Back to Basics: Creating Effective PowerPoint Presentations

Death by PowerPoint! 

It doesn’t have to be.  PowerPoint, like a lot of tools, is as good or bad as the user.  Read the following tips in this article and you will be giving more effective PowerPoint presentations in no time.  Even if you’re already a PowerPoint Zen Master, you still might pick up an idea or two.  Let’s make PowerPoint a more effective tool.

Develop a 4 Step Presentation

  1. Grab your audience’s attention. Use an interesting quote, anecdote or an outrageous statement.  You can use humor but beware….not everyone can be funny, humor requires timing and relevance so be warned.
  2. State your purpose. Why are you up there talking?  What problem are you trying to solve?  What is the solution?  Is the presentation explaining how you go from problem to solution?  Make sure you don’t say one thing and present another.
  3. Use examples and stories. A lot has been written about storytelling.  Stories generate interest and illustrate a point much better than slides of numbers and bullets.
  4. Wrap it up. Go back to your purpose and explain how your presentation supported your purpose.  Sum up the key takeaways and remember to leave time for questions if appropriate.

Presentation Content

  •  Get to the point. Make sure each slide contains relevant information.  Condense your information and make it sharp and concise.  Make your point and then support it with description, examples, and anecdotes.
  • Use short clear descriptive bullet points. Don’t make lists, make points.  Avoid writing sentences in your slide bullets, write short reminders and then fill in the detail with your spoken words.
  • How about no text at all? Simply use a title and an image/graphic for each slide.  This forces your audience to listen to what you say, there is nothing for them to read.
  • The title of each slide should be descriptive. It is the largest item on the page, make good use of it.
  • Consider the use of blank (black) slides to re-focus the attention on you, the presenter, instead of the slides. Put up a black slide and all eyes turn to you to LISTEN.
  • Rule of 6 – Never put more than 6 bullets on a page. If you have 20 points to make, condense the information or spread it over 5 slides.  Remember the audience can read faster than you can talk.  They have already read the whole slide before you open your mouth.  Don’t ever read the bullets, fill in the blanks, add color and detail, don’t repeat what is already there.

Develop an Agenda

  •  Use an Agenda slide. During the presentation, refer back to the Agenda slide so your audience can follow where you are in the presentation.  The agenda slide is very important in long presentations.  It keeps the audience from getting lost and it can be used to track progress and anchor your presentation.
  • In his excellent book on presentation, Beyond Bullet Points, author Cliff Atkinson stresses the concept of breaking down the presentation into smaller more digestible parts and using anchor slides to guide the audience through the presentation and through your slides. He makes a convincing argument you should create signposts throughout your presentation to keep the audience from being lost or confused.

Using Visuals

  • Using visuals in your presentation can help the audience AND the speaker. As I said earlier, using a picture or graphic can shift the focus from the PowerPoint to you, the speaker.  If you ONLY use graphics on your slide, the audience is forced to listen to what you say.  They will not just read your slide and go back to their phone and email.
  • Visuals can add useful information. Especially when you are trying to explain numbers, a graph is much more helpful than a table of numbers.
  • Visuals take the focus OFF a nervous speaker. If you walk through a slide using one or multiple visual images, the attention will be on the slides and not on the fidgeting speaker.
  • Visuals remind the speaker of points to cover.
  • When using visuals make sure you have the rights or permission to use the images and graphics. Stick with Creative Commons or Public Domain images in your presentation or create your own.  Make sure you give proper credit or attribution when using visuals.

Watch Out For

  • Wordiness – Don’t write entire sentences in your presentation. Unless it is a quote, your bullet points should be short concise reminders of what you are going to talk about.
  • Face the audience. Don’t turn around and look at your screen when presenting.  If you have to see the screen, then use a pointer and shift focus to the screen or use Presenter View in PowerPoint to see the presentation while you talk.
  • Avoid Jargon – unless you are presenting to a room of experts on the subject, avoid using industry jargon or acronyms.
  • Time – Don’t try to cram 75 slides into 30 minutes. Estimate the time needed for the number of slides and remember to leave time for questions.
  • Brain Freeze – I write out my entire spoken presentation in the Notes section of the presentation. This also makes a good handout AFTER the presentation.  Never give your handout before the presentation, make them listen and pay attention to you.

PowerPoint Pointers

  • PowerPoint Designer – PowerPoint has a feature called PowerPoint Designer. There is also Design Ideas in Powerpoint on the Design Menu.  These tools might improve slides by automatically recommending design ideas for your PowerPoint slides.
  • Outlines in PowerPoint – You can open Word Outlines inside PowerPoint. If it is easier for you to compose in Word or if you want to create a presentation for a paper you have written in Word, you can open a Word Doc directly in PowerPoint.  Try it.
  • You may also find it easier to edit a presentation in PowerPoint Outline View. See View, Outline View from the PowerPoint Menus.
  • I always write out my entire spoken presentation and put it in the Note View of each slide. This makes it easy to create a presentation handout. Simply print out a Notes Pages and use as a presentation handout.
  • Keep in mind you can save a PowerPoint presentation (PPTX) as a PowerPoint Show (PPSX) or a video for alternate ways to view and share the presentation.

Using Color

  • Text color – If you projecting the presentation use light text on a dark background. For printed presentations use dark text on a light background.
  • Color for emphasis – Use color to PUNCH out and make a point.
  • Less is more – Remember to limit the number of colors and fonts in a presentation. Use a sans serif font and use no more than two or three different fonts.  Use color to set a mood, highlight or add emphasis or contrast.
  • Be careful when using background colors or patterns. They can be very distracting and make your presentation illegible.
  • Red and green are bad colors for colorblind people. Especially if using different colors for different data sets in a graph, use higher contrast colors so us colorblind folks can tell the difference.


Photos / Images

  • Be careful using photos in presentations. Unless the photo is directly related to your topic, the relationship can be lost.
  • When using photos, make sure you have permission to use the image. If you purchased the photo, read the restrictions on its use.  If you use Creative Commons images, make sure you provide proper attribution and/or copyright information.
  • Graphs always work better than tables of numbers. If you have a lot of numbers to explain, try to find a way to use a graph or graphic to explain your story.
  • Use lower resolution images in your presentation. If you use high-resolution images you will bog down your presentation.  Using a lot of images can bloat your file size and slow the performance of the program as it struggles to load and display huge files.  If you need high-resolution photos to print your presentation, create two versions of your presentation, one to display and one to print.  More is not better when it comes to image and photo sizes and resolutions.

Multimedia / Animation

  • Using sound – sound needs to be heard to be effective. Tiny laptop speakers are not going to work in a large auditorium.  If you use sound, make sure the audience can hear you.
  • The same rules apply to animations and video. They need to be large and loud so they can be effective.  Video also makes your presentation files big and slow.  A low powered laptop will have a hard time displaying a presentation and a video at the same time.  A low powered laptop or tablet might drop frames or stutter.  This makes your presentation look unprofessional.
  • Animating text and other elements is ok if it adds to the understanding of the slide. Don’t animate text for the sake of animation.  It is annoying.

 Slide Transitions

  • Keep slide transitions simple. Avoid using weird transitions like window panes or rotating screens.  They are unprofessional.
  • Avoid using sound transitions. A ding or beep with every new slide is ok for a single slide but will drive your audience crazy if it is used for every slide.
  • A good way to animate words on slides without actually animating is to use identical slides with one word or words changed. As you transition from slide to slide it will appear the changes are magically happening when really you are just advancing slides.  Be careful to make the slides identical or it will appear as the whole slide is sliding or shifting around.  That is disconcerting to watch.
  • I recommend using a simple “wipe up” transition. This sets your audience’s eyes for the next slide and it is simple and fast.  You might also consider using “wipe left “ or “wipe right” for topic transitions and “wipe up” for slide transitions.  I have used this successfully for many presentations.

 Font Sizes

  • Fonts need to be visible from the back of the room. A good rule of thumb is never to use any font smaller than 18 pt.  Depending on the size of the screen, 18 pt is generally legible from almost 20 feet away.  Make sure your fonts are at least 1 inch (projected)  tall for every 10 feet viewing distance.
  • If you need to fit more information on a slide, don’t make the font smaller, make the font NARROWER.
  • Sans Serif fonts are best for titles, Serif fonts are better for body text. That said, most presentations are almost entirely titles and should not have any body text.  But if you create handouts, you might use Serif fonts for better readability.
  • In general, title fonts should be 45-55 pt.
  • Remember, stick to one or two fonts for the entire presentation. Black on yellow is the highest contrast most readable color combination.  But, black and yellow is a “bumblebee” color scheme, so be careful.

 Presentation Do’s and Don’ts

  • Practice your presentation. Speak it out loud to yourself, don’t just play it through your head.  Talking is different than thinking.  You need to practice how you will phrase your words and the only way to do that is to say it out loud.
  • Don’t read off the slide. Your audience has already read the slide faster than you can say it and if you read the slide you will turn your back to the audience, big no-no.  Always face the audience, not the screen.
  • Use short bullet points and fill in detail with your words. Don’t write whole paragraphs in your bullets.
  • Always test your technology BEFORE the presentation. You don’t want any issues when it is time to present.

Wrap It Up

  • Before you present, check ALL your spelling and grammar. Make sure the client’s name and logo are correct if you are presenting to a prospect or client.
  • Is your presentation clear, consistent and logical? Do you say one thing on one slide and something contradictory on another?
  • Keep it simple. Did you meet your goals for the presentation?  Did you successfully communicate your ideas and did the audience understand?  If they did, congratulations you gave a good presentation.
  • Leave time for questions at the end in case someone didn’t understand a part of your presentation.
  • Don’t forget copyright issues, respect other’s work and give credit where it is due and attribution if required.

 Take the PowerPoint Quiz – Learn PowerPoint

Take some time to learn how to use the PowerPoint program. Sharpen your application knowledge, it will help you in the long run. Do you know these PowerPoint features?

  • Master slides
  • Slide and element animation
  • Slide Sorter
  • Outline View
  • Grouping
  • Notes page / Handouts
  • Nudge and guides
  • Inserting pictures and graphs
  • Design Ideas
  • Timing and transitions
  • PPS files
  • Presenter View

PowerPoint can be a great tool if you use it right.  If you have any other PowerPoint tips, please share them in the comments.  Happy Presenting!

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