Slideshows are an intuitive way to share complex ideas with an audience, although they’re dull and frustrating when poorly executed. Here are some tips to make your Microsoft PowerPoint presentations sing while avoiding common pitfalls.
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It all starts with identifying what we’re trying to achieve with the presentation. Is it informative, a showcase of data in an easy-to-understand medium? Or is it more of a pitch, something meant to persuade and convince an audience and lead them to a particular outcome?
It’s here where the majority of these presentations go wrong with the inability to identify the talking points that best support our goal. Always start with a goal in mind: to entertain, to inform, or to share data in a way that’s easy to understand. Use facts, figures, and images to support your conclusion while keeping structure in mind (Where are we now and where are we going?).
I’ve found that it’s helpful to start with the ending. Once I know how to end a presentation, I know how best to get to that point. I start by identifying the takeaway—that one nugget that I want to implant before thanking everyone for their time—and I work in reverse to figure out how best to get there.
Your mileage, of course, may vary. But it’s always going to be a good idea to put in the time in the beginning stages so that you aren’t reworking large portions of the presentation later. And that starts with a defined goal.
A slideshow isn’t supposed to include everything. It’s an introduction to a topic, one that we can elaborate on with speech. Anything unnecessary is a distraction. It makes the presentation less visually appealing and less interesting, and it makes you look bad as a presenter.
This goes for text as well as images. There’s nothing worse, in fact, than a series of slides where the presenter just reads them as they appear. Your audience is capable of reading, and chances are they’ll be done with the slide, and browsing Reddit, long before you finish. Avoid putting the literal text on the screen, and your audience will thank you.
Right off the bat, we’re just going to come out and say that Papyrus and Comic Sans should be banned from all PowerPoint presentations, permanently. Beyond that, it’s worth considering the typeface you’re using and what it’s saying about you, the presenter, and the presentation itself.
Consider choosing readability over aesthetics, and avoid fancy fonts that could prove to be more of a distraction than anything else. A good presentation needs two fonts: a serif and sans-serif. Use one for the headlines and one for body text, lists, and the like. Keep it simple. Veranda, Helvetica, Arial, and even Times New Roman are safe choices. Stick with the classics and it’s hard to botch this one too badly.
There reaches a point where bullet points become less of a visual aid and more of a visual examination.
Bullet points should support the speaker, not overwhelm his audience. The best slides have little or no text at all, in fact. As a presenter, it’s our job to talk through complex issues, but that doesn’t mean that we need to highlight every talking point.
Instead, think about how you can break up large lists into three or four bullet points. Carefully consider whether you need to use more bullet points, or if you can combine multiple topics into a single point instead. And if you can’t, remember that there’s no one limiting the number of slides you can have in a presentation. It’s always possible to break a list of 12 points down into three pages of four points each.
Animation, when used correctly, is a good idea. It breaks up slow-moving parts of a presentation and adds action to elements that require it. But it should be used judiciously.
Adding a transition that wipes left to right between every slide or that animates each bullet point in a list, for example, starts to grow taxing on those forced to endure the presentation. Viewers get bored quickly, and animations that are meant to highlight specific elements quickly become taxing.
That’s not to say that you can’t use animations and transitions, just that you need to pick your spots. Aim for no more than a handful of these transitions for each presentation. And use them in spots where they’ll add to the demonstration, not detract from it.
Sometimes images tell a better story than text can. And as a presenter, your goal is to describe points in detail without making users do a lot of reading. In these cases, a well-designed visual, like a chart, might better convey the information you’re trying to share.
The right image adds visual appeal and serves to break up longer, text-heavy sections of the presentation—but only if you’re using the right images. A single high-quality image can make all the difference between a success and a dud when you’re driving a specific point home.
When considering text, don’t think solely in terms of bullet points and paragraphs. Tables, for example, are often unnecessary. Ask yourself whether you could present the same data in a bar or line chart instead.
Color is interesting. It evokes certain feelings and adds visual appeal to your presentation as a whole. Studies show that color also improves interest, comprehension, and retention. It should be a careful consideration, not an afterthought.
You don’t have to be a graphic designer to use color well in a presentation. What I do is look for palettes I like, and then find ways to use them in the presentation. There are a number of tools for this, like Adobe Color, Coolors, and ColorHunt, just to name a few. After finding a palette you enjoy, consider how it works with the presentation you’re about to give. Pastels, for example, evoke feelings of freedom and light, so they probably aren’t the best choice when you’re presenting quarterly earnings that missed the mark.
It’s also worth mentioning that you don’t need to use every color in the palette. Often, you can get by with just two or three, though you should really think through how they all work together and how readable they’ll be when layered. A simple rule of thumb here is that contrast is your friend. Dark colors work well on light backgrounds, and light colors work best on dark backgrounds.
Spend some time in the Slide Sorter before you finish your presentation. By clicking the four squares at the bottom left of the presentation, you can take a look at multiple slides at once and consider how each works together. Alternatively, you can click “View” on the ribbon and select “Slide Sorter.”
Are you presenting too much text at once? Move an image in. Could a series of slides benefit from a chart or summary before you move on to another point?
It’s here that we have the opportunity to view the presentation from beyond the single-slide viewpoint and think in terms of how each slide fits, or if it fits at all. From this view, you can rearrange slides, add additional ones, or delete them entirely if you find that they don’t advance the presentation.
The difference between a good presentation and a bad one is really all about preparation and execution. Those that respect the process and plan carefully—not only the presentation as a whole, but each slide within it—are the ones who will succeed.
This brings me to my last (half) point: When in doubt, just buy a template and use it. You can find these all over the web, though Creative Market and GraphicRiver are probably the two most popular marketplaces for this kind of thing. Not all of us are blessed with the skills needed to design and deliver an effective presentation. And while a pre-made PowerPoint template isn’t going to make you a better presenter, it will ease the anxiety of creating a visually appealing slide deck.
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