After working with hundreds of executives on every rung of the corporate ladder, I've been a witness to some of the best and worst presentations ever created with Microsoft PowerPoint. The program is so evolved these days that there are tools, effects, transitions and settings available that will either help or hinder your effectiveness as a presenter. Everyone wants to have a powerful presentation, and there are some very simple ways to accomplish this.
First of all, keep in mind that the audience is not assembled to watch a slide show. There is nothing more sleep -inducing than a dimly lit room and dull, content-cluttered slides after a hot lunch. Take it from a frequent napper in Art History 101!
With great tools it is all too easy to forget that the message you are delivering is coming from Y-O-U. You know the material inside and out! See yourself as the focus of the show, and use support tools like Microsoft PowerPoint to reinforce the key elements of your presentation - to be your backup singer while you stand front and center.
Now doesn't that make you feel a little special? It should! For whatever reason it may be, you have been asked to speak as an expert; to weigh in with your opinion; to share your discoveries; this is your time in the spotlight so let the software and laser pens support your performance and not overpower it.
Keep It Simple, Superstar:
A good place to start is by looking at the amount and complexity of the material you need to present. An easy way to keep your presentation from becoming an uncontrollable monster is to remember the six-by-six guideline. Six bullets to a slide, six words per bullet. This is a simply brilliant way to avoid the dreaded “Presentation Karaoke" syndrome - a speech where either the presenter reads directly from the slide or the audience reads along with the presenter - or both! Six-by-six works so well, it is taught as a presentation model in many communications seminars throughout corporate America. Can you go five-by-five or seven-by-seven? Of course you can. Any individual slide may need adjustments as you go along but by keeping the six-by-six guideline in mind you're guaranteed to keep the fat trimmed from your presentation.
Let's add sub-bullets to the mix. I try to avoid subs, but sometimes that is impossible. When subs are involved, I keep them the same size or just slightly smaller as the regular first-line bullet text, and let the indentation tell viewers the next line is a sub. The default templates often reduce subs into the unreadable zone.
If you find yourself going to a second or (yikes!) third sub-bullet, you need to re-work your material. Perhaps by changing the headline to a shortened version of your first full bullet, or losing the first actual “bullet" to create a sub-head. I find that presenters often create a headline and hold it through an entire section. A full page “chapter" slide at the beginning of a new portion of material will allow you to then change each subsequent slide headline and make it more custom to the material in the bullets below. In a fluid presentation your audience won't forget your subject.
"But, but, but. . . If you have the space, why not use it?" The answer is simple. Your slides are there to drive home or re-state important points, to help with keywords a note-taking audience member should jot down, and to preface or summarize your presentation or “chapters" within. There's nothing worse than having so much on a slide that you either cannot get through the material, or the audience cannot read everything because the font is too small.
In an average presentation, a speaker will hit two to three slides a minute. That alone will guide you into choosing your words carefully to cover everything you put on the screen. If you don't plan on speaking about something, or assume you will skip through certain segments, remove that material from your slides. Bullet points remaining untouched will leave your audience asking mental questions instead of listening to you!
Charting a Course to Success:
Here is a pet peeve of mine I see far too often. A chart with so much information on it that nobody in the audience would be able to take it all in during the short time it is onscreen. Not to name names, but financial analysts and engineers with timelines tend to be the biggest offenders when it comes to charts! Granted, there is value to showing a trend-line over a period of time - any stockbroker will tell you that. Obfuscation typically occurs when too many ticks are labeled. This can leave a junkyard of 10 point, aliased text that does nothing but look horrible.
The fixes are easy. If your trend is over twenty years, just give us five year labels. We realize the spaces between are non-labeled years. If you have a particular peak or valley, call it out in the chart area rather than on the axis. Put a star at the peak or use a different colored line for emphasis. If your budget goes from zero to $1,000, just give us $0, $500, and $1k. Label your bars with “Show Value" instead. Trust me when I say anyone with particular questions about a chart will seek you out after the program, bring it up in Q&A, or e-mail you about it later.
If you're the type to put a chart into your presentation then say onstage, “I know you can't read this, but. . . " Do something about it before hitting the podium. By admitting to the audience that your chart is useless, you're also saying you don't value their time. Dropping off some data and increasing the size of the remaining font should do the trick, and it doesn't take much work. For particularly complex charts and graphs, create two versions! With a simple on screen version and a complex, fully labeled handout version you have the best of both worlds.
Another suggestion for charts and graphs is to remain flat. The 3-D options can look good in bar charts and pies, but in my opinion nothing beats a clean, flat 2-D chart with high-contrast labels.
Fonts are a tricky beast. A creative font style you might find clever or “cutting edge" while polishing your presentation on the plane is likely to come off as silly when it hits the screen. Creative fonts are also hard to read when used as body or even smaller headline text. An exception to using standard, clean typefaces like Arial, Palatino, or Trebuchet would be for large title slides or for Meeting Theme Logos (MTLs) which sit onscreen as your audience comes in to, and leaves the room. Other than those two situations, it's safer to stick with simplicity.
How about using Times or New York for a typeface? Fonts with a serif (the little hooks and slants on the ends of the letters) are fine to use in larger sizes - let's say 32 points and higher. The problem with using smaller serif fonts is that the thinner points in the ascenders and descenders (the lowercase j or top of the f for example) can basically disappear on-screen depending on the chosen face. Obviously, losing your type is not a best case scenario. Any font (or graphic device like an arrow shaft or the outline of a shape) which is thinner than 2 points, is very likely to disappear when projected, or to vibrate when shown on a standard NTSC video monitor. LCDs, LEDs and VGAs all do a better job compared to traditional video but it never hurts to fatten up those borders and edges a little.
A second case for sticking with basic fonts has to do with the “font load. " Every PC comes with certain universal fonts. As time passes, most PC users add fonts they find around the Web, or fonts are added automatically from programs they install.
Unless you will be presenting from your own PC, be very wary of using any fonts outside that standard font load. Microsoft PowerPoint automatically replaces any fonts, which do not exist on the “show" PC with something simple. Your material won't disappear, but it may not look the same as it did when you created your slides.
There are many times a font switch can go unnoticed – going from Helvetica to Arial is practically an even swap to the untrained eye. Other times, it can wreak havoc with your word wrapping; throwing previously “safe" text off the bottom of the screen in older versions of PPT, or making it size down in the newer versions. It's always a good idea to punch through your slides before presenting on the “show" computer.
This is a good place to talk about size. I mentioned earlier why creating slides nobody can read is a presentation disaster. With fonts, bigger is better. There is undoubtedly a fine line between large, and “horsey, " or too large. One old trick to check for readability is to pull up your presentation in the Slide Show mode, then lean back from your monitor and squint. This simple exercise will show you what your projected image will look like to someone in the back row of your audience. Screen sizes on location are chosen based on the size of the room so this works whether you're presenting in a boardroom, or a ballroom. The dynamics of screen distance to screen area are relative from a 32" video monitor to a 9’ by 12’ screen.
In general, I find headlines between 34 and 40 points, and body text of 28 to 34 points usually show quite well. For title slides, I head to the 60-point range for names and 40 to 50 points for title, division and company.
Call me a neat-freak, but I'm a big fan of tables. Whenever you have information which needs to line up in columns - use a table! Spacing out your columns within a text box might get it “close enough" but is that really “good enough?" Dropping a table onto your slide will ensure your decimal points line up, and using right justify on a left side column and left justify on a right side column will make comparisons or “versus" lists a cinch to read.
Using tables will also help you avoid the formatting mess I mentioned earlier when dealing with missing fonts. Your sizing and style may change, but to borrow from Led Zeppelin. . . The table remains the same.
There are many presenters who use customized backgrounds and templates these days from royalty-free websites around the world. While I whole-heartedly support this idea, it should be said that a colorful photographic background might not be your best friend without some minor tweaking.
Make sure your presentation text has high-contrast when using a custom background, template, or even a basic background color. If you have a dark color like corporate blue, maroon or purple, go with a light font like white or mustard yellow. A light background would call for darker lettering. A background color in the middle range (with a luminosity comparable to “middle gray" for you photographers out there) can often set off either a light or dark font. Contrast is the key!
If you have your heart set on a busy photographic background, try creating a large semi-transparent text area in the center by using the drawing and fill tools. This is called “screening back" in the world of print, and it will allow a “taste" of the pattern or photo to come through without muddling your words. If you have access to a paint program like Adobe PhotoShop, you can create some stunning backgrounds using blurs, overlays and tints with the simplest of tools and filters. I like to have a clear image for the MTL, then a blurred, screened or otherwise affected complimentary image for the text slides.
Fear of Flying:
I saved this subject for last because I think it's where most people go awfully wrong! Think about all the television programs, commercials, movies and sporting events you watch. Now try to recall the last time you saw a clock wipe, mosaic blocks, or barn doors to transition from one scene to another - or to bring text on and offscreen. If you're like me, it has been a while! In the same way a person who is new to videography tends to lie on the zoom in / zoom out button, people who want to add “pizzazz" to their presentation tend to heap on the wacky transitions!
For the record, here's an opinion of mine. If you have ever used ‘Random Transition" within a presentation you should have your mouse and keyboard crushed into unusable shards of plastic. Just. Say. No. The last train to Effortville just left and you were not on it.
A simple dissolve, or even a Wipe Right / Wipe Left is a communications convention we are all so familiar with that it happens without bringing attention unto itself. Why would you add a transition that shocks the audience out of “show mode" where they were concentrating on your material, and into “what the heck was that" mode? It's the equivalent of hearing a cell phone ring at the theater - it takes you out of the story and back to reality; and that's certainly no way to drive home your point at the end of a slide!
Similarly, animating text should be done with much forethought. PowerPoint is slick enough at this stage that you can produce some very clever, professional text effects. I personally like an occasional fly from any given side to create a little “wow" when called for, but my old standard will always be the Wipe Right. With a television production background, that's how we always read on bullet points from the character generators on location or in the studios. It is still probably the most-used convention for bringing text onto a program. Take a look at tonight's television news and see which transitions they use repeatedly.
The bottom line with motion is that it should always enhance your material; not detract from your presentation.
That's a Wrap:
Each presentation by every presenter will be different. We create guidelines like these knowing they have latitude to be ignored when the need arises. Understanding why powerful presentations work, and why others fail is like peeking behind the curtain at a magic show. In the end, the goal is to create a shared experience between presenter and audience. Microsoft PowerPoint can do wonders in the right hands. But just as a chef must learn his kitchen tools, successful presenters must learn the tips and tricks of using today's presentation tools.
And never forget. . . You are the star of the show.
I hope this column helps you to stay on-point, next time you PowerPoint.
Gary Lewis is a graphic designer with over twenty years of experience in television production, post production and presentation design.
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