Back in the early ’90s when I was a budding graphic designer, I was tasked by my employer with creating a slide presentation using relatively new software called PowerPoint. The process was clunky and frustrating, and the design options were minimal. But I remember being excited about the possibilities this new tool afforded and I have enjoyed working in PowerPoint ever since.
PowerPoint has come a long way since its inception, yet, despite its persistence as the number one choice for slide presentations, its best practices remain elusive. As a member of the creative team here at ECi, I work on most of our presentations, ranging from simple slides to lengthy and detailed charts and graphs. The following are my top six recommendations for conducting optimum presentations:
- Keep it Simple
Your audience has assembled to hear you speak, not to read your slides. If they are reading, they are not paying attention. Your slides are there as a supplement to your presentation, so they need to be easy to digest, yet visually appealing as a backdrop to your story. Keep your slides free of clutter, use “white space” as much as possible, and develop each slide to convey your thoughts at a glance. Only add the most pertinent information to each slide and use carefully selected color and imagery to convey your message.
- Limit Text and Bullets
Hear me out. I know that many of you build slides with the intention of printing them as a take-away document. I get it, but boring your audience with bullet point after bullet point won’t help you get your message across. The rule of thumb, as contradictory as this may sound, is to create slides that will be of little benefit to the audience without you there to expound. It is better to prepare a separate document as a hand-out that outlines what you discussed in the presentation, after your talk. Or, you may choose to record your narration and save the entire package as a .wmv file. If you keep your audience focused on your presentation, not only will they absorb more of what you are saying, but they will feel more connected to you. In addition, you will become a more dynamic and authoritative presenter by not reading from slides.
|DON’T: Use lengthy headlines and bullets||DO: Distill information so it’s easy to digest|
- Limit Animation
I know it’s fun to use bells and whistles. That’s why they’re there, right? Well, yes, but they are meant to be used judiciously to highlight specific points of interest and to keep your audience captivated. Using too many transitions can actually slow down your presentation and hinder your flow of thought, thereby having the opposite effect. Stick to simple animations, such as “wipe left-to-right” to usher in bullets (remember, to keep these to a minimum). If you want to transition from slide to slide, save the animation for the main sections, so the audience knows something new is coming.
- Make it Visual and Use Quality Imagery
Use images, charts, videos, and graphic elements to visually break up the monotony of words, and choose your images wisely. I know it’s tempting to do a Google search and download cartoons. Please don’t, for a number of reasons. Not only are there legal ramifications, but cartoonish images, while cute, are often perceived as unprofessional. This includes PowerPoint clip art, which most of your audience has likely already seen.
These days, stock photography is relatively inexpensive. Sites such as istockphoto.com allow you to purchase photography and illustrations for a relatively nominal fee. Trust me, it’s worth the added expense, as good art and photos make your slides far more emotionally engaging. Of course, you need to be cognizant of how to best use imagery so text that is overlaid is still readable, and so that images are not stretched or squashed. If you choose to overlay text and you are not skilled in manipulating images, choose a simple image that will allow your type to “pop.” Consider light against dark or dark against light.
|DO: Use imagery to keep your slides interesting|
- Choose the Right Fonts and Colors
Fonts: Fonts come in two basic categories, serif (e.g., Times New Roman) and sans serif (e.g., Arial). Serif fonts, the kinds with the small stroke attached to each end, have historically been used to increase the readability of long passages of text, primarily in print. Once projected on a screen, your text will be huge, so I suggest using a sans serif font. This type style is cleaner in appearance and is considered more modern. Remember, we want to keep our slides simple and this letterform embodies simplicity. When selecting a font, make sure to use the same font set throughout your deck.
Colors: Like fonts, color can be divided into two general categories, warm (e.g., red, orange, and yellow) and cool (e.g., green, blue, and purple). For presentation purposes—and this is simplified as color theory is complex—cool colors tend to recede so they work best for backgrounds while warm colors tend to “pop,” so they work well in the foreground. My recommendation is to stick with cools or warms, because crossing cools and warms if not done correctly will usually make your audience’s eyes scream. For example, close your eyes and imagine red on a blue background or green on a red background. The good news is PowerPoint has built-in themes with colors that are pre-selected to be complementary.
|DON’T: Use color schemes that will make your audience cringe||DO: Use complementary colors that are soothing to the eye and easy to read|
Note: For both fonts and colors, I am offering general guidelines. Your brand guidelines will dictate your approach.
- Keep Your Slides Consistent
All of your slides within a presentation should have a singular, cohesive look and feel. I personally prefer to start with a blank slide as I find the templates that PowerPoint provides to be very busy and outdated. That said, if you are new to PowerPoint, using one of their templates will help you to maintain visual consistency. If you are going to start from scratch, it helps to build a stylized and branded template using master slides, so you aren’t reinventing each time you need a presentation. Using one set of fonts, complementary colors, and the same feel in your imagery will look professional and give your presentation a consistent flow.
The final takeaway: Create simple slides that complement your presentation. Keep the bells and whistles to a minimum and use lengthy written explanations and bullets sparingly. Use colors and fonts consistently, and choose images that help tell your story and allow your type to “pop.” Most importantly, remember that slides should only be used to supplement the message of your speech. You are the star. Your audience will thank you.
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