Criticisms may range from the speaker reading a slide full of information — in a monotone — to graphics being a jumbled, nonsensical mess.
"Probably the worst one I ever saw was a guy who used a template of stars and planets for his background, then used a white font for the information over it. The problem was Saturn and the other planets were obscuring the words, and then if the white type was near a star. .. well, you couldn't read anything. It was just overwhelming," Stephen M. Kosslyn says.
However, Kosslyn was not just any ordinary audience member frustrated at a poorly constructed presentation. As a leading authority on the nature of visual mental imagery and visual communication, he knew there was a better way of presenting visual information.
He knew it was time to put an end to slow death by PowerPoint.
"Most all PowerPoints are flawed," he says. "People get into these grooves and habits and they think (their PowerPoint) is fine the way it is. But once you show them other ideas, then they realize that it can get better."
As dean of social science and a psychology professor at Harvard University and author of Better PowerPoint:Quick Fixes Based on How Your Audience Thinks, (Oxford University Press, $14.95), Kosslyn says there are many ways to improve PowerPoint presentations that are simple — but very effective.
For example, words or graphics that are similar should be grouped together in a slide, what he calls the "birds of a feather rule."
"Our brains automatically organize information in particular way, so it will be easier and faster for your audience members to understand and remember what you present when you organize it appropriately," he says.
The biggest key to developing better presentations is to remember that "less is more."
"Every tweak to hone your message down on each slide will help," he says.
Other tips he provides for a better PowerPoint presentations:
• Involve the audience. "There is nothing more striking that being asked suddenly to shift from being a passive listener to being an active performer," he writes. One way to do that is by asking audience members to vote whether they agree or disagree with a specific point by raising their hands.
• Make it easy to read. Text should be at least 28 points. Don't use uppercase, italics, or bold for more than three or four words in a line. He points out that such letters are similar enough to each other that they require more effort to read that standard type.
• Prevent eye strain. Avoid using a white background unless the room will be partially lit. A white background in a dark room produces glare "and can result in audience members' getting after-images when they move their eyes," he writes.
• Don't overuse bullets. Bullets should provide only key concepts or examples. "They should be more like what would have been sent by telegraph in days of old than prose," he writes. "Don't present every world in your entire presentation in bulleted lists."
• Remember that pictures matter. Research shows people are more likely to remember a key concept better if you use a picture and words together rather than just one of those items.
• Avoid deep blue. Science shows the eye can't focus on images or words that are in a heavily saturated blue. The image will appear blurred around the edges.
• Make sure graphs are appropriate. Don't use graphs unless they make a specific point and provide a clear conclusion. Audience members shouldn't be left to figure out what the graph may be trying to tell them.
"I think I've probably seen over a thousand PowerPoints, and I can tell you that they could all use some work," Kosslyn says.
"What people need to remember is that it's not about the slides. It's about understanding what the audience needs," he says. "With just some fine-tuning, some real improvement can be made."