Tips and Tricks For Your Next Powerpoint Presentation

Since its first public version in 1987, Microsoft’s Powerpoint software has been ubiquitous in presentations, to the point “powerpoint presentation” is sometimes used as a synonymous for “business presentation”.

The software changed the way we made presentations. Adding visual elements to a speech is way easier than it was before, when we had to manually write on blackboards or use actual, physical slides. Public speakers can now include diagrams, pictures, text fragments, tables and even audio or video clips to their presentations. Over the last 3 decades, Powerpoint has been used, re-used and overused, to the point it became eventually trendy to hate it.

Yeah, it has been overused from time to time, and it still is. Honestly, most slideshows I see contain way too much information or suck for one reason or another. However, I believe powerpoint (or any alternative software) can greatly enhance a presentation if it is used correctly. Emphasis being put on correctly. There are tons of things to do, and more importantly of things not to do with it. In this article I’ll talk about some of them.

I’ll focus on how to design slides, during the preparation and rehearsal phase, i.e before the actual presentation. I’ll talk about how to deliver a presentation with slides later, in another article.

PowerPoint version 1.0, in 1987
The version first version of PowerPoint, in 1987, when it was not a Microsoft product yet.

Powerpoint Design Rule #1: Err On The Side Of Simplicity

The #1 mistake speakers make when they design their slideshow is to put way too much information in it. Granted, speakers actually tend to put too much information in their speech too, so the problem is definitely not limited to powerpoint, and it’s something I address in my Crash Course On Public Speaking, but that’s another story.

I mean, sure, you can put a ton of information in a slide, and you can put as many slides as you want in a slideshow. But just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

And the solution is pretty simple: rather than trying to put everything in your slides, and to cram in as many slides as possible, just try to do the opposite. Try to put as few information in your slides as possible!

French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry once wrote these famous words:

“Perfection is Achieved Not When There Is Nothing More to Add, But When There Is Nothing Left to Take Away.”

So, how can you try to achieve perfection in your slideshow? Let’s see.

Have A Clean And Simple Template

Sometimes, you are forced to use the powerpoint template that is provided by your teacher, your company or the organizer of the conference you are talking at. This is good news, because that’s one thing you don’t have to worry about.

In case you have to make your own template though, you can rely on the following basic rules.

Use A Sans Serif Font, Like Arial

A sans serif font is one witout any extension at the end of strokes. It’s a bit hard to explain, so let me give you an example: “times new roman” is a serif font, while “arial” is a sans serif font. Use your favorite word processor, or, heck, Powerpoint, and compare both fonts. While serif fonts are preferred in printed texts, like books or newspapers, they are not that great on webpages and slideshows. Sans serif fonts are easier to read on a screen, especially from the back of the room.

Oh, and for god’s sake, don’t use “comic sans”, unless you’re a 9-year-old kid. It’s the best way to annihilate your credibility.

Use Highly Contrasting Colors

Like, black text on white background. Or, very dark gray on very light gray. Yeah, this is not very cute and sophisticated, but visually impaired people in the audience will thank you for not using medium gray on light pink.

If you don’t want to follow this advice, fine, but remember the colors on your screen won’t necessarily look the same on the projection screen.

Don’t Use Fancy Animations

I’m talking about animations between slides. Don’t use them. Please. Everybody hates them. They are distracting and make you look like an amateur. There is no excuse for using them.

Don’t Spend Too Much Time On Your Template

Remember, you have a presentation to make, and you have a deadline. Your powerpoint template is probably the least important aspect of your presentation.

If you have too much time (lucky you) and don’t know what to do, use it to rehearse one more time. But don’t use your powerpoint template as an excuse to procrastinate.

OK, you have a template, now let’s focus on the slides’ content.

Make A First Draft ASAP

In a first time, just make your slideshow as fast as possible. To do so, you must give full powers to your creative side and shut off your inner critic. Here are the rules you must follow:

  • don’t try to make your slides fancy,
  • don’t try to make them grammatically correct,
  • don’t try to make them factually correct,
  • don’t worry about putting too much or too little text on the slides,
  • don’t worry about having too many or not enough slides,
  • don’t censor yourself.

Just produce your slideshow as fast as possible without thinking twice.

You’re done? Good, now it’s time to edit it drastically.

Reduce The Total Number Of Slides

The usual, conservative rule is to say you should have no more than one slide for 2 minutes of presentation. For instance, if you’re going to talk for 20 minutes, you should have about 10 slides. A more generous rule states you should have no more than one slide per minute, meaning you should have between 10 and 20 slides for your 20-minutes talk.

I think that’s a good starting point, but you can do better. Everytime you make a slide, try to rehearse the presentation with it, then without it. Was it better with it? Did you have a harder time to deliver your message without the slide?

If so, just keep it and move on to the next step.

If it didn’t improve your presentation, just remove it. That slide would only have distracted your audience.

Now, this technique will probably make you remove a lot of your slides. Maybe most of them. Heck, maybe all of them. Good for you! Remember: you’re not there to show slides, you’re there to deliver a message. If your slideshow doesn’t help you deliver your message, just get rid of it.

Reduce The Number Of Words On Each Slide

Now, you should only have a small number of slides left, and all of them are required to get your message across. Good. Do you think you’re done?

No, you’re not. Look at your slides. I bet you they are overcrowded with text.

“Oh no!” You must be thinking. “What can I do Fabien? Please, help me!”

Sure. The solution is easy actually: you just have to do what you did when you removed whole slides. On each slide, just keep one word. Yes, let me repeat that, because if I don’t I’m pretty sure you won’t do it: just keep 1 (one) word! Choose it wisely, and try to rehearse your speech again. Did you have a harder time getting your message across? Then add another word, and another one again, until you have as few words as needed to deliver your message.

Now, I’ll be honest. You will probably need more than one single word on most of your slides. But you’d be surprised how often just one, or maybe just 3 words, are all you need. And if you have a hard time reducing the number of words on your slides, here are a few more rules:

  • don’t make complete sentences on your slides,
  • use a little punctuation as possible; if you need to use punctuation, you are probably trying to put whole sentences on your slides,
  • remember the text is not there to help you remember what you have to say during the presentation, it’s only there for the audience’s benefit,
  • if you have more than 5 bullet points on a slide, split them on 2 different slides; yes, that means, after this phase, you might have more slides than you thought you needed, and it’s perfectly okay.

Good! We’re almost done. Let’s move on to tables and diagrams.

Simplify Your Tables And Diagrams

NATO 2009 slide
You don't want your slide to look like this 2009 NATO diagram.

With tables and diagrams, it’s the same as with text. It’s even more important actually. You want your tables and diagrams to contain as little information as needed. Don’t try to put all the information for the sake of completeness.

For instance, let’s say you include historical data about past sales in your presentation. If, in your speech, you only talk about sales in Europe for the years 2015 to 2019, you shouldn’t include a table that mentions sales prior to 2015, or sales in America. Yeah, I know you researched or produced all that data and you want to show how proud you are of your hard work. But since it doesn’t serve your message, just get rid of it. It would only confuse the audience.

And Now… Rehearse One More Time

Good! By now, you should have a small number of slides with very little information on each of them. You have a lean Powerpoint slideshow that will serve you and your message, rather than distract your audience.

Your last step before actually giving your presentation is to rehearse, and do it again, and again. How do you know you’re ready? This is not a hard rule, but ideally you should be able to deliver your presentation without ever having to look at your slides. If you can keep eye contact with your audience while delivering your speech, without looking either at your laptop or the projection screen, believe me, you will look incredibly confident and professional. Yes, I know it’s hard to keep eye contact with the audience when you suffer from stage fright, but that should be your goal eventually.

Anyway, I’ll talk about powerpoint and delivery in a later article.