The Rules of Slideshow Presentations: How To Get It Right

The Rules of Slideshow Presentations: How To Get It RightRecently I posed a question on LinkedIn: “What Are Your Rules For PowerPoint?” and got a wide array of responses. The answers ranged from “Keep it simple, stupid” to long treatises on how different businesses could use them. There was more than one admonition to just use Keynote.

My intention was to gauge how people use Microsoft PowerPoint, or any slide presentation tool in general, and find out what really irritates them when they see slideshows. I’ve already created my own video presentation called “Optimizing Slide Presentations: Don’t Think of it as PowerPoint”, in which I explain that you really have to follow rules that meet the needs and expectations of your own audience, be they B2B, B2C, investors, media, or anybody else. This question was about listening to the people rather than pushing my own agenda.

The question on LinkedIn delivered a lot of great feedback, and I’d like to share all of it with you here. I grouped the answers into several categories, based on general sentiment (positive or netagive or neutral toward Slideshows), helpfulness, whether the answer was absolute or flexible toward the use of slides, and the length of the answer. A lot of people offered truly helpful how-to ideas, and I will share those as well.

How Do People View PowerPoint?

I’d have to say there wasn’t a lot of positive or negative feedback about PowerPoint, or slide tools in general. Most respondents accepted the premise of the discussion and told me what they would do with a slideshow or a PowerPoint file. The most helpful answers were in the ‘neutral’ category, where people provided some helpful ideas that could be carried across any type of presentation tool.

One very useful idea was to think of slide design as being like a tennis racket: There is a sweet spot in the middle where accuracy, aim and impact are improved. The viewer is looking at the middle of the slide first, so this is where the most salient points should be made.

A very popular tip was about keeping the slide design ‘simple’ or ‘short’, and I agree with this. The worst slides are the ones where somebody tried to cram as much information as possible, whether graphics or text.

The idea behind a long slide is that somebody might print it out and use it to pass around, so everything should be on it. But a very useful way to avoid this is to provide a powerful leave-behind document that encapsulates the slide show in its entirety, but is not a collection of slide printouts or notes pages.

How Helpful Were The Answers?

In general, most people were extremely helpful. I read some tips that I’d never thought of, and also received links and book suggestions that are worth checking out. Three links to look at to create a better strategy for slideshows are Cliff Atkinson’s book “Beyond Bullet Points”, which talks about using storytelling, motivation and affective cognitive methods to persuade audiences; “How to Make Presentations to Councils and Boards” by Michael Wade, which covers ways to get and keep audience attention; and Seth Godin’s “Nine steps to Powerpoint magic” blog post, where he goes through a plan that will improve any presentation, whether you use slides or not.

The most helpful ideas were:

  • It’s best not to use PowerPoint to design the presentation. A lot of people get caught up in the bells and whistles of the software, and it’s better to develop a presentation outside of the slide deck, and go to PowerPoint in the last step.
  • Slides should be used to encapsulate what is being presented, as a summary, and most of the content should come through the presenter, not the slides. This helps eliminate another problem presenters have: reading from the slides. If you’ve only put two words there, or just an image, you’ll have no choice but to elaborate.
  • Simplify the colors used. We all love to use many colors in slideshows, but a lot of people are either colorblind or will not be able to tell one color from another because of a poor projector or computer screen. It happens. The best thing with colorful graphics is to make the differences glaring, not subtle, and make sure you could present it in black and white and still make your case.
  • If you have a ton of facts to display, drill down to the most important few and present those, then link to the larger data for people who want to dig deeper.
  • Each and every slide should include a takeaway for the audience. Otherwise, it shouldn’t be presented in the slide deck. That’s an interesting rule of thumb, because it can really focus your plan for your presentation slides.

Only a handful of answers were unhelpful or didn’t answer the question. These were either negative toward PowerPoint or were simply advising simplicity, with no further details.

How Flexible Should The Rules Be?

This was an interesting facet of the LinkedIn question. Perhaps it was because I worded the question about the ‘Rules’ for PowerPoint, but about half of the answers were in the absolute category, in which I regarded any answer that was a list of bullets such as “No more than 7 words per bullet,” or “No more than 5 bullets,” as being absolute. The more flexible answers included anything that started with “It depends on…” or “If you’re presenting to…”. I was glad that half of the answers offered flexibility.

The reasons for this flexibility were varied. In some cases, it depended on the type of audience. In others, the context or the type of event matters more. This makes a lot of sense. If you present to a small room of investors, your presentation is going to be short, and will cycle slower between slides, but the slides will include a great deal of detail. If you present to a large audience at a trade show, you will probably use more slides and cycle them faster to keep momentum going, and you would have a lot less information on each slide.

Another point of flexibility was about getting to the point. In some cases, you need to bring people through the ‘story’ from point A to point B to point C and so on. In other presentations you would establish the primary point, show details that support it, and then re-state it again. It depends on what you’re trying to do.

I also tracked the overall length of the answers, and the majority were short: just a few words, lines or sentences. That did not affect how helpful the answers were, however. Some of the shortest ones were extremely focused and useful. The longer answers, in general, were helpful as well.

PowerPoint, or slideshows in general, are a fact of life, and there’s not much a marketer or a sales professional can do to avoid them. The gathering of great ideas and tips is always a worthwhile effort, so I hope the answers to my LinkedIn question can help you create better slideshows that match your audiences.


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