Don’t get charged with Death by PowerPoint: A simple hack you can use to unboring your next presentation

Image courtesy of  Halans Photography

Image courtesy of Halans Photography

Is the news really just b-grade entertainment? Do you suffer from Phantom Cat Syndrome? And what is the correct way to peel a banana?

I heard the answers to these questions and more at the Oxford Art Factory on a warm spring night last week, during the 17th Ignite Sydney evening. The event felt like a shorter, rowdier version of TEDx Sydney, featuring 14 speakers and three bars that never stopped serving.

Speaker Hugh Saalmans gave us the hard truth that the world is ending, and explained how we can prepare for the apocalypse. To cheer us up, Chloe Boreham showed us that life is full of little loving moments, if you look for them. Life saver Lucy Schott revealed her dark secret: she is terrified of the ocean. Doug Suiter told us the story of a cat sleeping in the centre of his bed, forcing him to contort himself around his favourite pet, only to wake up to find no cat, and a needless back ache (an apt metaphor for obsolete habits dying too late, he posited).

As always, an eclectic bunch of speakers populated the Art Factory’s stage, the only commonality between them being their passion for a chosen niche topic. Ignite Sydney carefully chooses the speakers to capture a broad spectrum of topics, and anyone can throw their hat in the ring to be in the running. The catch? You must use a 20-slide PowerPoint presentation, and each slide gets exactly 15 seconds of fame. If you do the maths, that’s a neat 5 minutes to get your message across. to quote Ignite curator Stephen Lead: “Enlighten us, but make it quick.”

Sounds challenging? Your delivery and timing would need to be on point, no doubt. But on the other hand, it’s a strange reality of the creative process that this kind of limit can elicit a more imaginative approach. Ignite's presenters were unknowlingly receiving a masterclass in design: putting constraints around a project can help you push through creative blocks, and make the end result that much more unique.

Indeed, technical tinkerer Michael Kordahi gave several examples of ‘beautiful constraints’ during his 5 minute talk about the hacker mindset: Jerry Seinfeld famously imposes the personal restriction of never swearing during his standup routines (a constraint that perhaps many of us would struggle with!). Then there's Brian Eno, who created the infamous Windows 95 startup sound, but was lacking inspiration when the brief came to him. “We want a piece of music that is inspiring, universal, blah-blah, da-da-da, optimistic, futuristic, sentimental, emotional, this whole list of adjectives, and then at the bottom it said: and it must be 3.25 seconds long.” This final, bizarre constraint made him laugh, and stirred some imagination up too: he ended up submitting 84 tiny tunes in response to Microsoft's request.

But you don’t have to be a legendary comedian or composer, nor a hacker, creative professional or public speaker, to benefit from this technique. Next time you need to make a presentation, consider imposing some constraints. What if you had to get your point across in only 5 minutes? What if every slide was on a 15 second timer? The constraints need not be time-related, either. Designer Jarrod Drysdale imposed an arbitrary constraint when designing his online course: he had to use the colour green.

And, of course, take inspiration from other great presentations and check out the next Ignite Sydney event! It won’t disappoint: I drank… and I learned things! I learned that we all suffer from phantom cat syndrome from time to time; that peeling a banana ‘from the bottom’ is the best way; and that mass media news really does make more sense if you imagine it as entertainment. Moreover, I learned a great hack to make my own presentations faster, more fun and more engaging.

What beautiful constraints do you use when you need to get creative? What other hacks help you to ‘unboring' your messaging? As designers of intelligent communication, the Freckle team are always curious about what works for our readers, so feel free to drop us a comment or an email.