Improving Your PowerPoint Slide Design

When your PowerPoint slides have a lot of text, your audience will naturally want to read everything you’ve written. When your audience reads everything you’ve written, they can’t pay attention to what you might be saying. Your brain can’t actually read words and listen to someone talk at the same time (but don’t take my word for it, John Medina writes all about what the brain can and cannot do in his easy-to-digest book Brain Rules).

Put another way, it will be very challenging for your audience to be able to take in the amazing points you may want to make if your slide looks like this:

PowerPoint Slide Design Example 1

Keep in mind that your slides are not your presentation. I have been to a lot of conferences, and I’ve never heard anyone say: “I think I’ll go to Rebecca’s presentation because I bet her slides are going to knock our socks off!” Indeed, slides are more like your back-up singers while you (the presenter) are actually the rock star. And just like poor back-up singers can be incredibly annoying and distracting, poor slides (too much text, distracting and/or random clip art, obnoxious transitions, etc.) can really distract from your presentation.

When I had to prepare a presentation on worldwide corneal blindness, I took the above slide and converted it to the following:

PowerPoint Slide Design Example (2)

What Changed?

  • I replaced the standard PowerPoint template with a plain black background
  • I changed from standard font to Arial Narrow
  • I removed all content except for what I wanted the audience to focus on

As the imposing figure of 10,000,000 shines down on the audience, I will talk with the audience about what this number means and steps we can take to dramatically reduce the number of corneal blind in the world. I’ll share strategies and best practices, but I don’t want anyone in the audience to forget about the magnitude of the problem.

This slide has been transformed from a content-laden reference page to a powerful presentation aid that will set the mood for the point I want to make.

Should there be a hard and fast rule about how many words you should place on any given slide? No. Sometimes you need to put a bunch of words on a slide. But be judicious in your use of text… when your audience is reading your slides, they’re not paying attention to you.

Want to learn more about slide design? You may be interested in these articles:

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2 thoughts on “Improving Your PowerPoint Slide Design

  1. Absolutely true about the transitions. Nothing gives me a cheesy feeling more then words swirling in or twirling off a page with a swoosh sound effect. It looks cheap and is hard to take seriously, let alone the fact that the cheesy feel becomes distracting.
    I have a rule that I can never go smaller than a 24 pt font. If it requires a smaller font then there is too much material. Another rule is I don’t use complete sentences. I find as soon as I write a sentence I have encouraged them to read it like a book and I’ve lost them.

    • Thanks for sharing your rules, Training Guy! I think they are both excellent rules of thumb – larger font size forces you to be intentional about what you want to write (since it won’t all fit). And full sentences generally aren’t necessary (unless you want people to read a famous quote, then I think the full thing makes for a more powerful slide).

      The transitions can get silly… and the biggest offense I generally see in meetings and in conferences (with very smart people presenting!!!) is still the weird use of clip art that is haphazardly placed on a slide.

      PowerPoint can be an amazing tool to help supplement a presentation – I really wish more people took a little more time to think about how they could use PPT to help create an amazing overall learning experience.

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