How to Make Unforgettable PowerPoint Presentations

Imagine the scene.  It’s Friday night. It’s been a long, hard week. You’re slouching back on the sofa with your significant other. You’ve got the chocolate, the popcorn — you’re ready to let your imagination be whisked away for a couple of hours by whatever old movie is on TV…

See? That’s what you’re doing when you share your boring documentation instead of focusing on your audience’s experience. It may not be Friday night, it may not be the movies, but make no mistake, your audience wants to be entertained. By cutting-and-pasting information designed for personal/office use into a document intended for theatrical presentation, you risk boring your audience to tears.

Put yourself in your audience’s shoes: Why are they here? Did they really come to see you? Or did they come to escape their boring offices, their imprisoning screens, where they sit all day and stare at similarly dull documents. 

Many blame PowerPoint and its (untended) design philosophy. Me, I think it’s a historical accident: PowerPoint evolved in the same stable as Word and Excel. It felt natural to users to cut-and-paste stuff from one application to another.

These days, the old digital ecosystem — individual office computers equipped with common desktop (typically Microsoft) applications — has been transformed. Today we can watch the world’s best presentations online.

A new set of design principles is emerging around these world-class slide presentations. Here are some tips I can share, based on observed best practices mixed with personal suggestions:

  • Use no more than two different font faces in your presentation
  • Use fonts with personality instead of the standard fonts that come on your computer
  • Use a large font face (point sizes above 50 and higher)
  • Embed the font when you save so it won’t be substituted if you share the file (embedding doesn’t work Mac — an alternative is to save as a PDF; also, embedding only works with TrueType fonts)
  • Use a bold colour scheme with high contrast and no more than three colours
  • Be minimal — avoid the usual PowerPoint frills (headers, borders, etc.) that you see in PowerPoint templates
  • Include no more than 10 words (preferably less) per slide
  • Make use of powerful images — Flickr: Creative Commons is a great source
  • Try to convey one simple message per slide — no more
  • At all times, consider the presentation from your audience’s point of view
  • Don’t bombard them with information — focus on getting around three big messages across
  • Get those three messages across in an entertaining way
  • Try to work a flow — a story — into your presentation (beginning, middle, end — with ups and downs)
  • Include some surprises / delights — unexpected slides, things your audience wouldn’t have seen coming
  • NEVER use humour (just kidding, obviously!)

But I have one last tip to help you to make your presentation unforgettable. It was the mantra of late, great adman Paul Arden:

Be Brave

Arden once had to address a large conference. For forty minutes, an actor stood beside him speaking gobbledygook, while Arden flipped through a series of utterly meaningless visual charts. In one way, the presentation was totally boring. Some of the attendees grew angry and walked out. But Arden was making a point.

And nobody who saw it ever forgot that presentation.