Tips and Techniques
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
PowerPoint, together with some ideas about how to avoid them.
Too many words.
There are many different guidelines about the maximum number of words
should be on one slide. The rule of 4 by 5 says four bullet points of
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
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
challenging activity. I've seen purported presentations with 100 or
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
use a handout.
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.
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
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
Too much time on one slide.
The idea of a PowerPoint presentation is to supply a visual aid while
talk. Bullet points or graphics help support and clarify your
But if you leave one slide up too long, your audience will lose focus
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
and interesting and possibly good looking, and if you tell stories
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
the points on the slide with the presenter. Otherwise, keep it snappy
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
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
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
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
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
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
People love visuals--whether for the purposes of evidence, example,
or just decoration. You can make an otherwise hard-to-endure
into something quite passable by adding some pictures--or diagrams or
visuals. Pictures aid memory, add interest, and keep the audience
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,
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
Compare the difference,
noting the natural feel of the second version
in each example:
- Use wildcard symbol to expand search.
- Use a wildcard symbol to expand the search.
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:
- Gift bowl contains orange, apple, pear.
- The gift bowl contains an orange, an apple, and a pear.
- Defect found in fuel injection system.
- The defect was found in the fuel injection system. OR
- A defect has been found in the fule injection system..
Gimmicky transitions and effects.
Here is a case where you shouldn't do something just because you can.
has all kinds of possible transitions between slides and all kinds of
effects within each slide. But in a professional business setting, a
of pinwheels can appear almost childish. So test your effects before
include them. I don't normally use any transitions between slides,
instead to use the default "appear." I do use various entrance effects
to display bullet points individually (see below). If you like
between slides, for professional presentations, stick to one style or
related styles (such as slide in from left and slide in from right). If
some elements of your presentation call attention to themselves as
your audience will be distracted from the content. An analogy is
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
a lot of make up." Similarly, if you have a bunch of gimmicky, garish
that call attention to themselves, your audience, instead of saying,
what an effective presentation," will say, "My, what a bunch of
Corny sound effects.
Showing a switch rotate and supplying a click at the right time is a
use of sound effects. But setting off buzzers, bells, whistles,
sounds, and the like just for random effect will certainly reduce your
street cred among the members of your audience.
Tips for Better Presentations
It sometimes amazes me how many PowerPoint presentations are still
black and white. Color doesn't cost anything to put in a presentation.
Find a colorful template, add color photos, change font colors, do
to appeal to the color sense.
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
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
"Something should be revealed and something should be concealed." For
writing students out there, that means that in those short essays for
high school or college classes, don't list in the introduction every
you plan to develop. Okay, I'll get focused now. It's really best not
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
a time when you are ready to discuss them. This technique helps
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.)
Graphics add visual appeal. And pictures are processed by the brain
quickly and easily than text. A diagram can make a process or idea
almost immediately where words alone would simply not work. Metaphors
as a picture of a puzzle when you're discussing problem solving) help
concepts in memory. Graphics can help explain and illustrate--and hold
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
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.
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).
About the author:
2008, 2013 by Robert Harris | How to cite this
w w . v i r t u a l s a l t . c o m
Robert Harris is a writer
and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the
and university level. RHarris at virtualsalt.com