How to improve powerpoint slides

by Paul C. Tumey

I’ve created hundreds of PowerPoint presentations for Presentation Tree and I can tell you they almost all have wrestled with The PowerPoint Problem. It is breathtaking to consider the positive impact  a widely employed solution to The PowerPoint Problem could have in the world.

Imagine: subject matter experts informing and inspiring us with slide presentations that are engaging and comprehensible.

Imagine: fundraising and sales slide presentations that convert at a much higher rate.

Imagine: workshops and seminars that use slides effectively, instead of dulling the audience into a mind-numbing stupor.

The PowerPoint Problem

Put simply the PowerPoint Problem is this: most people cannot read and listen at the same time. And yet, every day, all over the world, hundreds of thousands of people are put in this position by their colleagues and peers. Presentations are filled with well-intended slides that offer far too much text for people to be able to read while also following the speaker. Slides that look like this:

image of an example of a typical text-heavy PowerPoint slide

This slide is nicely formatted, with correct line spacing, a photo, and even some nice art. So what’s wrong with it, you may ask? Nothing, if one is only reading it, as you are now. However, if one is asked to read the text on this slide while also listening to a speaker talk, then Houston, we have a problem.

image of speaker and powerpoint slide

 

Speaker or Slide: Which Gets Your Attention?

If you are presented with two concurrent channels of information flow that are not in alignment, then chances are you will probably only focus on the slide or the speaker, but not both at the same time.

Most will read the slide first, tuning out the speaker. This is because we can usually read text significantly  faster than a speaker can verbally present the same information. After reading the slide, we may tune back into the speaker, often only to realize they are still on the first bullet point, and decide that it’s time to surreptitiously check email or tweet.

image showing how an audience tends to focus only on the speaker or the slide at one time

At the end of this post, you’ll find my 8-minute video on The PowerPoint Problem. I demonstrate how the library text slide shown above would be typically presented. I don’t speak to one of the bullet points shown on the slide. In my verbal content, I offer two data points that are not on the slide. So, since you probably can’t listen and read at the same time, you will miss some of the information.

Some develop the strategy of bouncing between slide and speaker, struggling to learn in spite of the presentation’s refusal to address The PowerPoint Problem. This, however, can lead to mental fatigue and is part of what is commonly called “Death by PowerPoint.”

Are Bullet Builds the Answer?

So how about animating the bullet points, so they appear on the slide only when we speak to them? This may seem like the solution, but it’s not. It’s better, for sure, because now you are verbally presenting in the same sequence as what is on your slide, and you are preventing the audience from reading ahead. These are significant gains, but still not enough.

Why?

Because you are still asking people to read and listen at the same time. Some speakers try to get around this by reading the bullets out loud, word-for-word. Yes, now you are not asking the audience to read and listen, but you are annoying them! The number one most annoying PowerPoint practice according to a recent survey is “speakers reading the slides out loud.”

Four Guiding Principles of Good Slide Design

The true solution to The PowerPoint Problem employs four principles rarely seen in PowerPoint presentations today:

  1. More visuals and less text
  2. Bold, bold, bold
  3. Refined text and images
  4. Choreography

Using more visuals requires us to make sure we select good visuals. We cannot simply throw in the first graphic we find and call it a day. The process of finding supporting visuals that reinforce the message can be time-consuming and require careful thought. Less text requires us to throw away our crutches.

When there’s less text on the slide, we cannot use our slides as speaker’s notes, and therefore have to know in advance what we are going to say. For some, this is a paradigm shift. The slides stop driving the show, and instead YOU become the leader.

The less text imperative also requires us to challenge every piece of text on the slide. For example, we might ask whether titles are always necessary. Are they costing us too much in terms of our audience’s focus and eventual fatigue? In our library slide example, consider what we might might lose and gain if the title were eliminated.

illustration showing slide titles are not always necessary

Captions under photos are also almost always costing us more than they provide. usually the font is smaller in a caption, and it’s just one more extraneous but of text that takes the audience away from the speaker. In our example, would the slide work better without the caption?

example showing captions are not effective in powerpoint

Similarly, footers are not necessary on slides that support a live or virtual presentation. It is always good to list your sources, and in some cases this cannot be avoided. However, a small-font footer is just more “noise” the audience has to tune out.

Slide13

The second principle is to make your elements bold, bold, bold. Photos should be big. Text should be large and readable. Your design should be clean and uncluttered. Your slide should be grasped in a few seconds so the audience can maintain their connection with you and what you are saying.

Because we are working with minimal, bold elements, we must work to refine our content. Every image, every word must earn its place on the slide. Is there an image that says it better? Can we make the point in fewer words?

Finally, we must choreograph our presentations. The core concept here is to bring information on stage only when we speak to it – not before or after. This prevents audiences from reading ahead, but more important, it creates rhythm and drama that adds a great deal to the overall impact of the presentation. Suddenly, you’re not boring people.

The Solution

If we were to apply the four guiding principles to our example library slide, here’s what it could look like.

[Speaker] Public libraries in America are a much-used resource. Did you know there are more libraries in the U.S. than McDonald’s restaurants?

example of a good powerpoint slide 1

[Speaker] In fact, 68% of Americans own a library card…

example of a good powerpoint slide

[Speaker] Each year, more than TWO BILLION items are checked out from our libraries…

example of a good powerpoint slide

[Speaker] It turns out that our public libraries are the #1 provider of Internet for those that don’t have it at home, work, or school…

example of a good powerpoint slide

[Speaker] The cost for this wealth of important public services? Just $31 a year for each taxpayer.

example of a good powerpoint slide

[Speaker] I’d say that’s a great value!

example of a good powerpoint slide

More Work and So Worth It!

Did you see what I did? I turned that one slide into six.

comparing effective powerpoint to typical poor slides

This requires more work, of course, but it is so worth it. The verbal content is in perfect alignment with the visual — and it all builds to deliver the message in a highly effective, compelling  presentation.

Many presenters worry about the number of slides, thinking that if they have more slides, it means their presentation will go on too long. Yes, this approach will result in a larger number of slides. But the metric to be concerned about is not number of slides, it’s density of information per slide. For a live presentation, a low density of information per slide works much better. If you develop your presentation in this manner, you will actually deliver more information in a shorter amount of time than with the traditional text-heavy slides that are don’t communicate and are boring.

Check out my eight-minute video and see for yourself if it’s worth it to solve The PowerPoint Problem!

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Paul C. Tumey is the founder and director of Presentation Tree.