Software

The 10 most important things to teach your PowerPoint users

Effective presentations are within your users' reach. They just need to embrace some best practices and master a few techniques.

Competent PowerPoint users have a variety of skills, whether they're creating or delivering the presentation. But being effective is more about fulfilling a concept than the technical steps required to create individual slides. The following guidelines will help your users be competent, whether they're creating, presenting, or both.

1: Know how to use the program

Your users must know how to run PowerPoint. More important, they must know how to adapt if the technology fails. Don't turn your users loose until they're prepared to face the giant blank screen of death. This advice seems obvious, but many presenters are lost if something technical goes wrong. Don't let that happen to your users!

2: Know the material

#1 can be a showstopper, but it shouldn't be. In fact, if the presenter is thoroughly familiar with the material, a technological mishap won't even matter. Make sure your presenters can carry on without the visual aids. The audience will appreciate the message just the same, perhaps more.

3: Practice

Knowing how to deliver the material can mean the difference between an ordinary presentation and a great presentation. Make sure users know how to use PowerPoint's stopwatch feature to rehearse their presentations. PowerPoint records the time spent on each slide, as shown in Figure A. This information will help users stay on track during the actual presentation. The Rehearse Timings feature is in the Set Up group on the Slide Show tab. In PowerPoint 2003, it's on the Slide Show menu.

Figure A

Presenters will benefit from timing their rehearsal sessions.

4: Print a slide list

No matter how well presenters know their material, they can benefit from a slide list. First, it's great for documenting the presentation. Second, it'll help the presenter find specific data on the fly. (To jump to a specific slide, they can enter the slide number and press [Enter].)

To create a slide list based on slide titles, click the Outline pane's Outline tab. For a shorter list of just slide titles, collapse the view by right-clicking the pane and choosing Collapse and then Collapse All, as shown in Figure B.

Figure B

Collapse the outline for a list of slides.
To print the list, click the File tab and choose Print. Click the second item under Settings and choose Outline from the Print Layout options. With Outline selected (Figure C), click Print to print the outline view -- your slide list. In PowerPoint 2007, click the Office button and click Print. (Choose Print from the File menu in PowerPoint 2003.) Then, choose Outline View from the Print What drop-down and click OK.

Figure C

Choose Outline to generate a list of slides.

5: Keep it simple

Where text is concerned, less is more. Your presenters don't want the audience reading slides; they want the audience listening to them. Your presenters are the text. Slides are just visual clues that support the discussion. For example, the slide in Figure D is bad -- for a number of reasons -- but perhaps the worst offense is the amount of text. The introduction is not necessary. That's what the presenter should be saying.

Figure D

If the presenter says it, the slide doesn't need to repeat it -- delete it!

When a text-heavy slide is necessary, the presenter should hold the slide back until it's relevant and then pause so the audience can read it. When creating a self-running presentation, users can relax this rule quite a bit.

6: Don't rely too heavily on bullet points

Most experts recommend that you not use bullet points (which run amuck with PowerPoint's layout defaults). Here's the general rule: Each bullet point should be a slide of its own. If this is too overwhelming at first, show users how to organize the information using bullet points and then move each bulleted item to a blank slide. From there, they can develop that single thought using graphics and (some) subtle animation. Naturally, the presentation will have a lot more slides, but the overall presentation will be more effective and memorable. Removing bullets doesn't tie your users' hands; it frees them up so they can move beyond mere bullet points.

Following the advice in #5, you'll get rid of the introductory text in Figure D, leaving some ugly bulleted text to revamp. If you move each bullet to its own slide, you generate six slides, but they'll be more memorable. The introductory slide shown in Figure E doesn't need a bit of text -- leave that for the presenter -- but the message is clear and the audience will remember it.

Figure E

This slide makes its point without a single word of text.

To avoid the wrath that the above pronouncement is sure to unleash, I add this simple disclaimer: Bullet points aren't bad or wrong. But use them sparingly because slide after slide of them is ineffective and boring.

7: Use Slide Master

Creating the presentation can be a laborious process, so efficiency matters. Show users how to configure the Slide Master first thing. It saves time up front and later. Users can quickly create a consistent look that's easy to maintain. If they decide to change an attribute at some point, they need to change only the Slide Master, not every slide in the presentation.

Slide Master, shown in Figure F, is on the View tab in the Master Views group (Presentation Views in PowerPoint 2007). In PowerPoint 2003, choose Master from the View menu and then select Slide Master.

Figure F

Users will save time and effort with the Slide Master.

8: Use common fonts

PowerPoint doesn't embed fonts by default. That presents a problem if the system that runs the presentation doesn't have the presentation's fonts installed. Windows will substitute a font, which might work; and then again, it might not. Users can avoid this potential problem by using common Windows fonts, such as Arial, Times New Roman, Tahoma, and so on. In fact, you might make a convention for using common fonts. Another workaround is to embed the fonts in the presentation. Doing so eliminates substitutions, but also increases the size of the presentation. This is one area where #7 can help: You can quickly avert disaster by updating the font via the Slide Master.

To embed fonts, click the File tab, choose Options (under Help), select Save in the left pane, and then check the Embed Fonts In The File option, shown in Figure G. In PowerPoint 2007, click the Office button and then click PowerPoint Options. In PowerPoint 2003, choose Options from the Tools menu.

Figure G

Embedding fonts prevents problems when the specified font isn't available.

9: Use legible fonts

Users, especially those new to PowerPoint, will often go overboard with specialty fonts, attributes, and splashy colors, just because they're available. Help users avoid this pitfall by applying these basic guidelines to improve legibility:

  • Make sure the font size is large enough to see in a conference or meeting room (start at 26 points and don't be afraid to go larger).
  • Use a sans serif font.
  • Keep attributes, such as bold, underline, italics, and shadows, to a minimum. While these attributes may be effective in print, they can appear out of focus on a slide.
  • When using color, contrast is good.
  • Use dark text on a light background or light text on a dark background, as shown in Figure H. Anything in between is a wash.

Figure H

The light versus dark concept at work.

10: Avoid clip art

Clip art has a tendency to be overdone. It's just too complex for presentation purposes. Your users will ask, "If I limit the text and don't use clip art, what's left?" Let them create their own simple graphics using basic shapes and symbols. It takes practice and patience, and don't expect them to reinvent themselves as graphic design artists. Just introduce PowerPoint's graphic tools and see what happens.

Of course, you don't have to ban clip art entirely. Show users how to make small adjustments to simplify and improve clip art. For example, Figure I shows a before-and-after view of the clip art flower used in Figure E. Removing the outline around the petals helped tone down the cartoon effect.

Figure I

Removing the outline from the petals renders the flower a bit (albeit not much) less cartoonish.

Custom graphics will better represent your core concepts because your users will be creating graphics that fulfill their purpose instead of forcing someone else's generic designs to fit. If users simply can't get the knack of graphics, consider hiring a consultant who specializes in presentation graphics. Sometimes, that's what you need.

Additional help for PowerPoint users

About

Susan Sales Harkins is an IT consultant, specializing in desktop solutions. Previously, she was editor in chief for The Cobb Group, the world's largest publisher of technical journals.

7 comments
Silverlokk
Silverlokk

I find this the least known of presentation software. You can project your slides on the screen, and have something else entirely different on your laptop's screen. Most useful would be the Notes.

kmcpanama
kmcpanama

Excellent suggestions. I did notice, however, that in suggestion 8 fonts such as "... Times New Roman" were suggested. In suggestion 9, it was suggested to only use sans serif fonts. Was this a slip? Also, what is the problem perceived with a serif font such as Times New Roman?

jignacio999
jignacio999

In presentations, like in photography, don??t forget the golden rule: ??less is more!

Wyrmlord
Wyrmlord

I once had a misfortune of attending a presentation dressed to kill, as it were. Backgrounds were dark purple, text was bright orange and/or fluorescent yellow. While contrast was there all right, this had the effect of making your eyes water after 10 seconds, bleed after 20, and trickle down your cheeks after 30. NEVER AGAIN. (not to mention that handouts were pretty damn illegible). Urgh.

rellis1949
rellis1949

As an addendum to Point 9, I would like to suggest that users consider the the issue of color coordination and the color blind attendee. Many males are color blind and can literally lose text on a slide because extreme contrasts between text and background are not considered. I have seen slides built with blue/green combinations, red/maroon combinations, and orange/brown combinations. Each of these combinations (if color shades are close) can result in lost or difficult to read text to the color blind.

ssharkins
ssharkins

The general rule is that sans serif is simply more readable in a presentation. Times New Roman is Okay. Every rule has a few exceptions. :) But, I probably should've mentioned that.

nhchoy
nhchoy

Color blind is one thing but we shall always consider degraded projectors in client's facility, unfortunately 50/50 from my experience. Use high contrast color when possible.