You’ve been asked to present a talk at a civic organization. Or you have been accepted to present a paper at a conference. Or maybe a colleague has asked you to do a guest lecture for her class at a local college. Hmm. Is it time to make a PowerPoint presentation? Maybe. Only maybe. If you’ve ever sat through a PowerPoint talk full of slides too hard to read, too packed with information and that went by too fast, you understand my hesitation. Not all PowerPoint presentations are interesting or helpful. Some are downright awful. If you use PowerPoint, you want it to engage your audience, not annoy them.
I’m lucky to have a creative media designer in the family, as well as an active and helpful academic computing department at the local university. My daughter’s advice and computer workshops at the school have totally changed my PowerPoint presentations. As a result, my presentations are now more effective as a teaching tool and much more fun for me to use.
Helpful Hints for Creating Effective PowerPoint Presentations
Plan your presentation before you even touch the computer. Think about the key points you want to make. Write them out in list form. Now make a “storyboard” by sketching out your proposed slides on index cards or scraps of paper. That way you can arrange and rearrange them on your desk before committing anything to the PowerPoint frames. (See below for more on storyboarding.)
Time your speaking speed. Different people go through a slide presentation at different rates. If you talk fast, you’ll need more slides. If slow, you’ll want to limit the number of slides so you’re not whipping through the last ten at the end of your time period. A rule of thumb is that the average person can effectively use about 20 slides for an hour long talk. If you use the first slide for a title and your name and the last one as a summary, you only have about 18 to work with for content.
Here’s an example. If I were to make a storyboard for a 50-minute PowerPoint presentation of this article, it would look something like this:
Keep a consistent look to your slides. It will make your presentation feel more unified, orderly and stable. This also allows you to make a point through a contrasting slide. When one slide stands out due to a change in color or font size or design, it signals to people that it contains the most important information.
Use large type sizes. Headlines should be 18- to 32-point; captions and labels should be 18- to 24-point. Nothing should be smaller than 18 point. This will ensure that people will be able to see what you’ve put on the slide. An added benefit is that limiting yourself to 18 point and above will restrain you from putting too much on a slide. Sans serif fonts are best for readability. Examples are Ariel, Tahoma, and my very favorite, Comic Sans.
Use blank slides strategically. They can signal a transition or a change in topic. You can also use slides to make sure you take time for audience participation. Plan when you want to encourage questions or discussion and put in a slide that says simply “Questions” or “Let’s discuss.”
Drop in images and film clips to demonstrate your points. We live in a digital age. If you want to keep people’s attention, you need to vary your content. There are license-free images for just about anything. If you can’t find what you’re looking for, you can probably draw it. Yes, draw it. You don’t need to be an artist to make simple stick figures and diagrams using the symbols and shapes available in Word.
Here’s what not to do:
Don’t make a slide for every new piece of information. A PowerPoint slide is not your teleprompter. Good slides only state a key point that reengages the participant.
Don’t put too much on a slide. What’s the point of putting it up there if people can’t read it?
Don’t use bullets and lists. They tend to make presenters feel like they have to go line by line through the list. That tends to create a wooden presentation.
Don’t use lots of different graphics and fonts just because you can. Cluttered slides are distracting. Same goes for those fancy themes. (You know: The swoops of color across the bottom; the tie-dye type background, etc.) They make it hard to read your content.
Don’t use the built-in animation. When those special effects first came out, they were interesting and engaging. Now many people just find it annoying to have words buzzing in from the left and right and zooming in and out.
Don’t forget that not everyone “sees” the same way. 20 percent of the male population is red/green color blind. Think about how anything you put in red or green will appear to guys who only see them as shades of gray. You can use different tints instead of red or green to make something stand out. Another consideration is that people with dyslexia can’t read script fonts. Stick with easy-to-read block fonts.
If you want to see examples of great presentations, go to TED talks. Various experts talk about their topics without notes, props of any kind or a PowerPoint. But most of us can’t talk off the cuff for even the 18 minutes of those presentations. (Most of them probably can’t either. Those talks are well-rehearsed to the minute.)
PowerPoint isn’t evil. Done well, a PowerPoint presentation can help keep you organized and focused and can help your audience track the information you are presenting.
Tips for Great PowerPoint Presentations
- Use each slide as a memory prompt – not as the actual content of your program. Talk around what is on the slide. Make it memorable by adding a story, lots of examples, even a joke or two.
- Rehearse. Rehearse out loud. It takes much longer to talk it than to think it. You will only really understand your timing if you take the time to rehearse.
- Don’t give out handouts of the slides until after your presentation is over. You want to engage your audience with your topic, not with the handouts. Pass out worksheets with some key questions instead. Stop the presentation a couple of times and ask them to answer the questions with their neighbors or to interact with you about them. (Do tell the participants that they will get handouts at the end or some people will start anxiously scribbling as soon as you begin your talk.)
- New technologies also provide new options for class/audience involvement. Audience response devices (clickers) allow people to answer yes and no questions, choose from multiple choice items and “vote.” Used well, they can enhance participants’ experience of your talk.
Got the idea? Here’s the summary: Take the time to plan. Keep every slide simple. Provide examples and visuals. When in front of the group, look at your audience, not at your slides. Get folks interacting with the material. The result will be an effective and engaging presentation. Questions? The End.