PowerPoint tips: perfect presentations

PowerPoint is the most popular tool for giving presentations. It’s ideal for everything from sales talks to academic lectures. The program makes compiling and running a presentation easy, but there are still pitfalls that can trip up even the best presenter.

Presenting is about a lot more than displaying slides on a screen. You have a message to deliver and the presentation is a means of getting that message across. You’ll need some presentation skills to engage your audience and persuade them to listen to what you’re saying, but the way you set up and use your PowerPoint slides can also help a lot.

Slides are much like printed pages, but with less on them. Many of the design guidelines that apply to word-processed or desktop-published pages also apply to presentation slides. Don’t put too much on them, and design your layout for readability as well as aesthetic appeal. With a presentation, though, there’s a degree of urgency. Your audience will only be looking at any one slide for a few minutes, at most. The information it contains has to be available at a glance. There’s not much time for re-reading, so what you write has to come across clearly first time. The 12 tips in this feature are written specifically for people using PowerPoint, but many of the ideas are equally applicable to other presentation graphics programs.

Most modern applications of this type, such as Lotus Freelance and Wordperfect Presentations, offer the same tools and much the same way of achieving results. The presentation tips described here will be just as useful to devotees of these programs as to users of PowerPoint.

Too many words

One of the most obvious mistakes in a presentation, and one that is most frequently made, is to put too much text on a slide. This does two things: it leads your audience into reading the slide rather than listening to you, and it leads you into reading the slide aloud, rather than using it as a memory aid.

The best presentations are the ones where only the core of your message is on the slide, so the audience has to watch you to get important extra information. Try and limit any slide to no more than three or four bullet points or a short paragraph of text. Any bullet point should be backed up by only a sentence or two of explanatory text, at most. If a particular topic requires five or six bullet points, remove the explanatory text and offer this yourself. Also think about animating the text onto the slide, point by point.

If you need more points to cover a topic, restructure the section into two slides, each with a smaller number of bullets. You’re aiming for simplicity in every slide, so your audience will concentrate on what you’re putting across.

Too many fonts

You want your audience to be able to read your slides comfortably, so limit the number of fonts you use – you don’t want a slide to end up looking like a Victorian prize-fight poster. This is a basic design rule for any kind of publication, but is particularly important in a presentation, where the number of words you use is very limited. There’s no reason to use more than two fonts on a single slide and it’s possible to produce a very attractive presentation with just one. To make it more interesting and to delineate the importance of headings and sub-headings, use different sizes of text and introduce bold and italics. In most presentations, you should need nothing more than this.

Just because PowerPoint defaults to Arial and Times New Roman as its main fonts doesn’t mean you have to stick to these. There are plenty of attractive fonts that work very well at the sizes needed in a presentation slide. While your audience may not consciously notice the difference, the choice of font will have an effect on how your presentation is perceived.

Choose your colour scheme well

If you’re not restricted by company guidelines or a house style, spend some time choosing a good colour scheme for your slides. In most versions of PowerPoint you’re helped by the provision of predefined colour schemes. These have been professionally produced to provide co-ordinated colours for the various elements of a slide. More than this, though, these colour schemes ensure that your text is readable. There are two ways text can be hard to read: by having the text and background colours too close in tonal range or hue, or by having them too close to opposing colours, such as red and green. If you’ve ever seen bright red text on a bright green background, you’ll know that it does strange things to your eyes, and other colour combinations can do the same, making the text awkward to read.

When you start to design slides in a presentation, PowerPoint offers you 12 standard colour schemes from the Slide Design section of the Task Pane. You can use any of these schemes unaltered, or modify them by replacing colours, using the Standard or Custom, Accent Color dialogues. Careful choices here will ensure your slides remain easy on the eye.

Developing slides

Using standard layouts for slides, with a series of bullet points and the occasional paragraph of text, can look very repetitive. If you have several bullet points on the same slide, your audience may read on to later ones while you’re expanding on those higher up the list. You can prevent this and increase the visual interest in each slide by having text and graphics fly onto a slide, point by point. Doing this with text is comparatively simple. Again using the Slide Design palette on the Task Pane, pick an animation scheme and apply it to all or selected slides in your presentation. These schemes are split into three different categories: subtle, moderate and exciting. When you’ve chosen one and applied it, you can fade, bounce or scroll text onto the screen bullet by bullet by pressing the space bar during the presentation.

If you want to fly graphics onto a slide, prepare the graphic first, either within PowerPoint or using an application which can produce a compatible graphic file. Place the graphic on a slide and select Custom Animation in the PowerPoint Task Pane. You can then fly the graphic onto the slide from any corner or side.

Create a good image

The use of pictures on slides is generally a good idea, when they’re relevant to the content and when they’re not too big. They’re particularly useful when the presentation is product-based, selling or describing anything from an MP3 player to a holiday. If you do use them, though, make them consistent. It can look tacky to have some of your pictures in colour and others in black and white, or to have them obviously coming from different sources. If, for example, you’re trying to demonstrate a new product against its main rivals, but you don’t have pictures of all your competition, be careful taking images from their respective websites. They’ll all be taken by different photographers, with different lighting and at different sizes. Pictures captured in this way also tend to be at different resolutions, so some will look smooth and chic, while others could easily be jagged and bitty. If you have to take this route, try and grab them all at the highest resolution and resample them in a photo editor, such as Paint Shop Pro. Display them all at similar size and use PowerPoint’s Set Transparent Color tool, on the Picture toolbar, to remove their backgrounds.

Notes for them, notes for you

It’s all very well to deliver a fascinating presentation and inspire your audience with its subject, but memories are frail and people often have busy working days. To back up your presentation, you should think seriously about providing handouts for your audience to take away. PowerPoint can provide a handout of your presentation, showing one, two, three, four, six or nine slides to the printed page. The three-slide layout includes blank lines beside the slide images, for your audience to make their own annotations. To print these or any other handout page, select File/Print and choose Handouts from the Print What selector. If you want to provide more material yourself, you can use the PowerPoint Notes facility, which by default shows a single slide per sheet. There’s a large area for text, too, and you can type into this at any time, simply by choosing View/Notes Page for a specific slide.

Notes can either be additional material to include in a handout for your audience, or speaker notes to remind you as presenter of extra things you want to say. The bullet points on your slides may be enough but, if not, this is where you can create further reminders.

Speed through adaptation

Unless you have design training, putting together a good looking and effective slide template can be a long winded process. That’s what PowerPoint’s Design Templates are for, but don’t feel you have to stick to the designs provided in their basic forms. Go to View/Master/Slide Master and all the elements of the template become editable. You can change the size and shape of graphic elements on the master and remove or add extra objects. Any changes you make will be reflected in all slides using that master so it becomes a very quick way of creating original layouts.

The colour schemes of your slides have an important bearing here, too, as described earlier in this feature. By adding different colour schemes to PowerPoint’s Design Templates, you have a wide range of different combinations. By default, there are 34 design templates in PowerPoint and 12 colour schemes, giving 408 combinations in all. If you run the Microsoft Office XP installer, however, you can add more, for a total of 76 design templates or over 900 design and colour combinations. These broaden your choices and make it less likely that you’ll be using the same designs or colour schemes as other people in your organisation.

Over-busy transitions

You may have taken account of all the tips given so far, but still wonder why the information in your presentation isn’t being assimilated as well as you expected. It may not be the slides at all, but the way you switch between them – the transitions. In PowerPoint, you can browse through available transitions by moving to Slide Sorter view and clicking on the Transition button in the button bar. As you click through the list of transitions in the Task Pane, the selected slide thumbnail previews how it will look.

As with many things in a presentation – fonts, colours and graphics on a slide – less is often better. Although you can keep interest by using interesting transitions, don’t be tempted to use a different one each time. PowerPoint offers a huge range of transition effects, but you’re much better choosing one, or maybe two, for the whole presentation. Pick a transition that offers some visual relief and use it between most slides, saving a second, more zany transition for a slide of particular importance. Transitions are to a presentation what punctuation is to a sentence. They are there to make the breaks between themes obvious and to bracket the most important parts of your talk.

Small slide, big video

Part of your presentation may well be a promotional video and using this could save you several slides worth of explanation. You can, of course, display a video from within a PowerPoint slide. To do this, add a slide to your presentation which contains a frame for media. There are plenty available in the Design Templates list in the Task Pane. You can then import your video file directly into the frame on your slide and run it during your presentation. There are several reasons this may be a less than ideal way of doing things, though. For a start, think seriously about showing the video either at the start or end of your presentation.

If you have developed any kind of flow or storyline running through your presentation, the screening of a video in the middle of it will disrupt this and you’ll be back to a standing start again after it has run. Even if you have enlarged the video frame to the full size of your PowerPoint slide, you are likely to see some degradation in the quality or frame rate of the video. You’ll be better off running it from a second projector or as a separate video file from a dedicated video player on your PC.

Timing is everything

This is undoubtedly true for stand-up comedy, but to a lesser extent it’s also important when making a presentation. If you spend too long on one slide you may have to rush through others to complete your presentation on time. As with any show, the key to getting this right is rehearsal. PowerPoint can help with your timing by recording how long each slide is displayed as you rehearse your presentation. Go to Slide Show, Rehearse Timings and a small timing bar displays in the top left-hand corner of each slide. To advance from slide to slide, you click on the Advance button with the right-facing arrow, and this triggers a recording of the time. At the end of the run-through, a set of timings is available, reflecting how long you spent on each slide.

If you feel silly rehearsing a presentation to an empty office or a blank wall, don’t worry, so does everyone. You can try taking the presentation home on your notebook and rehearsing in your bedroom in front of a mirror – no, seriously. Seeing your facial expressions can make a big difference to the way you present and get your mannerisms, as well as your timing, right.

Pay attention to attention

You’ll often be asked to prepare a presentation of a specific length, but you should bear in mind the typical attention spans of the people in your audience. School lessons are never much more than one hour long and university lectures are often only 45 minutes. It’s hard for people to remain attentive over longer periods than this. There are ways around this, if you have to present for longer periods. You can put a break in the middle of the session, perhaps for coffee or just so the audience can stretch their legs. You can also introduce a question and answer session, when most audiences tend to wake up, because of the interaction with the presenter. You can often gently lead the Q&A session to cover selected points not in your main presentation.

In PowerPoint terms, if you need to keep going for some while, introduce more humour into your slides. This is your chance to make full use of zingy transitions and perhaps short video clips, if you can find one relevant to your subject. To include video in a PowerPoint slide, simply select or create a new frame and import a ‘movie’ (video) into it.

Hide your flexibility

Talking of Q&A sessions, they should be an essential part of any presentation. How do you deal, though, with those awkward questions you can predict people are going to ask, but which will make your presentation tediously long if you include slides to answer them all? You prepare hidden slides. Prepare slides in PowerPoint to cover all the ‘extras’, as well as the core topics of your presentation. You can put the extra slides in their logical places in the context of the slideshow, or group them at the end.

Right-click on a slide in normal view and choose Hide Slide – it won’t then display during your normal presentation. If you want to show a hidden slide during the course of your presentation, you right-click the mouse, select Go and then Slide Navigator. This shows the list of all slides in your presentation, including the hidden ones with brackets around their numbers. Select the slide you want to display from the list, by referring to its title, and double-click on it to display. Using hidden slides, you can tailor a presentation to suit a particular audience by covering more specific subjects that aren’t necessarily of general interest.

Source: VNUnet By Simon Williams [31-10-2003]