PowerPoint has gotten a bad rap over the years. In fact, during graduate school, my program director actually told us at one point that we couldn’t use PowerPoint for our comprehensive exams (which is an oral presentation in front of all the faculty and students required for graduation) because PowerPoint slides were too cliche, too dull, too obnoxious, too outdated, or whatever other undesirable quality you might slap onto a digital presentation platform.
So what was the reaction? Students in my program latched onto Prezi or SlideRocket or even Wix—which is actually a web design program. And the result? Just as bad, if not worse visual presentations in many cases (trust me, Prezi doesn’t solve the world’s problems; the zoom-in, zoom-out feature has lost it’s novelty; it’s obnoxious).
The truth is, whether you use PowerPoint or Prezi or anything else, you can’t blame the software for the presentation. PowerPoint is a tool; it isn’t content. Microsoft word doesn’t tell beautiful (or awful) stories, the author does. And so it goes with PowerPoint presentations: if you fill them with bad content and design, your presentation flies right out the window. How you mesh the digital slides and design with the content you deliver makes all the difference. Take the time to design a PowerPoint well and people won’t even realize it’s PowerPoint (which, by the way, became my challenge in graduate school; I ended up using PowerPoint for my exams and felt complimented when several asked me afterwards what program I used).
If you want to know a few tricks for designing good PowerPoint presentations, check out my Five Quick Tricks to Design Your PowerPoint Presentation. But if you just want to know what to avoid when giving a PowerPoint presentation, here’s a list of my top twelve most annoying PowerPoint presentation mistakes. If these 12 tips aren’t enough, see my infographic on 40 Ways to Screw Up a PowerPoint Slide
#1: Too Much Text, Even in Bullets
No matter how many times we hear that too much text in PowerPoint is bad, it seems like the message just isn’t getting through. Seriously, how many people have you met that say that they are a “textual learner”? There are few people on this planet that would admit to liking staring at text more than they like staring at pictures. Text takes time to read and it is boring to look at. But perhaps worst of all, when an audience is given text, they will, out of habit, attempt to read it. As they do so, you will be talking and they won’t be listening—because they’re reading. But they won’t be able to concentrate on what they’re reading because, well, you’re talking. It’s the vicious cycle of PowerPoint un-communication. Besides just showing a lack of creativity, text (even in bulleted lists) actually impairs your ability to communicate! (Okay, sure, some text is necessary and expected on occasion, but don’t make text a trend for every slide and, if you feel a bulleted list is absolutely necessary for a particular slide, then don’t use more than four or five bullets.)
#2: Bad Contrast
Unless your goal is to give your audience a serious headache (which, don’t get me wrong, might occasionally be your goal), don’t use dark colored text on dark backgrounds or vice versa. The more visual contrast, the more enjoyable your slides will be to look at. Light blue on white? No. Blue on purple? No. White on yellow? You’ve got to be kidding! (But I’ve seen it, sadly, done.) Truthfully, the best contrast is black on white or white on black. If you do white on black, you’ll need to increase your font size a bit. Use color elsewhere. After all, pretty every book you’ve ever read uses white paper and black ink, correct? PowerPoints should be no different. Use color for headings, titles, and images. Not for bulk text (but you really shouldn’t have very many bulk amounts of text….) And do you want to know the biggest contrast faux pas? Don’t EVER use blue text on a red background or vice versa. Research has shown that those two colors on top of each other on a digital screen actually clashes so much, to many people the colors appear to vibrate. Now that’s a serious headache in the making!
#3: Staring at the Screen
Your PowerPoint slides should be used to supplement your presentation, not serve as a crutch. Don’t assume that having all your content on the slides means you don’t have to practice. One of the most annoying, unprofessional, and overt demonstrations of presentation slacker-ness is staring at the screen, reading your content to your audience. Even if you don’t have much text, avoid the pitfall of talking to the screen (it happens more often than you would believe). If you are shy and hate being in front of people, practice standing forward and moving your eyes to different parts of the room, but all in the vicinity of where your audience is. Look at audience members’ hands, hair, shirts. This isn’t as good as eye contact, but it is a whole lot better than putting your back to them and relying on the screen to do the talking.
#4: Standing in Front of the Screen
You would think that most presenters would have an immediate aversion to standing directly in front of the screen. The blinding projector, it seems, would be enough to encourage him or her to move out of the way. Surprisingly, though, I’ve seen a number of presentations where the presenter would just stand right in front of the screen for uncomfortably extended amounts of time. The problem with standing in front of the screen? Your face will turn blue and start to glow, which is a bit creepy. You cover the content your audience is trying so hard to stare at. You get weird shapes and shadows moving across your forehead and chest. You make shadow puppets behind you (who are quietly mocking you). Mostly, standing in front of the screen just makes the audience uneasy and they will feel restless until you move away from the bright light.
#5: Animating Stuff Just Because You Can
Creativity is a good thing. But making your text boxes swirl and dance on the screen isn’t creative. In fact, all that does is prove to your audience that you found the animation button and that you don’t know how to use it. There are times, sure, when you may want to create a really cool visual effect. Your presentation may benefit from the occasional fade-in/fade-out function. But unless you are willing to spend dozens of hours creating a fully-animated, experiential presentation, leave the animations out. Steve Jobs was known for giving some of the most audience-captivating presentations when he presented the iPhone. Did he ever use animations in his slides? No. He didn’t. And for most intents and purposes, neither should the rest of us. Is the cheerleader to the left driving you nuts yet? Animations in a PowerPoint will do the same thing to your audience.
#6: Using the Pre-Installed Templates and Fonts
Templates and default fonts aren’t all bad—if you’re in a real hurry, if you’re lazy, if you’re uncreative, or if you have a hard time coming up with new ideas on your own. Using templates and defaults, I suppose, is better than creating a horribly ugly design, but just know that you won’t impress anybody. Just a tip: a solid white background with a really nice font (like Coolvetica, for instance) can look amazingly clean, simple, and sexy. You don’t have to be a design wizard to move away from the defaults.
#7: Toggling in and out of PowerPoint
Disneyland goes to great lengths to make sure its patrons never see the actors underneath the Mickey costumes and they certainly don’t let you know where they change clothes. Why? It takes away from the ambiance. As soon as you can see underneath the hood, the magic is lost. The same goes for a PowerPoint. Nothing is more disenchanting than watching a presenter toggle (minimize) out of PowerPoint to show a video clip on YouTube, then pull PowerPoint back up and reload the presentation. Yuck. No more magic presentation. No more fairies and pixie dust. Just plain old clunky computer software.
#8: Using Clipart (and Not Enough Useful Images and Graphics)
The problem with clipart isn’t so much about the cutesy and tacky aura that it emits (although there is something to be said for that, too). The real problem is that presenters often use cheap clipart to make their presentation more visual without having any real purpose for each image. You may, for instance, need to give a presentation on dairy production in your community. That doesn’t mean you need a goofy image of a cartoon cow to talk about it. What does that cow teach me, the concerned member of the audience, about how the struggling dairy industry will impact my local economy? What I need to see are images that tell a story about the dying industry and its challenges, and infographics that explain processes for overcoming the hurdles. You need a lot of visual information, yes. But it also needs to be relevant.
#9: Freaking Out When Something Doesn’t Work
I watched a painful presentation one time where the woman presenting couldn’t get the sound to play or the images to show or the Prezi to download. She freaked out. Her embarrassment turned into an awkward rant of denial where she began blaming the tech staff that recently fixed her computer, the building maintenance crew for not setting up the equipment right, her supervisor or not giving her ample time, and on and on. The truth is, we all knew what was really happening: she was incompetent, under-prepared, and arrogant. That’s all I remember from her presentation; not what she mustered together later. When you go into a presentation, get there early and check the equipment. And always have a backup plan. We all have had troubles with technology; people will forgive you if you’re cool about it. As soon as you flip, you’ve lost all credibility with the audience.
#10: Using Weird Fonts
Even if they’re calling your name, avoid them. PowerPoint presentations are not the place to use crazy fonts, no matter how appealing they seem. When you use text, it should be immediately legible. Century Gothic is nice. So is Coolvetica or Arial or any other simple sans serif font. But don’t be using Chiller, Curlz MT, or Rage Italic. They’re not cool; they’re weird. And they’ll make you look weird for using them.
#11: Putting Important Stuff by the Edges
The funny thing about giving a presentation is that you often don’t know what the room will look like until you get there. What if you put some really important text at the bottom of each slide only to discover that there is a non-removable table in front of the scree where you are presenting and the audience can’t see it? Or, what if the screen is slightly smaller than the projector projects your image (and you can’t reach the projector)? I’ve seen both of these happen. If you want to plan ahead, keep all your important information in from the edges. Then, if something gets cut off, it’s no skin off your back.
#12: Don’t Use a Bad Color Scheme
If you’re not good with colors, just use black and white. There’s no shame in that. Your presentation ought to be full of images and diagrams anyway, not a lot of text and fancy stuff, so black and white is fine. If you want to use color (it does have a nice touch sometimes), then keep your color scheme to about three or four colors and two might even be better. Keep it simple and avoid clashing colors. Oh, and don’t use holiday color schemes—green and red; orange and black; purple and yellow; red, white, and blue—unless you change their saturation and add in a third/fourth color that isn’t part of the holiday.