Fifteen Weird Tricks to Make Your PowerPoint Presentations Less Terrible

One of the most awful things, for me, is having to watch someone else do something badly that I know how to do well. It’s like Josh Hamilton having to watch Esteban German take a turn at bat.

I used to do a lot of PowerPoint presentations. I don’t claim to be a PowerPoint expert, but I got to be pretty good at it. And because I am a twenty-first century human being, I have to suffer through other people’s presentations. I notice how these other people (who I’m sure are nice, wonderful people) do their presentations, and most of the time they are simply horrible and wretched.

This is not so much a guide as it is a list of useless and stupid things that I have seen people do, and that I would like them to stop doing.

1. Figure out where you are going to stand. By this I mean DO NOT STAND IN FRONT OF THE PROJECTOR. For the LOVE of GOD, people. Look. More than likely, I don’t want to see your slides anyway. But if I do want to see them, I want to see them on the screen. I do not want to see them on your shirt. It’s not that hard to figure out someplace where your audience can see both you and your slides.

2. Figure out how you’re going to change slides. You don’t always have a lot of options. Sometimes you have to put your device (your laptop or whatever, I mean) next to the projector. That’s almost always a bad call, because it often causes you to violate the previous guideline. So my advice is to invest in a clicker, and learn how to use it. That way, you can stand wherever you want and still change slides. If you can’t afford to buy a clicker (they’re fairly cheap), at least figure out how to change the slides without having to ask some random person in the audience to change slides for you. That’s a recipe for disaster every time.

3. Learn how PowerPoint works. By this I specifically mean figure out how to go back and forth on slides. There is nothing, and I say this from years of personal experience, more excruciating for your audience than the moment when you lose your place in your presentation and have to go backwards and forwards to find the right slide. This is even worse when you don’t know how to use the right-click menu and spend ten minutes fumbling through the different options before you finally figure it out. The people listening to your presentation are taking time out of their busy day to listen to what you have to say. This is probably because someone else is making them. Be considerate of their pain. Figure out how to advance your slides. Figure out how to go backwards. Figure out how to switch back and forth from the slide sorter to the slide view if you need to. Stop wasting the time of everyone in the audience who knows how to use PowerPoint and would like nothing better than to hurt you for not knowing how.

4. Put a little color in your slides. If all you do is put up black text on white backgrounds (or, God forbid, white text on black backgrounds) in your slides, that tells me something. That tells me you do not care. That tells me you put zero effort into how you come across in your presentation. On a similar note, if you use a default template – you know the ones I’m talking about, you’ve seen other people use them a thousand times – that tells me you’re lazy. I am not expecting you to be a graphic designer, but I am expecting you to use a little imagination and effort in how you come across.

5. Use consistent formatting in your slides. I am mostly talking about fonts here. Pick a font and stick with it. (I honestly don’t care if you use Comic Sans as long as you are consistent with it and as long as you don’t use Comic Sans.) Pick a font that matches your design. If your design is sleek and modern, use a sleek and modern font like Helvetica. If your design is fussy and intricate, use a fussy and intricate font like Garamond. If your design is stupid and pretentious, use a stupid and pretentious font like Trajan. Just go with what makes you happy. But just use one font, and for God’s sake make it big enough for people to read. You have a huge enormous screen. Use huge enormous fonts. Nobody likes squinting.

6. Don’t use animations or transitions unless you really know what you’re doing. You’re almost always better off not using them, so don’t. (I am looking at you, people who use animations to bring up one bullet point at a time. Stop that. It’s almost never a good idea and it’s painful to watch if you happen to screw anything up.) If you’re thinking about using animations, ask yourself a question. “Am I doing this because the animation will help me get my point across, or am I using it to look cool and impress people?” If the answer is “help me get my point across,” think about whether it actually does. If you have any doubt, don’t do it. If you are trying to look cool, think about a little self-deprecating joke you can use if it ends up not making you look cool. If you’re comfortable with that, go for it, but please don’t do it more than once in a given presentation.

7. Know if you’re funny or not funny. You either are or you aren’t. If you’re not funny, don’t force it. If you are, don’t highlight it unless you’re an actual professional comic. There’s nothing wrong with leavening your presentation with humor if you can do it effectively – but you have to know when your schtick isn’t working. If it’s not working, do a little Johnny Carson golf swing and move along. Oh, and don’t think because you used a New Yorker or a Dilbert cartoon in your slides that a) you’re automatically funny or that b) people even get it. There is something about using cartoons in presentations that doesn’t work. Half the people in the audience aren’t paying attention to your slides anyway and won’t laugh until you point out the joke and hit them over the head, and by that time you’ve lost the half that were paying attention and didn’t think the cartoon was funny to begin with. 99% of the time, you’re better off just telling the jokes and leaving them off your slides.

8. They’re slides. Don’t say “deck,” because it’s pretentious.

9. Please, do not put every single word you have to say up as a part of a slide. The words on the slides are there to do two things: telegraph to the audience what you are going to say, and to remind you of what it is you were planning to say. Your slides should be more like Twitter and less like War and Peace. Fewer words, bigger fonts. And do not make me read tiny footnotes on your slide. Save that for your research paper or whatever it is.

10. Know your content. Knowing what’s on your slides is half the battle. If you know what’s on your slides, you will be able to handle yourself much more effectively.

11. Know your audience. Whatever you do, for the love of all that’s holy, take a minute and figure out who you’re talking to beforehand, and try to tailor your presentation to that audience. This is not always easy. I had one presentation I did, years ago, where a state agency asked me to come in and talk about legal issues for their attorneys. So I did that. It turned out that all the lawyers in the agency–no fools they–went home early, and I was talking to a lot of legal secretaries and support staff. If I had known that before, I would have done a different presentation. Know ahead of time who is going to be there, and talk to them, not just some generic knot of people you don’t know anything about.

12. Know your time limit. Use fewer slides. Put the best content up front so if you have to skip slides you can do it at the end. Don’t run over time trying to squeeze in every slide, and don’t skip ten slides at a time because you ran out of time. Plan ahead. Know how many slides you need to get through and how long it will take you. Respect other people’s time. They are using their few precious hours of their day to listen to you. Make that count.

13. PowerPoint is a visual medium. Use images. (Don’t use cheap clip art, either. Google Image Search is your friend.) You’re using PowerPoint to tell a story, so make sure that the images you use help tell that story in some way.

14. Know thyself. Self-awareness is a curse, but if you have at least some degree of self-awareness, you may find that you do a better job in your presentation. The presenter who sparked this particular rant (who made almost every error on this list and others that I have kind of blocked out) had a verbal tic that drove me up the wall. It was the word “huge.” He had a stereotypical Noo Yawk accent, and the word sounded like “UUUUUUUUge.” And he kept saying it, and he kept stressing it in every sentence he used it in. “This is a UUUUUUUUge problem. It’s a UUUUUUUUUge issue.” It got to be a UUUUUUUUUge annoyance. So, listen to yourself. Understand what you do well or don’t do well. Think about how you come across.

15. Be considerate. This is the most important rule of them all – really, all the other rules are a variation on this one. Think about your audience. More often than not, they didn’t ask to be there. Somebody else made them go. They would ten times rather be anywhere else, most of them. If you can’t be interesting and entertaining – and that’s a hard thing to do for most people – at least don’t make it any worse for them than it already is.