The 10 Steps to Take Towards a Bad PowerPoint Presentation

Marc DeArmond L2, USA

Marc DeArmond L2, USA

We’ve all been in THAT presentation. The presentation where it only takes two slides before our eyes roll back into our head and start to bleed. Perhaps it was the one where you got a handout, which was then projected above, and then every single word was read aloud. It may have even been the presentation in which someone discovered transitions and animations, and made sure to make use of every single one. Presentations like the above are certainly memorable, but for all the wrong reasons. No one will remember what was said, only how poorly it was presented.

Below is a list of the things to avoid when making an electronic presentation. Your audience will thank you.

  1. Transitions, All of Them

In a Junior year high school class I had each of my students make a presentation about themselves. Students were set free for a couple of days with little to no guidance as to how create an effective presentation and set out to discover PowerPoint for themselves. I must admit the student’s ability to use every single transition was amazing. Nearly every single one managed to cram no less than twelve different transitions into a single presentation.

I look back to the original Star Wars with it’s classic single wipe transition. This transition was used once and is just about the only non-standard transition in the entire movie. This transition was effective largely because it was the only one. For the vast majority of presentations no transition is necessary. If you use a non-standard transition, use one and have a fantastic reason you use it.

There’s an additional note to make if you are using the free online presentation software Prezi. Prezi is a great tool that turns a presentation into a single canvas and uses pans and zooms to focus on certain aspects of the overall presentation. The first Prezi presentation I ever saw literally made me motion sick. I had to close my eyes whenever the frames shifted because it would not only move, but spin and twirl. If you’re going to use alternate transitions, make them as simple as possible.

  1. My Speech On Slides

A presentation is different from a speech. A speech relies purely on the voice and animation of the orator to evoke passion in the crowd. A presentation makes use of other media to augment the speaker’s point. This should basically be the difference between a movie and radio play. Imagine watching a movie in which everyone is also explaining every action they take. If you’ve basically written a speech and copied it from Word to PowerPoint, you’re not really making a presentation.

Ideal slides contain relevant images, topic points, and key ideas. It shouldn’t include huge blocks of text which you will then read to the audience. You really want to use your presentation to make points that are difficult to do verbally. Timelines, comparisons, and charts are great uses of the visual space to augment the words you are saying.

  1. My 9 Points in 9 Point Font

 Lists are very effective ways to communicate information. Lists boil things down into a number of succinct points for easy consumption. This article is a list. A presentation slide is a great place for lists — just not long ones. Ideally a slide should contain a title and four short points. Short in this case is one to three words. Not every slide will be ideal. Sometimes you need five or six points and sometimes you need each point to be a sentence. If both of these things happen you’ve got a little problem.

 It’s a little problem because everything on your slide will be small and hard to read. A list of five or six items can work if they are all one or two words. But six sentences just doesn’t fit on a single slide. You can extend a list to multiple slides if it is absolutely necessary, but you need to remember that large lists are difficult to remember and a presentation doesn’t have the same repeatability that an article does. If I were giving this article as a presentation, I wouldn’t have a list of 10 points. I’d probably make it five.

  1. Better Font than Comic Sans

The font Comic Sans has become a pretty big joke in technologically literate circles. It’s the first font people go to when they are aiming to make something friendly. It’s a favourite of elementary school teachers and other people building their own website for the first time. It has become immediately recognisable on sight because of how commonly it is overused. While Comic Sans doesn’t show a high level of technical proficiency, it is significantly more legible than a number of fonts used on presentations I’ve suffered through.

Fonts are important. The difference between a newsprint Times New Roman and the the blocky Courier are incredibly significant. They each have their place. But their biggest feature is that they are all legible. It’s easy to read a pretty font when you’re typing in it on a screen two feet from your eyes. It’s significantly more difficult when that screen is 50+ feet from you. If you want your audience to read what you put on the board at the same time they are listening to you, don’t add on the additional frustration of having to decipher a difficult font. Use plain, standard fonts. If you’re in PowerPoint, use default fonts for your theme and don’t switch mid way through the presentation or, even worse, a slide.

  1. Beautiful Colours

Using color to make a point is incredibly effective but it wears thin very quickly. When every sentence has a highlighted or bolded or underlined or coloured word it becomes impossible to decipher the meaningful from the irrelevant. Even the above sentence is incredibly difficult for me to read and almost impossible to comprehend. Hurting the eyes of your audience isn’t going to help them listen to you and learn anything.

If you are going to chose to use a way to draw attention to a specific word chose a single way to do it for your entire presentation. Additionally, you should limit it to once or twice per page at most. Much like exclamation points in writing, the work best the less you lose them. I tell my students that they get one exclamation point per page they write. They should learn to use it well or not at all. The same goes for shifting colours. In general text should be black, white, or a dark shade of grey. The slight amount you may gain by having a nice deep blue is usually lost by the distraction of it not being standard colours.

  1. Slides from My Vacation

I don’t know how many of you remember the horrifying experience of being invited over to someone’s house to see a slideshow, with an actually slide projector, of someone’s vacation (to the holy land). Each slide reel contained 80 slides and a regular vacation would take two to three reels of slides. Two and a half hours of someone else reliving their experiences on a trip and trying to explain it to you as you go is incredibly dull.

Because the slides aren’t the focus of your presentation, you shouldn’t be swapping through them every twelve seconds like a screensaver. This means the number of slides you need for a regular 50 minute presentation is actually pretty low. Spending 2-5 minutes per slide is more within the realm of reasonable. This means you could range from about 10 to 25 slides with a good target number being in the mid teens. If there’s no specific reason to make 55 slides for your presentation, you’ll only find you don’t have time to make it through them. It is possible to use a higher number of slides, but you generally need a specific reason for it. Perhaps there’s a quick quiz or rapid series of images you’ll go through at about five seconds per slide. But without a specific reason or experience giving a fast paced presentation, I’d advise sticking to these limits.

  1. Blinking or Animating Anything

The human eye is drawn to movement. This could be a fly we see out of the corner of our eye, another individual shuffling papers, or a blinking warning light on the road. Blinking lights are used to grab attention but they don’t do a great job of making something readable. A blinking light or repeating animated GIF on your slide will cause everyone to stare at the constantly moving feature ignoring just about everything else going on. Blinking text or animated GIFs are the best way to make sure your audience isn’t paying any attention to you. If something is moving on the screen, it should be more important than anything else happening in the room at that time.

  1. Random Images

I remember discovering clip art in the 1990s and thinking that this wealth of graphics could never be exhausted. Now with the availability of Google Images and other search engines, you can find a graphic for absolutely anything. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.  In a presentation, blank space isn’t necessarily bad. If your list has three one word points, it’s ok of the other half of the screen is blank.

If you’re going to use a picture, it needs to play a role beyond filling empty space on a page. A picture of a cake just because you’re talking about layers isn’t very helpful. Talking about how many people feel about layers, this image may help because it somehow embodies the feeling of being overwhelmed by numerous minute differences. The first image happens to be a layer cake, the second provokes a visceral reaction regarding the audience’s experience. If you decide to add images, you need to make sure they add to the overall theme and experience of your presentation. If they have to struggle to read it, they won’t.

  1. Text Over Pictures

Many of us have gotten used to having text overlaid on images on our desktop. We have the pictures of our favourite vacation spot, or family, or favourite character covered with tiny icons and small text. This is something we generally expect at this point so there doesn’t seem to be a problem with having text over images.

The problem with this point of view is that you generally don’t read the names of the icons on your desktop. You probably look for the giant letter “L” when you want to play League of Legends, the “W” for World of Warcraft, or that weird sun thing when you want to play Hearthstone. Looking for a single letter is very different than reading actual text. Having an photo as a background with relevant text placed on top is like trying to read a website from the 1990s. The text gets lost and the user gets frustrated and eventually just stops reading anything.

  1. Technical Issues

The most common technical issue with presentations is not actually having a projector available to you. If you’ve managed to overcome that particular hurdle you still need to make sure you can connect to it and effectively present the presentation you’ve created. The most common issues have to do with connection cables, foreign projector interfaces, and a general lack of knowledge of how to get something from your screen to a projector. The best way to lose your audience is to spend the first 10 minutes focused on something other than them.

Avoiding animations and external videos is another great way to save yourself a battle at the beginning of your presentation. Animations frequently do not translate formats well (Mac to PC, Office to Open or Google) and can turned a well designed presentation into a pretty bland or confusing one if you’re forced to run on a machine that doesn’t support your file format. Also, you never know what internet access will be like at the site. Convention Centers and Hotels are well known for issues with bad wifi service. Because of this you want to make sure that any videos you intend to use for your presentation are saved locally and don’t have to be downloaded on the spot.

The best way to overcome technical issues is ask ahead of time, arrive early and bring your own tech. If possible, before the day starts, check to make sure your machine works with the provided equipment. If there’s an issue you would have hours, rather than minutes to address it. The other piece is to bring as much of your own equipment as possible. You can’t guarantee their equipment will do what you want, but if you bring your own it should work as expected. This is especially true for cables for Laptops because there are multiple different kinds of plugs that projectors use and it’s not always assured that your computer will fit the projector’s input.

As a backup it’s a great idea to have handouts incase there is an issue with the projector. You don’t necessarily need to print a copy of your presentation for every attendee. But having some of the key diagrams and overall structure of your presentation on paper helps your participants keep up. If you’ve rehearsed your presentation enough, you should be able to give it without a computer, projector, or the handouts. If you’re still constantly having to refer to the computer in order to give your presentation, you may be in trouble if all copies of that file in existence somehow get annihilated.

Is this an interesting read? Do you also have something to say about slides and seminars? We are always looking for feedback, but even more for collaborators! It doesn’t matter if you want to help writing already scheduled articles, or share entirely new ideas. Contact Theo, and let the Judge Community know what you think.