Three rules for a successful presentation.

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First Rule: There aren’t any rules for how a presentation should be made.

Second Rule: There aren’t any rules for how a presentation should look.

Third Rule: Anyone who tries to tell you there are rules for presentations is just making them up.

Just because something is done a certain way, does that mean it should be done that way? A standard has developed for how an electronic presentation (a PowerPoint) should look. You can see it in the way people make their slides. There should be a title slide at the beginning. Your name should be on it. There should be bullet points, and there should be lots of them. There should be slide numbers in the lower corner next to the company logo. Shouldn’t there be?

The “shoulds” that we live with in the presentation world are a byproduct of the templates our presentation applications encourage us to use. The “quick start wizards” and “setup assistants” were the ones that first taught us what bullet points were and where we should put them on our slides. They taught us about templates, and made us want to use them. But what is a template except a collection of ways our slides "should" look?

Businesses particularly like the template approach because it’s so orderly and seemingly professional. Many businesses today pay graphic designers to make a corporate template for their organization. Usually it’s even accompanied by a “guidelines” document that details instructions for how the template should and should not be used. If you work for one of these organizations and are delivering a presentation, there is a good chance you don’t have a choice but to use the corporate template.

Yet even with these professionally designed templates the presentations we encounter on a daily basis still somehow fall flat. Audiences of stakeholders and other employees doze off as one bulleted list dissolves into the next. Very little meaning gets across.

I understand why the templates are here, and they aren’t entirely bad. Companies spend a lot of money on branding, and they see corporate presentation templates as an extension of that. Plus, a lot of people naively think they aren’t creative enough to “design” something, and so the templates act as safety blankets that ensure our slides will at least look mediocre. But since when is mediocre something to strive for?

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The fact of the matter is better presentations don’t come from better templates. For presentations that involve speaking to a room full of people, a template full of “shoulds” is the wrong place to start. Think about your presentation itself first, the interaction in the space between you and your audience, not which slide theme to choose.

Giving a speech is a creative act, there’s no doubt about it. As a speaker you are setting out to tell people about something, to teach something, to sell something. Your job is to figure out the best way to relate it.

Break the rules. You’ll be pleasantly surprised what will happen when you approach your slides as a place to enhance your message, and not as a set of boundaries to limit it.