A bold statement, I know. PowerPoint is the definition of ubiquitous – it’s installed on more than a billion devices, and millions of slide decks are created every day. The problem is, most of them aren’t very good. Slides and bullet points can give structure to ideas that have none, lending the appearance of meaning to meaningless content. Who among us hasn’t sat through a disjointed presentation that’s confusing and sleep-inducing?
This isn’t a problem with the software itself but rather user error. The most common PowerPoint practices cause people in the audience to lose focus and tune out, totally negating the function of the presentation in the process. These “worst practices” are somehow as ubiquitous as the software itself, and we are all punished as a result.
Let’s take a walk through 3 of these common ways presentations destroy themselves. Hopefully I can impress upon you the importance of avoiding these pitfalls and inspire you to do better.
Worst Practice #1: Too much content
Take a look at this example slide. Really look at it.
We’ve all seen slides like that. I’ve made many of them myself, at a client’s request. And the question I always ask is, how long does it take for your mind to wander? My guess would be within 10 seconds. There’s just too much content. Between the numbered “Key Issues” and the sub-bullets, there are 12 lines of content and 12 separate ideas. The audience (or the reader, in this case) cannot focus and absorb everything, so their mind gives up and wanders.
In addition, this exercise we just completed is exclusively a visual medium. Imagine if someone was giving a presentation with this slide in it – visual and audio. In that type of setup, the audience has the choice to listen to the presenter or read the slide. The density of the content means the audio and visual content streams are fighting for the same space, and only one will reach the audience member’s mind and be absorbed.
Fortunately, the solution is simple: less content on the slide.
In this example, the sub-bullets are removed and the font size is bigger. Reducing the volume of visual content frees up some of the audience’s mental processing power, which can be re-directed to what the presenter is saying. This revamped slide also serves as a functional outline for the rest of the presentation – the sub-bullets from the original slide can be explored later on and given full weight, as opposed to being crowded out by each other.
Worst Practice #2: Boring Bullet Points
The seductive siren call of bullet points is clear: they are an easy way to structure information. Often there’s too much content, which causes people to tune out (see above). But beyond content density, bullet points are boring. 12 slides with bullet point lists of varying length will lose the audience’s interest even if the content is both interesting and paced correctly because it all blends together visually.
Thankfully, PowerPoint has plenty of ways to create bullet point alternatives.
Here, you are seeing the exact same information as the reduced content slide from worst practice #1. The difference is in the way those bullet points are packaged. Both of these designs were made with colored shapes from the “Insert” ribbon. Circles, lines, a big rectangle, and strategically placed text boxes can create much more dynamic display for content that will keep the audience’s attention.
Using visual alternatives to bullet points also helps content stand out when appropriate. In this example, the outline of content is bold, dramatic, and high-contrast: it tells the audience that this slide is important without being overwhelming. Try using some simple shapes to spice up the content of your presentations; your audience will appreciate it.
Worst Practice #3: Conflicting design choices
PowerPoint has many options to add bits and pieces to a slide, and there’s always a risk of cluttering or crowding out the content. Things like clip art, word art, and random pictures are much more likely to distract the audience then enhance the presentation. Don’t clutter your slides! This concept also extends to subtler concepts like color schemes and geometric designs.
In the above example, both of the bullet point alternatives use the same shade of blue in different ways. The bubble design uses blue as the accent color against a white background, while the grid design uses the blue as the base slide color, with white as the accent color. This is intentional, as the vast majority of corporate logos and design pallets heavily use blue in different shades. Failure to use a consistent color scheme can lead to slides like this:
Although the grid design and content are the same as the example from above, the color scheme distorts the message. Notice the yellow box pulling your eyes to the bottom right of the slide after a few seconds, and yet the content it contains is relatively unimportant. Design choices need to be made in sync with content because the way that content is framed and presented will have a dramatic effect on how the audience perceives it.
PowerPoint is a blank canvas on which you can create almost anything. However, the presentation zeitgeist has coalesced around “worst practices” that distract the audience and distort the message of the slides. I’ve shown you the 3 most common problems in PowerPoint presentations and ways to combat them:
- Put less content on the slide so the audience can both read it and listen to the presenter
- Change up your bullet points – find ways to display content differently so it doesn’t get stale
- Use colors, contrast, and design intentionally to enhance your presentation and communicate insights
Put these ideas together in your presentations to convey your message better, hold the audience’s attention, and give them something to remember.