But I neither animate the copy nor look at the slides – I always keep an eye contact with my audience.
    Once I’ve seen a business presentation without any electronic support – and it was really great, engaging & memorable!
    Technology is just a tool…

  2. Hi Martin and Martha

    I agree that you don’t always have to use PowerPoint.

    And I also agree that you can exploit the power of the visual through painting word pictures in your audience’s minds. And sometimes that’s more powerful than actually showing a picture – as in your example of going Stalin to Mr Bean.

    However, I don’t think that “the pictures are better on the radio” is always true. TV is more popular than the radio because it does have pictures.

    The Stalin to Mr Bean metaphor works because most of have already got images of Stalin and Mr Bean stored in our brains. So when the speaker uses that metaphor we can conjure up the images without the speaker showing them to us on PowerPoint.

    In many presenting situations, the audience won’t have those images, the diagram or the chart ready-to-go in their brains – and that’s when PowerPoint and Keynote become really useful.


  3. Martin Shovel says


    I agree with you that the pictures on radio are not always better, but there are various reasons for this: one of the most obvious being that not all speakers have the same command of language – which is why many of them choose to work with professionals like us!

    TV may be the more a popular medium but I think this is because it demands less of its audience than radio. We watch a lot more TV but less of it goes in and I believe this is because watching TV is a much more passive occupation than listening to the radio.

    The power of Vince Cable’s attack comes from the fact that each of us creates our own image of Stalin and Mr Bean – and these may not even be especially ‘visual’ images. It’s a bit like the difference between reading a novel and seeing an adaptation of it on TV, or in the cinema. Too often we’re disappointed because the actors don’t look or behave at all like the characters we’ve constructed in our imaginations while reading the book.

    One of the most important lessons classical rhetoric teaches us is the importance of making your audience an active participant in your speech, or presentation. One of the main techniques they used to encourage audience participation was to offer their audiences arguments which had elements missing so that they’d have to fill in the missing parts themselves – this type of argument is known as an enthymeme and I’ll be writing about it in future posts.

    I agree with you that there are situations when a diagram can be a very useful visual aid for an audience – but PowerPoint slides are not the only way to display these. We encourage people to use more immediate – and intimate/personal – tools (such as the humble flipchart) wherever possible. Clearly there will times when PowerPoint is the best solution, but in my opinion it should be a last resort.

  4. Hi Martin

    I do agree with a lot of what you say. You have me thinking about the difference between radio and TV.

    I think it requires more focused concentration to listen to the radio without doing anything else. That’s because the visual part of your brain is given nothing to do – so it’s likely to have its attention attracted to different things. So it works for me to listen to the radio while I’m doing a manual activity. There’s research that people who doodle while listening to something are able to remember more ( You could think of providing visuals through PowerPoint as giving the visual part of the brain something to look at so that it doesn’t get bored and “wander off”.

    I agree that the flipchart is a great tool with a smaller audience – more intimate, more dynamic and engaging. I use it a lot (even though I can’t draw like you!) But I don’t think of PowerPoint as a last resort. I think it’s useful to provide visuals for your audience – and often visually-interesting PowerPoint slides will be the best way.


  5. Martin Shovel says


    You wrote that listening to the radio requires more focused concentration because “the visual part of your brain is given nothing to do.” I strongly disagree. When you listen to the radio your eyes are given nothing to do, but there is an overwhelming body of evidence – both scientific and experiential – that the visual part of your brain is active.

    For example the work of Harvard professor of psychology, Stephen Kosslyn – – whose research indicates that “about two-thirds of the same brain areas are involved in visual mental imagery and visual perception.” Kosslyn’s research has very interesting implications for the kind of word-based visualisation techniques practised in cognitive therapy, and hypnosis.

    There is also plenty of evidence that an individual’s response to a word is often synaesthetic – or multisensory – in nature. Have a look at – – which reports that according to Charles Spence, a professor of experimental psychology at Oxford University, we are all “synaesthetes” up to a point.”

    I will be writing about these very interesting topics in future posts – and exploring their implications for how we respond to great oratory and literature – i.e. words.

  6. Pls find below a link to a very interesting report by BBC – 25 years of PowerPoint
    interesting selection of comments at the end.

  7. Martin Shovel says

    Thanks for the link Mirek.

  8. I’m firmly with the anti-Powerpoint brigade here.

    Powerpoint harms more presentations than it helps. It is bigger than you and brighter (lit) than you. Our eye is drawn to light: so people will be looking at it when they should be watching your passion.

    Use it if there is really no alternative, but think hard first.

    I say as much here; perhaps you will like it –

    All the best,


  9. I think this post is insightful of a core idea that a radio message can light up listeners minds and keep ideas growing.

    Yet as the mother of a 90% visual thinker with 60% auditory hearing loss, I know that for some, IMAGES are the only way to be sure a message gets conveyed.

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