PowerPoint Presentations: Do’s and Don’ts

The problem

Picture this: You attend a meeting a work. The presenter pulls up their white PowerPoint slides cluttered with paragraphs and charts. They drone on about the gap between point A and point B on a complicated graph. Of course, you can see neither point A nor B so you trust that their gap estimate is correct…and significant. Significant enough to take six minutes to cover. You look at your watch. The meeting is nowhere near complete. Though you feel happy for this vacation from your desk, you cannot seem to focus on what the presenter is saying. Speaking of vacation, you think about the tropical destination ad you saw this morning. A beach vacation would be nice…

Does this situation seem all too familiar? For many businesspeople, this is a weekly, if not daily, occurrence. The cycle continues: bad presentation after bad presentation. None are memorable. Few are tolerable. Put bluntly, these presentations are inefficient, ineffective time wasters. Though the present PowerPoint presentation situation feels bleak, you can be the agent of a positive future.

To turn you into a positive agent, let’s cover the dos and don’ts of PowerPoint presentations.

Dos and Don’ts

Don’t confuse your PowerPoint with your presentation. Your presentation includes your speech aiming to reach a goal with your audience (i.e. persuade, inform, educate, etc.). YOU are your presentation. Whether you accept the fact or hide in the dark, YOU either make or break your presentation. PowerPoint, or any other presentation software, whiteboard, chalkboard, paper, etc., is a visual aid. An aid to you, the presenter. A tool for you to either harness or misuse.

Do use visual aids. Though PowerPoint is a tool, not the presentation, using this visual aid does not have to be a bad thing. Visual aids help listeners follow along and understand key points.

Don’t build your presentation based on your PowerPoint. Most presentation preparation should include determining an attention-grabbing opener and closer and appropriate and well-supported content, gathering your thoughts in an organized and easy-to-follow way, and practicing the presentation for extemporaneous delivery, full of great eye contact and expression. A small part of presentation preparation should include preparing a PowerPoint. Unfortunately, many presenters instead use their PowerPoints as notes from which to read. In a study, four hundred fifty-three frequent PowerPoint viewers (1-2 times daily) were asked for the major aspects of PowerPoint presentations that annoyed them most [1]. The most frequent answers were 1) reading word-for-word from slides (71.7%) and 2) including full sentences (48.6%) [1]. The lesson learned: your PowerPoint should not be a written version of your presentation.

Do focus on one message per slide. Putting more than one message on a slide causes the audience to choose which message to focus on and takeaway [2]. Instead, save yourself the slide space and choose one message for your audience per slide.

Don’t overcomplicate your slides. White space (aka “empty” space) on your slide is good. When your slides become too cluttered, the audience will, at best, have a difficult time following, at worst, give up trying to understand. What is too cluttered? For example, if a single slide has more than one chart or graph, the slide is too cluttered. A good rule of thumb is six components per slide, with a component being a single bit of information like a bullet point with text, an image, or a title [2]. David Phillips, a Swedish presentation guru, explained that including any more than six pieces of information forces your audience to use 500% more cognitive resources [2]. Being that humans are energy-savers, this loosely translates to, you will lose your audience’s attention.

Do be careful when using charts and graphs. Though data can be helpful in illustrating a point or backing up an argument, most charts and graphs are too complex to understand quickly. To combat this, presenters will add red lines, data labels, and different markings to clarify [3]. Instead of helping, these marks further clutter the content [3]. If you must use a graph or chart, try using contrast to focus in your audience on the key message. For example, make all the numbers in your chart a faint light gray except the number you wish to focus in on, which can be a solid dark black [2]. Or, to avoid complicated charts and graphs, pull out the significant statistic and write it as a bullet point or phrase.

Don’t use hard-to-read fonts. Stick to serif and sans serif typefaces and use 18-point font or larger [1]. Also, avoid using all uppercase letters. Lowercase letters are easier for your audience to read [1]. Make sure the most important content on your slide stands out due to contrast and also, size [2]. Use larger font sizes for your content, rather than your titles [2].

Do use dark backgrounds on your slides. As stated above, you are your presentation. However, when you stand next to a huge bright screen, the presentation becomes less about you and more about the slides [2]. The audience will be drawn to look at the PowerPoint instead of you. Instead, utilize adept presenter and well-known entrepreneur, Steve Jobs’ technique of dark backgrounds accompanied with minimalism in text and imagery [1].

There you have it. Just four dos and four don’ts for creating infinitely more effective, efficient, and even entertaining PowerPoint slides for your next presentation. This will help your audience focus on you and your message, rather than using your presentation time to plan their next vacation.

 

[1] Hamilton, C., Kroll, T. (2018) Communicating for Results: A Guide for Business and the Professions. (11th ed.). Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Iwpi1Lm6dFo

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kRIcD7v-Vm8

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