Four Steps to Creating an Effective PowerPoint Presentation

Ugly PowerPoint presentation slide

Do your slides suck the life out of your PowerPoint presentations?  If so, here are four critical steps to creating great PowerPoint slides that you can use right now.

I think we can all agree that the PowerPoint slide in the picture is truly ugly. I’m embarrassed to say that, recently, one of my sons created a whole presentation made up of slides like that.

My son’s presentation was for medical/nursing-related study that he was invited to give at a conference. Fortunately, as part of getting his presentation ready for the conference, an adviser went through my son’s presentation showing him how to keep his slides from dragging down his presentation. As my son was telling me about the changes he was making, I heard my own voice providing this exact same advice to my clients.

But, apparently, I’ve never provided this advice to my own son.

It’s too late to fix that mistake but I can pass on what I know to you, right now. This is the result of 20 years of presenting at conferences all over the world (from Australia to the Netherlands), from studying other people’s presentations, and from taking the advice of the masters of the successful presentation (for example, cubicle ninja’s collection of the 20 Best PowerPoint Presentations,  each with a summary of what makes the presentation so good).

All of this (and more!) is covered in Learning Tree’s Public Speaking and Presentations course. The reason you want to take that course is because these changes won’t help you give the right presentation or even give you great slides: This advice is merely preventative. These are the four steps that will keep your slides from sucking the life out of your presentation.

1. Don’t Put Your Presentation on Your Slides

A PowerPoint presentation is not a document. A presentation is you speaking to another group of people. Your audience isn’t there to read — they’re there to listen to you. If your slides flood your audience with words, your audience will be torn between hearing and reading and, as a result, be distracted and confused. Instead of putting your presentation in your slides, use your slides as your speaker notes. Put enough on each slide to remind you of what you want to say at this point in your presentation. Then stop.

There’s another problem with putting a lot of words on your slides: You’ll be tempted to read those words to your audience. Nothing (let me repeat: Nothing) sucks the life out of a presentation faster than watching someone read their own words out loud.

2. Have One Main Point per Slide

Every slide of your PowerPoint presentation should cover exactly one point. The content of the slide expresses the one point you will expand on when you get to that part of your presentation. If you have two main points on a slide then, by necessity, one point will be first and one will be second. As a result, your slide — what your audience sees — will emphasize one point over the other. That’s probably not what you want (OK, there is exactly one situation when it’s OK to have two points on a slide: when the point of the slide is to show the relationship between two items. Otherwise, it’s a mistake).

This rule also gives you a good check on the breadth of your presentation. If you follow this rule and find that you have “too many slides” then the problem is not that you have “too many slides”: The problem is that you’re trying to cover too many points in a single presentation.

3. Avoid Words Completely, If You Can

Your audience is going to be listening to you talk. And, assuming that your presentation doesn’t consist of interpretative dance, your talking is going to involve words. Your slides, on the other hand, are what your audience sees — they provide the visual reinforcement to your words. Since that’s true, you should be turning your slides into graphics. Find an image that makes your point, a graph that demonstrates how your numbers relate to each other, or create an infographic that sums up what you’re trying to communicate. Even playing with the text (placing text blocks beside each other rather than after each other, nestling a graphic inside the text rather than after the text) will help.

One of the great things about graphics is that the brain processes them much, much faster than your words. A graphic, therefore, makes your point quickly, allowing you to then explain and expand on the point that the graphic has already, in part, made. And, because your audience has processed the graphic quickly, that processing doesn’t interfere with your audience listening to you.

4. Tell Your Audience Where You’re Going and Where You Are

Some presentations look to the audience like salami: It appears to the audience that you just keep cutting off identical slices until you run out of salami (stuff to say). You’ve probably structured your presentation — at the very least, you have an introduction, some key points to make, and a conclusion. But just because you know what your presentation’s structure is, it doesn’t mean that your audience knows. Make your structure visible to your audience with a table of contents slide at the beginning and a title slide at the start of each section.

These structure slides not only makes your presentation’s structure visible to your audience, these slides also give you an excuse to review what you’ve covered so far and provide a preview of what’s to come. If nothing else, they tell your audience how much longer they have to suffer.

Getting the Right Presentation

These four changes won’t make a great presentation (for that, you have to interest your audience  and tie what you’re talking about to what to matters to your audience). But these four steps will create slides that support your presentation instead of sucking the life out of it. Really, these four changes are the least you can do for your audience.

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