3 keys to enhancing PowerPoint programs for fire service professionals

Focusing on preparation, delivery and troubleshooting will help ensure a smooth and effective presentation

At some time in their careers, most emergency responders will have the opportunity to deliver a presentation that involves PowerPoint or a similar program. You might use such a program to deliver training to your fellow firefighters. You might develop a program as part of a public education effort. Or perhaps you will be called on to do a presentation to city council or fire department board members. Regardless of the reason, fire service professionals should be comfortable using PowerPoint-type programs to develop and deliver presentations.

3 keys to PowerPoint presentations

Everyone has sat through a mind-numbing slide presentation. Even having experienced the pitfalls personally, it is surprising how many presenters continue to fall into the same traps that diminish their effectiveness and limit their essential purpose.           

FireRescue1 Editorial Advisory Board Member Gary Ludwig uses PowerPoint during a presentation at a fire service conference.
FireRescue1 Editorial Advisory Board Member Gary Ludwig uses PowerPoint during a presentation at a fire service conference.

PowerPoint and similar programs are tools, not an end in themselves. When used well, they are valuable assets for teaching or conducting persuasive presentations. But certain guidelines must be followed to achieve maximum value.

There are three aspects to any slide presentation: 1) preparation, 2) delivery and 3) troubleshooting. Being prepared in all three areas will make your presentation shine.

1. How to prepare for a PowerPoint presentation: When preparing slides to accompany a presentation, keep in mind that the slides are just that – an accompaniment, not the main event. You are the main event, and the focus should always be on you as a presenter, with your slides simply enhancing that presentation.

As such, keep it simple when you design your slides. Some tips:

  • Choose uncomplicated, clean backgrounds
  • Minimize text on each slide and use a simple font that will be readable from any part of the room
  • Choose simple graphics that complement the point being made
  • Consider using title slide format rather than bulleted lists for slides
  • Ensure that any charts or graphs are clear and supportive of your message           

Video clips can be a nice alternative to still slides, but keep them short and on point. Long video interludes can cause presentations to lose focus – and the audience to lose attention. Be sure to test any video links in the environment where they will be used, not just on the computer where you prepare the slides.

Avoid a lot of special effects, such as sound effects, fly-ins for text, and stock animations. These effects can be useful and enhance your presentation if used sparingly. When overused, they dull attention and can even annoy your audience.

2. Tips for delivering a PowerPoint presentation

When doing a presentation with slides, there is a critical rule: Do not read from your slides. Further, definitely don’t turn toward the screen and read from your slides. Even if you have the complete slide outline in front of you (and you always should), it is still not necessary to read text from a slide to your audience. They know how to read. It is far better to paraphrase the points summarized on the screen or provide examples or explanation for the key points listed. One exception to this rule is if you have a strong quote or key fact that you want to emphasize by repeating it.

Many people create way too many slides and then find themselves rushing through the latter portion of their presentation as they run out of time. It is better to have fewer slides and take the time to discuss points in-depth or engage with your audience rather than overwhelming them with endless slides.

Software is available to make slide presentations interactive, and this can greatly enhance engagement with your audience. This software can be used to create real-time surveys and polls to allow the audience to be directly involved in the presentation.           

But be aware that this or any other technology requires preparation and practice for best results. Any interactive technology also must enhance the presentation and be well integrated into it, rather than just being a novelty add-on.

3. Troubleshooting slide programs

Troubleshooting is the final key piece to any successful slide program. As we all know, technology fails, and always at the worst possible time. The last thing you want is to have a technology breakdown that results in a blank screen, with three people huddled over a computer while your audience sits and waits.

Preparation and practice are the best defense against technology breakdowns, but nothing is foolproof. Even the most prepared and experienced presenter sometimes faces a technology failure mid-presentation.

When this happens, the best response is to continue on without that particular slide or video. If the whole program crashes, turn off the projector and go forward without visuals. If you have someone who can work on the computer apart from you, in the background, then perhaps you can activate the screen again once the problem is solved.

If you are on your own, it is better to let the slides go rather than take 5 minutes away from your presentation while you fiddle around with the computer and your audience starts checking social media on their phones. Once that happens, you’ve lost them and you’re probably not getting them back.

Remember, slides are not the main event

The most important thing to keep in mind when doing any kind of presentation is that the audience is there to see you, not your slides. Slides or other media, when used well, can enhance a presentation but should never be the main event. If it would not be possible to do your program effectively without any slides at all, it is probably best to reconsider the focus of your presentation.

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