The World's Best Presentations

Think you know PowerPoint? Think again. You haven't seen the real power of a presentation until you've taken a look at the winners of SlideShare's annual "World's Best Presentation" contest. SlideShare is a San Francisco-based company that operates a popular Web site used by business professionals and graphic designers to share ideas by uploading presentations. The winners of the 2009 competition exemplify the best techniques of presentation design.

"We don't just want to create a presentation-sharing company. We want to change the way people think about presentations" says SlideShare CEO and co-founder Rashmi Sinha. This year's winners will do just that—change the way you think about presentations. For example, the average PowerPoint slide has 40 words. One of the winning presentations is so visual you'll have to advance through 25 slides before you've read 40 words. The typical PowerPoint slide has a title and bullet points. There are no slides with title and bullet points among any of the winning entries.

Dan Roam, visual-thinking expert and author of The Back of the Napkin, won first place for his collaboration with Dr. Tony Jones. Together they created "American Health Care: a 4-Napkin Explanation.". Using sketches and yes, napkins, the presentation seeks to explain the current state of health care, health-care reform proposals, and what the various options mean to Americans. Four napkins introduce each of four sections of the presentation but the entire deck is made up of 51 slides. Fifty-one slides with sketches, however, are far easier to understand than the current thousand-page bills winding their way through Congress.

big fonts, spare text, simple images"I learned long ago that when helping executives clarify their ideas, nothing is more powerful than a simple hand-drawn sketch. The less polished, the better; the more "human," the better," Roam told me. "Three quarters of the neurons in our brain that process incoming sensory information are focused on vision. While most people in business think they can't draw (they can) or that they're 'not visual' (they are), we can all get infinitely better at discovering, developing, and sharing new ideas by taking advantage of our innate visual thinking system."

"Business presentations have way, way, way too much detail and information," says Guy Kawasaki, co-founder of Alltop, the "online magazine rack," who served as one of the judges for this year's competition. Kawasaki said he looked for very specific techniques, including large fonts, sparse text, and big, simple images. "Generally, the more slides and text a person uses, the less he or she has to say."

The second- and third-place winners took Kawasaki's advice and relied heavily on visuals to deliver emotionally engaging ideas. The second-place winner was a slide show created to solicit donations for an orphanage in Burkina Faso. But where is Burkina Faso? The creators knew viewers would ask that question so they did more than place it in West Africa—and they did it in a humorous and memorable way. One slide reads, "Where in the world is Burkina Faso?" The next slide explains that it's the world's seventh least-developed country. The following slide reads: What the heck does that mean? The next half-dozen slides reveal a very long list of countries with arrows that keep pointing down. Along the way, the slides include such phrases as "keep going," "still down," and "not yet." Simple, striking, and memorable.

PowerPoint is not evil, but "a tool" One of my favorite presentations was the third place winner, a kidney-care campaign called "Feels Bad on the Back." The second slide reads: "Many things remind of us kidneys…" The next 11 slides are made up of photographs of various items and locations shaped like kidneys: a swimming pool, an island green on a golf course, the "bean" sculpture at Chicago's Millennium Park. The next series of slides explain visually what kidneys do. For example, "control blood pressure" was matched with a photo of a car's speedometer. Each slide matches text with a creative and unexpected visual. In 58 slides—mostly photographs—you learn far more about kidney function, damage, and prevention than you might take in from hundreds of pages in an academic manual.

SlideShare's contest winners prove that PowerPoint is not evil, as some have suggested. "PowerPoint is a tool," says Kawasaki. "People who tell you that PowerPoint is evil don't know how to use it."

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