Ask LH: How Can I Take My PowerPoint Presentations From Dull To Amazing?

Dear Lifehacker, I have been tasked to make a slideshow for an event at work. I don't want to produce a generic PowerPoint with just boring text or pictures. What are some ways I can enhance the slideshow so it looks impressive and knocks the socks off my audience? Sincerely, Panicking About PPT

Photos by Tobias Toft, @tmiket/InFocus, Brandon George/Haiku Deck

Dear Panicking,

Giving a presentation is a huge and (sometimes) noble responsibility. After all, only you can prevent death by PowerPoint for your audience. Thankfully, there are plenty tips, tools and other resources can help you take your slides up a notch and make them more professional and captivating. We're focusing on PowerPoint for most of the add-ins and templates below, simply because that's the most widely used business presentation software, but many of the principles and tricks here apply to other presentation apps. Let's get you started.

Avoid The Most Common Presentation Problems

First, before we take a look at jazzing up your slides, it's a good time to review how to avoid the reasons presentations suck so often.

Lack of preparation or passion. Often presentations don't work because the presenter didn't practise enough, or he/she fails to convey the meaning of the presentation. When you passionately communicate the significance of your subject (maybe even with a storytelling structure for drama), audiences pay attention. To do that well, you have to rehearse giving your presentation; otherwise, even the most beautiful slides won't help you.

Slides are too complex, overloaded with bullets, lacking in focus, and/or filled with poor-quality images. It's easy to hate PowerPoint for presentations that suck, but the real problem is how we're using it. Slides shouldn't be used as a prompter to read to your audience nor a place to dump as much data as possible. Instead, they're a visual communication aid to support the most important part of the presentation: you and your message. Just about every piece of presentation advice we've highlighted before (including five design mistakes you need to avoid and how to deliver polished presentations Steve Jobs style) emphasises three things for all your slides: simplicity, a clear and meaningful message, and quality visuals. The opposite of this can be seen below:

Seth Godin's five rules for avoiding really bad PowerPoint are a good guide:

  1. No more than six words on a slide. EVER. There is no presentation so complex that this rule needs to be broken. [Also recommended in another post: No bullets. Use a separate slide for each sentence or idea.]

  2. No cheesy images. Use professional stock photo images.

  3. No dissolves, spins or other transitions.

  4. Sound effects can be used a few times per presentation, but never use the sound effects that are built into the program. Instead, rip sounds and music from CDs and leverage the Proustian effect this can have. If people start bouncing up and down to the Grateful Dead, you've kept them from falling asleep, and you've reminded them that this isn't a typical meeting you're running.

  5. Don't hand out print-outs of your slides. They don't work without you there.

Similarly, for our guide on how to create presentations that don't suck, communications expert Nancy Duarte offered this helpful mnemonic to keep in mind as you're making your slides:

Simplify

Lose the clichés

Information needs emphasis

Designate elements

Empathy for the audience

Less is more when it comes to presentations (except for font size): The 10/20/30 Rule recommends limiting the number of your slides to 10 and your presentation time to 20 minutes, but using at least a 30-point font size.

Those are the basic slideshow creation principles. Once you've got them down, take a look at how you can improve the design of your slides and the elements on them.

Enhance Your Presentation

PowerPoint slides and other presentation tools are visual aids. You want to connect how your slide looks to what you're saying. As Godin writes:

The home run is easy to describe: You put up a slide. It triggers an emotional reaction in the audience. They sit up and want to know what you're going to say that fits in with that image. Then, if you do it right, every time they think of what you said, they'll see the image (and vice versa).

To make your presentation stand out visually, use and choose these carefully:

Fonts: Use your own font instead of the default fonts on your computer. Smashing Magazine has a list of sources for free, quality fonts or you could buy a font for the project. Godin likens this to "dressing better or having a nicer business card. It's subtle, but it works."

Images: Professional quality images, rather than cheesy clipart, will make your presentation stand out. You can buy photos at sites such as Getty Images or find a free stock photo using the Everystockphoto.com search engine.

Diagrams and shapes: Simple graphics and diagrams can illustrate or highlight your information better than text can, but using them effectively can be tricky. This non-designer's guide to creating diagrams for slides will help you make sure the visuals you use for emphasis are consistent, appropriately sized, and otherwise communicate well. Similarly, choose the best chart for your data so you're presenting your information as clearly as possible.

Templates: Even if you don't want to use a cookie-cutter approach to your presentation, a template can be a good starting point for later customisation. Microsoft offers a collection of PowerPoint templates, many of them professionally designed. Even better, Microsoft's picture and text effects templates (over 150 of them) include bold and captivating slides that combine graphics with simple or animated text -- and the instructions for how to create them. VisualBee not only offers free PowerPoint templates, it can automatically design your presentations for you. One last resource: Slidevana provides over 150 truly beautiful slide templates. It costs $US79, but if you often make PowerPoint presentations, it might be worth the investment.

Add-ins: Boost PowerPoint's capabilities with third-party add-ins. PPTools offers several, including this starter set, with tools to help you zoom in and out easier, import pictures faster, and much more (it's an old add-in, but still available). Previously mentioned pptPlex, now part of Microsoft Office Labs, gives you the ability to jump directly to specific slides and zoom in and out of slide sections. TechRepublic offers a list of a few other potentially useful add-ins.

Other presentation helpers/tricks: Work your presentation like a pro with a few shortcuts. PowerPoint keyboard shortcuts help you create and advance slides with just a few keystrokes. To redirect the focus from the slide to yourself, you could temporarily black out the screen. Check out the other tools that can make your presentation more memorable, including apps that can focus on just part of your screen.

Explore Additional Resources

Finally, there are a wealth of other resources on the web that can help boost your presentation, including alternative presentation software.

Alternatives to PowerPoint: PowerPoint is still the most widely used presentation tool, but if you find it to be overkill or its linear format too limiting, many alternatives can fill in for your presentation creation needs. These include Prezi, with its unique zooming interface, and Haiku Deck, which is the easiest way to create gorgeous presentations with an iPad. Even if you stick with PowerPoint or are required to use it, just looking at Haiku Deck's sample presentations might inspire you.

Learn from masters of presentation design. For further reading, check out these great sites, which focus on making presentations beautiful and effective: Presentations Zen, Beyond Bullets, and Duarte.

Good luck with your presentation!

Cheers Lifehacker

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Comments

    Points 1 and 3 are terrible advice. Don't over load, sure. But if you can describe EVERY idea you have in six words, you ideas are basic. And transitions can be used incredibly effectively to highlight you speaking point, though I usually only use fade (and never spin).

    + 1 for Prezi - A fantastic and engaging presentation tool. Only issue is when people add too many transitions you can get a bit dizzy!

    TLDR summary: Know thine audience, and follow (or not) the above rules accordingly.

    "5.Don’t hand out print-outs of your slides. They don’t work without you there." is only true if your slides are relatively content-less and depend on the speaker to convey what's going on, rather than to add more supporting details. This is true of some presentation situations, but (by far) not for all.

    I'm also not enamored of the suggestion of sound effects. Err, that sounds cheesy. Literally. Your talk should contain all the "sound effects" required for auditory emphasis. Presentation sound effects would probably go down well in high school, though, just as a guess.

    "When I worked at Microsoft" (yeah, I know some of you are tired of the tales from the trenches), if you developed a presentation according to those rules, people would be screaming for you to write down the details and email them out to the group before you go home that day, because slides containing 6 words don't adequately tell a techie everything they're likely to need to remember from your talk, and they want to be focused on understanding your ideas, not taking notes, as you talk.

    If you're going to hand out anything, don't hand out a verbatim copy of your slides. Give them slides on request, or email it to them. And only hand stuff out at the end. Last thing you need is people being distracted while you're giving the presentation of your life.

    And another key rule -- Don't use a powerpoint unless you have to. I've been to meetings and seen school presentations where the powerpoint is being used because "hey, that's what you do in meetings, right?".

    And my final tip: Use WordArt. The 3D, shiny, rainbow, drop shadow-y sort. People flip their shit over that and shower you with raises, cars and broads. Studies show that 100% of people who use WordArt are winners[1][2][3][4][5][6]

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