Tips and Techniques
Version Date: 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.
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 two or three minutes. If you're really dynamic
and interesting and possibly good looking, and if you tell stories well,
you might squeeze four or five minutes out of a slide. The only exceptions
to a five-minute warning might be a slide with an embedded video 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. But see the next issue.
Too little time on one slide.
Remember, it's a presentation, not channel surfing. Flashing through slides
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. Relax and take the time to discuss
(not just read!) each bullet. Explain that graph. Interpret the photo.
If a slide isn't worth at least a minute or two of consideration, why did
you include it? A quick transitional slide for, say, humorous impact (like
a slide made with Word Art saying, "But wait! There's more!") can be shown
for just ten seconds, but slides with content need a longer life.
Too many slides.
One reason some presenters spend so little time on each slide is that they
have too many slides to present is a limited amount of time. But, as with
all things, there are natural limits to the desired PowerPoint experience.
Just as you might love a two-hour action adventure film but not like a
six-hour one, so too a PowerPoint presentation of perhaps 20 slides (for
about an hour) is probably pressing the limits of endurance of a PowerPoint
audience. This means, of course, that a deck (as some people call it) of
60 slides is ridiculous. (I've seen a 62-slide presentation with more than
100 words per slide. What exactly was the presenter thinking?) Now, if
you allow breaks for meals and vacations between every few slides, and
if your presentation is stretched out over a long period, you might have
a lot of slides. But is that really going to maintain interest and freshness
and effectiveness? Just because you know how to copy and paste doesn't
mean you should make War and Peace into a PowerPoint presentation.
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
using a sheet of paper instead?
Bullet points that leave out the articles.
When you leave out the articles--the a, an, and the--the
result is a kind of non-English that sounds wooden and almost hostile.
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.
Compare the difference, noting the natural feel of the second example:
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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 gimmick
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
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.
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.
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
Animated gifs work very well. One very good source is Animation
Factory at www.animationfactory.com.
Good photographs can bring power and clarity to the ideas in your presentation.
A great source of free stock photography is Stock.xchng
at www.sxc.hu. And if you have a few dollars, an inexpensive stock
photography site is iStockphoto at
Audio--Music and Sound Effects
The default for PowerPoint 2003 is to link all audio files larger than
100KB, though you can go to Tools, Options, General and raise this minimum.
Even so, in my experience, midi files are linked rather than embedded regardless
of the file size or the setting on the General tab. This means that when
you copy a PowerPoint presentation from one place to another (folder to
desktop, network drive to flash drive), you must copy the audio files also
or you won't have any sound other than those small .wma files that are
When you add a music (or video) file, PowerPoint adds the path as a
link. So, if you are working in D:/MyPowerpoints/Sample.ppt and your audio
file is in F:/Vacation/Sounds/birdcall.wma
PowerPoint is happiest with avi and wmv video files. Because avi files
tend to be huge, wmv is the best choice. It runs nicely inside a slide.
Remember, though, that the video file is linked to the slide rather than
embedded in the PowerPoint itself, so that if you copy the presentation,
you must copy the wmv file(s) also, and keep presentation and video files
in the same folder.
A note on video in PowerPoint over WebEx.
To show a PowerPoint with embedded video over a WebEx presentation,
you must convert the PowerPoint presentation into a Universal Communications
File (.ucf extension) using a PowerPoint plug-in available from WebEx.
You also must allow time for the video to load (once you get to that slide)
at all the connected sites.
About the author:
2008 by Robert Harris | How to cite this page
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 college
and university level. RHarris at virtualsalt.com