Make Your PowerPoint Presentation Suck Less in Many Easy Steps

Hands up if you’ve been in this situation: you have to give a presentation using PowerPoint, and you’re pretty sure it’s going to suck. Maybe you don’t know how to put an effective one together. Maybe you do, but you don’t have enough time to put a good presentation together. Maybe your boss has handed you the presentation and said, “Show this,” or you’re collaborating with someone who’s not down with anything other than slide after slide of bullet points.

Sure, there’s some info out there. Duarte Design’s blog is good, as is Presentation Zen. Both Michael Lopp and Seth Godin have great advice. But there’s no time left it’s got to be fixed right now.

Take a deep breath. It’s not actually too late. There are things you can do to make your presentation suck less, from slide tweaks to changes in how you present. Some of my advice will take you longer to implement; I’ll save those bits of advice for the end.

Use a sans serif font. Do your letters have little feets on them? Then it’s a serif font, like the one I’m using now. Use a sans serif font, like this one. It’d be keen if you could use something other than Arial or Helvetica, but don’t go too crazy.

Make your fonts bigger. That 10-point type on your slide? Unless everyone’s at the front of the room, not everyone will be able to read it. Guy Kawasaki claims nothing smaller than 30-point type.

Make your slides’ titles give the key conclusion. While the title-and-bulleted-list approach isn’t great, chances are you’ll still use it. When you do, don’t use generic titles. The title should summarize the slide’s conclusion — the point you want people to take away from the slide. Don’t say “Reducing Drag”, say “Fins Reduce Drag”.

Don’t apologize for your slides. When you present, don’t say, “If anyone can tell me what this picture means…” or “I don’t know why I included this slide”. If it’s a bad slide, fix it or take it out.

Don’t don’t don’t say, “I know this is an eye chart, but…”. I run into this a lot in government presentations. If your slide is so dense and crammed full of stuff that no one will read it, take it out. Take a look at this slide from the U.S. Central Command, via The New York Times via Edward Tufte’s site:

An eye chart of a PowerPoint slide from the US Central Command

Yes, this is a subset of “don’t apologize for your presentation,” but it’s so common that I wanted to call it out separately.

Use a remote. Instead of hovering behind your computer or returning to it for each slide transition, get a wireless remote that’ll keep you from fumbling at a keyboard every minute or so.

Now let’s move into more time-intensive suggestions.

Don’t read from your slides. Memorize your presentation. A related bit of advice:

Don’t put all of the information on your slides. Admit it: you’ve used bullet lists as a crutch. You put everything on your slides so you don’t have to work as hard memorizing what you’re going to say. That’s fine. I’ve done it as well. But if people can read your presentation and learn everything they need to know, why are you there? Why even present it? Is your audience there to read a document or hear you?

Minimize your presentation’s # of concepts and concepts per slide. People can only absorb so much information before they become full. What’s your talk’s main theme? What three points do you want your audience to take away from your presentation? Alexei Kapterev suggests structuring your presentation with three key points, and possibly three key sub-points beneath those depending on how long your presentation is.

Ignore rules that tell you how many slides to have. One slide a minute? One slide every half minute? It depends on how much information you cram onto your slides (hopefully not too much), how fast you talk, and what your audience is. I’ve seen great hour-long presentations that use twenty slides, and I’ve seen wonderful ten minute ones that have a hundred.

Don’t make your slides look like your presentation’s outline. Bullet lists are fine for outlining and figuring out your presentation’s story, but ditch them when you make your final presentation.

Make your slides augment what you’re saying. When you get right down to it, your slides are a second avenue of communication. If they just parrot the words that you’re saying, you’re wasting that communication channel. You can use pictures that add emphasis instead of words. You can use a single phrase that summarizes your point. Your slides can be jokes that riff on what you’re saying, like what Stephen Colbert does with The Wørd.

Make a separate leave-behind document. One reason people make bullet-list slides that have the entire presentation’s content is because they want to leave the presentation behind for those who couldn’t be there, or for people to refer to later. Don’t do that. Make a separate handout or document for that purpose.

Read more blogs and books. I mentioned several blogs and articles above. To them add Advanced Presentations By Design, slide:ology, and Beyond Bullet Points.

11 thoughts on “Make Your PowerPoint Presentation Suck Less in Many Easy Steps

  1. One thing I don’t like as an audience-member is feeling lost inside the slideshow. Am I near the beginning or the middle or the end? Something like a ‘3 of 12’ slide numbering system, or maybe a progress bar, helps a lot.

  2. And, most importantly, put a little role-playing game in the footnotes.

  3. I just sat through a powerpoint show at lunch where (1) the remote wouldn’t work because the presenter had no idea where its receptor was, and thus had to lean over and key each change; (2) the presenter “ummmmed” and “errred” her way through her apology when things didn’t work (she once hit the wrong key and ended the show!); and (3) the presenter not only read, but also stumbled over the reading–of slides she’d presented (by her count) about 30 times before. She could have used your “3 points like a sermon” and whole list. Perhaps I should email it to her!

  4. These are great suggestions of when you can accompany your slides. Too often, slides are seen as some kind of report, able to be read independently of the presentation. That’s how things like eye charts get into my presentations [in my case, usually captures of Gantt charts and/or Excel spreadsheets].

    And you wonder why I dread PMR week each month? It’s a letter off from PMS, I tell you. [Which doesn’t mean that it compares, but it does mean that I’m damn irritable.]

  5. Thank you so much for writing this up. I’m printing it out and hanging it outside my cube wall because these are the same points that I drive people crazy with every time we give a design review and no one wants to listen to me.

  6. Of course, this is all dependent on knowing how to make one in the first place, and then, having a REASON to make one. Unless I simply want to show the tedium of my SAHM day. It would be one slide. Over. And Over. And over. And over And….

  7. Aaron: In general serif fonts work best for long blocks of body text, since the serifs form a nice line for your eye to follow. When you’re talking large text, especially with few words, sans serif fonts are more often used.

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