PowerPoint Do’s and Don’ts

Advice from the Experts—And Me

PowerPoint started in 1987, over 30 years ago, which makes it older than many of the people who use it today. When I first saw a PowerPoint presentation, chock-full of eye-popping animations and transitions, I lost all interest in what was being presented in my fascination with how it was presented.

And that was, and is, the central problem with PowerPoint: the medium can easily supersede the message.

Nowadays, especially, every one of us has seen every one of the special effects that PowerPoint has to offer. And those special effects, now as then, get in the way of people focusing on the content of the presentation.

It’s easy to spot a presentation assembled by somebody just discovering PowerPoint: every slide contains too much text, transitions are different from slide to slide, animations are different within each slide, even the underlying theme or template changes from slide to slide.

To avoid a PowerPoint disaster, I have assembled what I consider to be sound advice to be considered when you are putting together a PowerPoint—edited and enhanced by some commentary of my own. (For clarity, my alterations and additions are in italics.)

Our first expert is presentation consultant and best-selling author Garr Reynolds, who offers 10 tips for better PowerPoint presentations:

1. Keep it Simple. PowerPoint slides were never meant to be the “star of the show.” Don’t let your message and your ability to tell a story get derailed by slides that are unnecessarily complicated, busy, or full of what Edward Tufte calls “chart junk.” Nothing in your slide should be superfluous, ever. Your slides should have plenty of “white space” or “negative space.” The less clutter you have on your slide, the more powerful your visual message will become.

2. Limit bullet points & text. Boring your audience with bullet point after bullet point is of little benefit to them. The best slides may have no text at all. The best PowerPoint slides will be virtually meaningless without the presenter. Remember, the slides are meant to support the narration of the speaker, not make the speaker superfluous.

3. Limit transitions & animation. Use animation and slide transitions judiciously. If you must use them, stick to the most subtle and professional (similar to what you might see on the evening TV news broadcast). Listeners will get bored very quickly if they are asked to endure slide after slide of animation. For transitions between slides, your best bet is to use none, or a simple wipe or fade. We’ve seen them all, and mostly they get in the way.

4. Use high-quality graphics. Your images should be at a resolution of 150 pixels per inch. (Websites generally use 72 ppi; high-quality printing uses 300.) Never simply stretch a small, low-resolution photo to make it fit your layout—doing so will degrade the resolution even further. Avoid using PowerPoint Clip Art or other cartoonish line art. If it is included in the software, your audience has seen it a million times before. It may have been interesting in 1993, but today the inclusion of such clip art often undermines the professionalism of the presenter. Images of people help the audience connect with your slides on a more emotional level.

5. Have a visual theme, but avoid using PowerPoint templates. You clearly need a consistent visual theme throughout your presentation, but most templates included in PowerPoint have been seen by your audience countless times (and besides, the templates are not all that great to begin with).

6. Use appropriate charts. Always be asking yourself, “How much detail do I need?” Presenters are usually guilty of including too much data in their on-screen charts. Regardless of the type of chart you use—pie, bar, line—keep your slices/bars/lines to no more than six or eight.

7. Use color well. The right color can help persuade and motivate. Studies show that color usage can increase interest and improve learning comprehension and retention. Cool colors (such as blue and green) work best for backgrounds as they appear to recede away from us into the background. Warm colors (such as orange and red) generally work best for objects in the foreground (such as text) because they appear to be coming at us. Probably the most common PowerPoint color scheme is yellow text on a blue background. (The most readable combination is white on green; highway departments all over the world know their stuff.)

8. Choose your fonts well. Use the same font set throughout your entire slide presentation, and use no more than two complementary fonts (e.g., Arial and Arial Bold). For on-screen presentations serif fonts (like Times New Roman) are harder to read due to the relatively low resolution of projectors. San-serif fonts (like Arial or Helvetica) are generally best for PowerPoint presentations. Regardless of what font you choose, make sure the text can be read from the back of the room.

9. Use video or audio. Using video clips to show concrete examples promotes active cognitive processing, which is the natural way people learn. Using a video clip not only will illustrate your point better, it will also serve as a change of pace thereby increasing the interest of your audience. You can use audio clips (such as interviews) as well. But avoid cheesy sound effects that are included in PowerPoint—that is a sure way to lose credibility with your audience.

10. Spend time in the slide sorter. People comprehend better when information is presented in small chunks. By getting out of the Slide View and into the Slide Sorter view, you can see how the logical flow of your presentation is progressing. In this view you will be able to see more clearly what the presentation looks like to your audience. You will be able to identify more easily what needs to be broken into two or three slides — and what should be dumped.

In addition to the list of tips as presented by Mr. Reynolds, there are a bunch of formulas afoot that serve as shorthand to remind you of the best practices as you are putting together a PowerPoint presentation.

There is, for example, the “5/5/5” Rule: No more than five words per line of text, five lines of text per slide, or five text-heavy slides in a row.

And then there is the “10/20/30” Rule: A PowerPoint presentation should have ten slides, last no more than twenty minutes, and contain no font smaller than thirty points.

For our purposes — and to observe the “Rule of Threes” — I will end with the “7×7” Rule: A PowerPoint slide should have no more than seven lines of text and no more than seven words in each of those lines.

While each of those rules begs to be broken, they all serve to underscore the basic principles of composing a PowerPoint presentation:

  • Brevity
  • Simplicity
  • Complementarity (your slides are to enhance your presentation, not be the presentation).
  • Visual appeal

I think all of the tips and rules mentioned here and elsewhere can be summed up thusly:

Once you put together what you consider to be the ultimate kick-ass PowerPoint presentation, cut the number of slides in half. Then cut the number of words on each slide in half.

Now you have, if not the ultimate kick-ass presentation, at least one that will keep your audience engaged, informed, and entertained from beginning to end.