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PowerPoint Tips and Techniques

Robert Harris
Version Date: December 9, 2013

Previous Version: October 1, 2008




As both the creator and recipient (often victim) of many PowerPoint presentations, I would like to share some basic ideas for making these presentations more effective.
 

Tips for Avoiding Death by PowerPoint

Here is a list of bad presentation practices that contribute to Death by PowerPoint, together with some ideas about how to avoid them.
 

Too many words.

There are many different guidelines about the maximum number of words that should be on one slide. The rule of 4 by 5 says four bullet points of five words each. The rule of 33 says a maximum of 33 words per slide. There isn't really a single, hard and fast rule. The basic idea is that too many words make the audience a bunch of bookworms (screenworms?) instead of listeners. And, of course, the more words you try to put on one slide, the smaller the type needs to be, making reading the slide an increasingly challenging activity. I've seen purported presentations with 100 or even 150 words on a slide. Good thing the type was too small to read because no one wanted to read all that anyway. If you have that many words to present, use a handout.

power point templates
War Story
In my early days as an instructional designer, I experienced "PowerPoint by Committee," which over the years I learned is always a disaster. In this case, we were on a conference call, and several people kept insisting on adding sentences to a single slide. I kept warning them that there were already way too many words, but the individuals (who had higher positions that I did) continued to insist. We ended up with perhaps 150 or maybe 200 words on the slide--no graphics, no white space, just a slide of slam-it-in-your-face words that no one could read because of the small font needed.

Resolve the Presentation-Versus-Reference Conflict.
One major source of unreadable slides with hundreds of words or microscopic flow charts on them is that the slides are prepared to serve as reference documents in a printed slide deck. The presenters only pretend to present the slides on the screen, and the audience must have reference to the printed deck in order to see the content. Alternately, these "presentations" made over the Web allow the viewers to see readable slides up close on their screens. Suggestion: If you need detailed reference decks, go ahead and create them. But if you are going to present the information to a live audience in a room. don't project the slides. Create placeholder slides, such as one that says, "Inventory Trending Up" together with a nice, simple graphic (an up arrow, a line chart with a swooping up line, etc.) and project that while you call attention to the printout that each member of the audience has..

Another problem with too many words is that your audience will be busy (1) trying to read the entire slide  and (2) taking notes about what's on the slide and (3) not listening to your discussion. A slide filled with words shouts, "Ignore the presenter!"

So, plan to have between 0 (that's right, zero) and 20 words on a slide. The fewer the words, the more impact each word has, the more deeply the picture or symbol will sink in, and the more attentive to your elaboration your audience will ble. If you have a lot of content to cover,  you will need a lot of slides. But that's okay. Keep reading.
 

Too much time on one slide.

The idea of a PowerPoint presentation is to supply a visual aid while you talk. Bullet points or graphics help support and clarify your discussion. But if you leave one slide up too long, your audience will lose focus and their attention will wander. There just isn't that much on one slide to find interesting for more than a minute or two. If you're really dynamic and interesting and possibly good looking, and if you tell stories well, you might squeeze three minutes out of a slide. The only exceptions might be a slide with an embedded video (of a maximum of about five minutes, with three minutes a better target) or a slide that serves as a place holder while the audience does an exercise or discusses the points on the slide with the presenter. Otherwise, keep it snappy and move along.

The New Theory of Presentations
Mention to an old-school presenter that  you have a 90-slide PowerPoint deck to deliver during your 15-minute segment, and he or she will either laugh or object strenuously. That's because old-school presenters are used to slides with four or five bullet points each, with each bullet point being discussed for two or three or five or ten minutes. Hence, a 15-minute presentation would need two or three slides. That type of presentation is great, except for three small problems: (1) they are crashingly boring, (2) they lack engagement, (3) the content cannot be remembered. Oh, and (4) no one likes to sit through them.

If you have closely watched anything on TV or film,  you will have noticed that individual scenes are generally quite short. Get out your stopwatch and measure the amount of time before a scend changes. It's often two or three seconds. Whether it's the evening TV news or a music video, or a new film, the producers deliver short scenes as a means of maintaining our attention--by demanding it. So, as a culture, we have been programmed to expect quick changes when we watch anything. If we don't see novelty and change and newness, we lose interest and grow bored.

The solution is to chop up your content  into  small pieces and put it on multiple slides, each of which you display for a relatively short time. In the example above, 90 slides in 15 minutes gives you 10 seconds per slide on average. This might break down to some slides with just a picture or a few words (I like to have slides that say, "So What?") that display for just two or three seconds, while other slides stay up for perhaps 30 seconds while you talk about the idea.

Old-school presentations can be converted to New Theory by putting one bullet on one slide, so that your old, five-bullet slide that you talked about for five minutes, becomes five slides witih a minute each.  To grow and go further, you  can chop up each of  those five slides into three or four pieces (depending on how many sentences you use to discuss each slide) an create a slide for each piece. Four slides for a previously one-minute slide yields 15 seconds per slide. Therefore, your old one-slide, five-minute discussion becomes 20 slides discussed for fifteen seconds each (total time = still five minutes!). Fifteen seconds is a good amount of time for a slide.

So, plan to spend between five seconds and three minutes on a slide, with many slides remaining up for 15 to 30 seconds. Frequent slide changes are needed nowadays.

A Word of Caution
If you adopt these recommendations and develop, say, a 90-slide deck for a 15-minute presentation, do not put a label on each slide that says, "Slide 1 of 90." Until your audience gets used to the new theory, they will assume that 90 slides will create a six-hour brain fry. Oh, and if asked how many slides you have in your deck, don't say "I have 90 slides," but say, "I have 15 minutes' worth of slides."
 
Try It Before You Reject It
If you are skeptical about spending only five or ten or fifteen seconds on a slide, try it once and see what your audience thinks.
If you want to see some good, effective models, go to slideshare.net and search on "presentations on presentations."

Too little time on one slide.

Remember, it's a presentation, not channel surfing. Flashing through slides with substantial content on each one is dizzying and confusing. You might even have had something someone found interesting on one of those passing slides, in which case your audience will be both confused and irritated. A typical reader of slide text can read 3 to 5 words per second, and then needs some mental processing time (comprehension, conceptualization, and contextualization), so be sure to allow time for the words to sink in. If all you have is a picture, you still should allow time for it to be recognized and comprehended.

So, as a general guideline, spend at least five seconds on a slide. And think carefully about putting several five-second slides in sequence, because that can overwhelm your audience, regardless of the content--unless, for example, you are showing multiple photographic examples of something.  Relax and take the time to discuss the point of each slide. Explain that graph. Interpret the photo..
 

Too much content.

PowerPoint presentations should be designed to present an overview, a gist, a summary of something, not a detailed, long-winded exposition. To wax metaphorical, PowerPoint is for writing sonnets, not novels. A good presentation should last no longer than 20 minutes. After that, even for compelling information presented professionally, the audience begins to think about lunch. (Note that many "1 hour" Webinars include presentations of 20 or perhaps 30 minutes: introductions at the front, Q&A at then end leave 40 minutes for two 20-minute presentations.) Got lots of content? Presenting that new 1000-page regulation? Put the details in a handout or reference a link online. If you think you are going to present the details of 43 changes from last year and expect anyone to remember them, please do some reading in cognitive psychology.
 

Slides that are all words.

Presentations that are all words are the most snoozy and boring possible. People love visuals--whether for the purposes of evidence, example, illustration, or just decoration. You can make an otherwise hard-to-endure presentation into something quite passable by adding some pictures--or diagrams or other visuals. Pictures aid memory, add interest, and keep the audience looking at the slide. If all you have are words, why project them? Why aren't you just handing out a sheet of paper and talking about that instead?
 

Bullet points that sound like shorthand.

When you write the bullet points on a slide and leave out some of the words to save space, the result is a kind of non-English that sounds wooden and almost hostile. A common practice is leaving out the articles (a, an, the). People (native English speakers, at least) don't really talk without articles, so when we see this language in bullet points, it comes across as klunky.
power point templates
Compare the difference, noting the natural feel of the second version in each example: Similarly, when other words are omitted that are important to the meaning or that increase the smoothness and naturalness of the sentence, the result is again clumsy and stilted. Compare:

Gimmicky transitions and effects.

Here is a case where you shouldn't do something just because you can. PowerPoint has all kinds of possible transitions between slides and all kinds of possible effects within each slide. But in a professional business setting, a bunch of pinwheels can appear almost childish. So test your effects before you include them. I don't normally use any transitions between slides, preferring instead to use the default "appear." I do use various entrance effects to display bullet points individually (see below). If you like transitions between slides, for professional presentations, stick to one style or two related styles (such as slide in from left and slide in from right). If some elements of your presentation call attention to themselves as elements, your audience will be distracted from the content. An analogy is women's make up. If you can see the make up, it's too much. Instead of saying, "My, that woman is pretty," an observer says, "My, that woman is wearing a lot of make up." Similarly, if you have a bunch of gimmicky, garish effects that call attention to themselves, your audience, instead of saying, "My, what an effective presentation," will say, "My, what a bunch of gimmicky effects."
 

Corny sound effects.

Showing a switch rotate and supplying a click at the right time is a great use of sound effects. But setting off buzzers, bells, whistles, crashing sounds, and the like just for random effect will certainly reduce your street cred among the members of your audience.
 

Tips for Better Presentations

Use color.

It sometimes amazes me how many PowerPoint presentations are still basically black and white. Color doesn't cost anything to put in a presentation. Find a colorful template, add color photos, change font colors, do something to appeal to the color sense.
 

Use contrast.

Breaking News. This Just In. Text on a PowerPoint slide is intended to be read. So don't put dark gray text on a black background or light yellow text on a white background. Be sure that your text and background have substantial contrast with each other. White letters on dark blue, black letters on white, something easy to read.
 

Display bullet points individually.

Someone famous (Samuel Johnson? Aristotle?) said that in writing (and here I paraphrase because I'm too lazy to hunt for hours for the exact quotation), "Something should be revealed and something should be concealed." For any writing students out there, that means that in those short essays for your high school or college classes, don't list in the introduction every point you plan to develop. Okay, I'll get focused now. It's really best not to flash on your audience's eyeballs all the bullet points on a slide all at once. Use one of the many entrance effects to make them appear one at a time when you are ready to discuss them. This technique helps maintain your audience's focus and interest. (Of course, if you have been paying attention,  you will remember my recommendation to put only one bullet point on a slide from now on.)
 

Add graphics.

Graphics add visual appeal. And pictures are processed by the brain more quickly and easily than text. A diagram can make a process or idea clear almost immediately where words alone would simply not work. Metaphors (such as a picture of a puzzle when you're discussing problem solving) help cement concepts in memory. Graphics can help explain and illustrate--and hold interest.

Animated gifs work very well, depending on the gif and your audience. Good photographs can bring power and clarity to the ideas in your presentation for any audience.

Simple line drawings are excellent for teaching concepts because they don't introduce potentially confusing, extraneous information. Overly elaborate drawings or photos can hinder student comprehension.
 

Audio--Music, Narration, and Sound Effects

For self-running slide shows, using narration to discuss the slides provides a great advantage over a completly silent show. Similarly, adding music can increase the emotional appeal of the presentation, resulting in better memory. (Memory is affected by emotion.) Sound effects, if added judiciously, can be an addition to overall effectiveness, also.

Video

The newer versions of PowerPoint enable you to imbed video content. You can also link out to a video on the Web. And, in PowerPoint 2010 and later, you can Save As a .wmv and PowerPoint will convert your deck into a show. (Be sure to go to Slide Show, Rehearse Timings [PowerPoint 2010] and set up your show timings first).

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About the author:
Robert Harris is a writer and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the college and university level. RHarris at virtualsalt.com