12 Ways to Embarrass Yourself with PowerPoint


Powerpoint cartoonDuring my many years of working in audiovisual and conferencing I have seen thousands or presentations. Let me rephrase that, thousands of really bad PowerPoint presentations.

The great illusion is that PowerPoint will make mediocre content more interesting. What is actually does is anesthetise the audience into a dribbling stupor, rendering any brilliant glimpses of content unrecognisable.

The expertise of a speaker is usually no indication as to the quality of the presentation.

Surgeons tend to be the worst. Their topics are generally so specialised that only three people on the planet know what they were talking about and often their PA makes their PowerPoint presentation. They often don’t see the presentation until they present it. There is nothing funnier than seeing an aging surgeon, who probably invented genetic engineering for all we know, fumbling with a slideshow full of clipart, sound effects and text whizzing all over the screen.

In the corporate world, I continue to see woeful presentations, badly presented. So, before you fire up PowerPoint for another presentation, here are a few tips to save your audiences’ sanity and make you look like a genius.

Dilbert strip on PowerPoint

1. Do you really need one?

The best communication comes from:

  • face-to-face;
  • lots of eye contact; and
  • interaction with your audience.

A PowerPoint presentation will completely stifle your connection with the audience – if you rely on it.

PP will cramp your style when it comes to a smooth sales repartee and it will certainly steal the focus from your words.

No presentation is better than a bad one. Spend your time rehearsing your content rather than making complicated diagrams.

2. Rehearse it, don’t read it

One of the most common errors that speakers make is reading their PowerPoint out to the audience. Don’t insult them. They can read all by themselves!

Your slideshow should not be a  script.

3. Use less words

Your PowerPoint should be like ‘match of the day’ – just show the highlights.

Slides should exist to emphasise what you are saying. Add an image, use a diagram or some key words.

There is no point standing up and reading each slide it to your audience. A slide full of text is not only difficult to read, but your audience will read rather than listen.

4. How many slides?

One per point. Treat PowerPoint slides like paragraphs.

If you flick through slides too quickly, your audience may begin writhing around in an epileptic fit. If your presentation goes too long they’ll die of boredom. Bullets don’t kill people… well maybe they do.

5. How Many Bullets?

Presenter’s University suggests the ‘666 rule’ for simplicity in design: No more than 6 words per bullet, 6 bullets per image, and 6 text slides in a row.

I would even go for less. Here’s the Chris Garrett rule of 136. It’s much less evil, just not as catchy.

“1 slide per point, 3 bullets per slide, <6 words per bullet.”

More words = less bullets

6. Use less Fonts

Two fonts. No more! Use standard fonts like Arial, Times and Verdana in case you have to present on a computer other than your own. If you need fancy fonts, build them into a graphic.

7. Clip art is not art

I think the clipart thing has been more than covered in the last decade. Now only surgeons and primary school teachers still use it, but it’s worth mentioning again.

It looks cheap and amateurish.

Stock photos come a close second to clipart. We all know you don’t have a black guy, an Asian woman and an Eskimo working for a stunning 20-something year old boss.

Cheesy Stock Photo

8. Animations and transitions

Again, it’s another distraction and a cheesy one at that. Your reputation will whoosh out of the room like the letters flying off the screen, one at a time accompanied by rocket ship noises.

9. Use simple diagrams and big fonts

Projectors are getting better, but you can never really rely on their quality or settings.

To be on the safe side, make everything big and chunky. Intricate diagrams are difficult to look at from a distance, as is small text. Text will always be a little blurrier on a projector, especially if it is out of focus or if your audience is drunk.

10. Use high contrast colours

Red text on a blue background is not good. Neither is lime green on light blue.

High contrast colours are the only way to guarantee visibility. Subtle light blues will generally end up some sort of green or grey colour. Greens and blues will interchange as they see fit and anything close to black will just be, well, black, especially if there is a lot of other light in the room.

11. Take time to set up the gear

I know this sounds dumb, but get there a bit early and make sure everything works. You will also waist valuable time while you faff around trying to plug the jiggitty-whatsit into the projectimy-thingy when you could be building rapport with your prospect or client. Whether you are the AV guy or it’s someone else, you will need time to set up and then relax. Focus on your speech or chat to your audience/prospects.

TIP: Bring a few spare cables and connectors just in case something decides not to work.

Set up your gear with some attention to detail. Hide cables where you can. Tape them to the floor so you don’t trip and bust your head open and line up the projection square on the screen. A trapezoid-shaped projection will make you look like a hack and possibly render the text at the small side unreadable.

Projector Tips

  • Moving the projector away from the screen will make the image bigger
  • Measure the width of the screen and double it. That is the ideal distance to place the projector.
  • Place the projector as close to the centre of the screen as possible. If it sits to the right of the screen, the left side of the image will appear bigger.
  • Keystone will fix the trapezoid effect. It will also make your image smaller, so you may have to move the projector back to compensate.
  • The APA button will return all factory settings. If it all goes pear-shaped, hit APA.
  • Let projectors breathe. They run extremely hot and need a lot of airflow. Put them on standby if they are not required.

12. Multimedia

If transporting your slideshow on a flash drive or disc, include all video and audio in the same folder and preview your slideshow from the actual disc or flash drive. Running your slideshow on a different PC can break the links to the media files.

Dilbert does PowerPoint

Less is more

I can’t say it too many times. If in doubt, don’t use it. Spend your time writing better content. Using PowerPoint is a bit like using an angle grinder for a toothbrush – you can make a right mess of things if you don’t know what you are doing.

I feel it’s insulting to make us capitalise not only one, but both P’s in PowerPoint.


Death by PowerPoint

Hans Rosling – Here’s a good example of some pretty dry content presented brilliantly with PowerPoint.

The only exception to the rules – Identity 2.0 is a presentation by Dick Hardt  that uses PowerPoint as the focus. It’s designed for large conference audiences and spreading virally on the web. The key to its success is he only ever has a very small amount of information on the screen at one time.


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