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  • Writer's pictureJerry Ratcliffe

Ten basic tips for PowerPoint presentations

After all the work that some people put into their research and analysis, it sometimes defies belief that they make a complete hash of their moment to impress - their moment to shine as an intellectual. After months of slaving over a hot keyboard many people use the opportunity presented to them by a briefing or conference to confuse the audience, contradict themselves and generally annoy the whole room.

They do this by having a lousy presentation. Now I’m well aware that some people reading this will have seen my presentations, so I’m not claiming to be a great presenter. But I would like to think that my audience (and students) at least can see and understand my slides, have time to read the words, and understand what I’m on about (most of the time!). Here are a few basics to get you started.

Tip 1: Strike a sensible contrast between text and background

Right at the beginning, try and get the presentation off to a good start. Back a few years ago when projectors were in their infancy, PowerPoint presentations looked best with a dark background and light text as these were the easiest to read and most gentle on the eye. That rule is still true, and by using a dark background you can make better use of a range of colors, colors that often look faded or indistinguishable against a light background.

The one caveat with dark backgrounds is that in brightly lit rooms, they can look washed out. So an option is to switch to a light background with dark text. Modern projectors are now able to project this combination much better than before. But be warned that in a dark room with a bright PowerPoint presentation, the people near the front, stuck immediately in front of a huge, bright, glaring screen will feel like they are being interrogated. Be gentle on the audience and they will appreciate your message all the more.

Tip 2: Use simple titles and points

Long titles that go on for more than one line is a no-no. Keep titles and bullet points short and relevant. You are the message, not your slides, so don’t over-complicate them. If you are a more accomplished speaker and use the slides as a prompt (always better than reading a script) try a few quirky bullet points. They will act as a more memorable prompt for you and will have the audience intrigued and thus more engaged. Even better, intersperse photographs that are evocative of the point rather that a PowerPoint deck of endless bullet points.

Tip 3: Get the font size and type right

Absolute minimum should be font size 16, but bear in mind that with some fonts (such as Garamond) 16 is much smaller than in another font (like Arial or Calibri). Flowery, airy-fairy fonts do not work well as they are difficult to read. Simple sans serif fonts such as Calibri are simplest to read, but always go to the back of the room prior to the presentation to check the legibility. If you can not fit your text onto the screen using a font size of 16 or more, don’t reduce the font size – reduce the number of words.

If you are taking your presentation somewhere else and using another machine, do not use some unique font you downloaded from the net, such as Ratcliffe’s Bizarro Bold Font (not a real font, I hope). The host presentation machine is unlikely to have the font. Unless you remembered to embed the font in the presentation (File > Options > Save > Embed fonts in the file), PowerPoint will default to a standard font and this will probably disrupt your layout. Stick with the basic fonts unless you know what you are doing with embedding.

Tip 4: Limit the number of bullet points

Bullet points max? 4-6 as a good rule of thumb. A presentation should be an illuminating summary of your work, not the whole damn thing - so summarize. If you really want to put in more bullet points then break your list into a number of slides with other stuff in between. Listening to a presenter reading a list that can be read faster on the screen is many people’s idea of hell. Instead of boring people with a long list, give them a handout or point them to a web page (I use for short links). Better to tell folk a few things well, than lots of things badly.

Tip 5: Avoid the trap of fancy builds and dimming

‘Builds’ is the term given to those fancy swirly ways to introduce text or other items to the screen. I’m sure you’ve seen them: text flies in from the left, then one letter is added at a time from the right, etc. If you need to use fancy builds to impress your audience then you really are struggling... Whizzy builds tend to annoy audiences, especially the slow builds accompanied by applause sounds or camera clicks. Regular conference attendees have seen them all and are not impressed. They also distract from what you are saying and your message. Avoid slow or complicated builds and transitions between slides. Use only the simple stuff. Wipe, Fade, or Appear. That's all you need.

Dimming is the term given to the dulling, or worse, the disappearance of text or objects once the next item has been introduced. Legislation should be in place to prevent presenters showing you a bullet point and then hiding that point when the next point arrives. Most conference attendees have a modest attention span (and I’m being generous here). It is therefore annoying for them to look up after a few seconds mental time-out (i.e. checking their iPhone) and find they have missed the first points. Never dim segments of a chart as chart segments are only valuable if seen in proportion to the other elements.

Tip 6: Don’t rely on the spel chequer

This should be an obvious one, but I’ve seen one academic talk to a room full of 600 law enforcement personnel with slides that said pubic order instead of public order. Form instead of from, policy instead of police – there are lots of common mistakes (the importance of maintaining pubic order is still a favorite of mine though). Remember to plan your presentation prep well in advance: the more you are in a rush the more you will make mistakes here.

Tip 7: How to bore – include technical detail

There is nothing more soporific than large equations on a PowerPoint presentation (unless your whole presentation is to a room full of statisticians about a new algorithm you have just created). Complex, illegible flow diagrams with too little time spent explaining them can also do it. The presentation should be a short, catchy and impressive summary of your work. Don’t impress them with how much you have done, just impress them with what you have done. If you must include technical detail, give them a handout afterwards, or better still, point them to your most recent book/article/publication.

Tip 8: Maps and graphs rarely fail

To help with maps look at my top ten crime mapping tips and I suggest you look at this for charts as well. Maps are great for PowerPoint presentations as a picture really does say a thousand words. Never assume that your audience will know where you are talking about (for example, entertainment can be had asking Americans to name the capital of Australia or Canada). Charts and graphs should be simple and never have more than about 5 pieces or components. Line and bars are good for showing time periods, pie charts must show all parts (i.e. 100%) and surface charts can show general trends. Don’t cram too much in, and don’t dim any part of a chart (see tip 5).

Tip 9: Continuity across slides is essential

If you really want to annoy your audience, change the builds, fonts, colors and styles regularly throughout your presentation. That will really hack them off, and it looks really amateur. Good presentations are slick, professional and maintain a style throughout. Your organization may already have a corporate style, but don’t feel you have to throw away the tips here if they do. Decide on a color scheme and a couple of key fonts (Title, heading, text for example) and stick to them.

Tip 10: Finish on your title slide or a black screen

You just finished your presentation, it has gone superbly well, and then you give away all the magic and let the audience see the trap door underneath the stage. When you finish talking show your title slide again with your contact details or end on a meaningful quote so that they can concentrate on your message and how good you are. Don’t let them see the slide layout view at the end, especially if you have unused or hidden slides. Doesn’t look good and will distract the audience just when you had won them over.

I've some more advanced PowerPoint tips, but these are the basics to get you started.

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