Five Quick Tricks to Design Your PowerPoint Presentation

PowerPointMacIf you’re in a profession where you see presentations on a regular basis, you’ve probably heard all the hate-talk directed at Microsoft PowerPoint. The hatred runs deep. On a list of hated design-ish things, it fights for first place with the typeface Comic Sans. In fact, it has become so uncool to use PowerPoint that simply using a different program (like Prezi or SlideRocket or Slidshare) has seemed to make presenters suddenly be cool again. For a moment, anyway.

Truth is, though, PowerPoint isn’t the problem. If a presentation sucks, and the PowerPoint that the presenter is using sucks, the problem isn’t the presentation software. It’s the presentation design. And simply switching content to a different platform (making it annoyingly zoom in and out in a Prezi) won’t make the presentation any better. In fact, it often makes it worse.

If you’ve got a presentation coming up, you might take a moment to rethink what you’ve been doing with PowerPoint. Don’t be afraid to use PowerPoint; just use it well. 🙂 Here are five quick tricks to make your PowerPoint work:

Quick Trick #1: Use a Solid, Plain Background
If you’ve got content that you want your audience to see, then don’t distract them with the background. Think about all the websites you like to look at. Most of them will have very simple, very plain backgrounds. And think about books! Pretty much all books that are meant to be read have solid white backgrounds. There is nothing wrong with a plain white or plain black background. And, in fact, it is almost always recommended for presentations. Note: if you are presenting in a bright, well-lit room, a white background with black text is best. If you are presenting in a dark, low-light room, then use a black background with white text. Oh, and avoid the cheesy, cliche templates. You don’t want do have the same exact design as the guy presenting right after you, do you?

Quick Trick #2: Have Far More Pictures and Graphics than Text
You’ve probably heard numerous people (yourself included) say: “I’m a visual learner.” There’s plenty of research to suggest that most of us are. In fact, there is a design theory called the “Picture Superiority Effect” that suggests people are able to recall significantly more information (up to 80% in some cases) when a picture is used to communicate instead of text. Most of us claim to know this; why, then, do so many people STILL use so much text on PowerPoints? Avoid the temptation. Even bulleted lists are annoying. Think about it: when you see text on a PowerPoint, do you try to read it all? Or do you read the title, and then zone out? One of the big problems with text on the screen is that the audience will try to read it, then try to listen to you, then try to read, etc. The back-and-forth makes it difficult to understand, since most people can’t read and listen at the same time but you’re visually telling them to do so. It’s okay to use only an image on a slide. And if you are talking about something that doesn’t have a good picture to go with it, use a blank slide. Yes, this is okay! The audience will then focus on you while you’re saying something important.

Quick Trick #3: Pick a Good Color Scheme
You really shouldn’t ever use more than four colors to dominate any document. PowerPoints are no different, but if the only thing you color are headings, text, and a rule or shape, you’ll want even fewer than that. But whether you use two or five, you’ll want them to match (and don’t just try to eyeball it!) One of the best websites out there for getting good color schemes is kuler.adobe.com. Remember the mood of your content, too. Color has a psychology to it, and some colors shouldn’t be used for certain purposes. A general rule is that bright, saturated colors are used for children and for exciting, happy topics; desaturated, bright colors are used for friendly and professional settings; desaturated, dark colors are for serious and professional settings. And, just to be clear: never do light colors on light colors (yellow on white) or dark on dark (blue on black). And NEVER do blue on red or vice versa!!!

Quick Trick #4: Use Repetitive Elements
To make your PowerPoint look professional, you’ll want to tie your entire PowerPoint in, as a cohesive document. One really effective way to do this is to use repetitive design elements. Think of an icon that represents your theme. Tell an anecdote at the beginning of your presentation (maybe about a tree or something) and then use an icon of a tree in the bottom corner of every slide. Something. Also, keep your typefaces repetitive. All headings should be in the same place and the same size. And they should be the same font. You won’t want to use more than two typefaces for the entire presentation, keeping the document consistent.

Quick Trick #5: Be Creative, But Don’t Go Crazy
One enormous pitfall with PowerPoint is using too many animations or crazy effects. See this great (and funny) video for where you could go wrong. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t use visual effects for some purposes. One way to really impress an audience is to have visuals coincide with your speaking (as you say stuff, make the graphics and text appear in sync, for example). Making PowerPoint do interesting things takes a bit of time, but it can have a powerful effect if done right. And the audience may even come up to you afterwards and say, “What program did you make that with!?” (That’s a good compliment when using PowerPoint, by the way, so shoot for it!) There’s actually a lot of functionality in PowerPoint if you think creatively about its options. You might take a few minutes to review this PowerPoint for some ideas. To get the full effect, though, you’ll need to wait several minutes on each slide, since it is synced with a presentation script. If you just wait on the title slide and slide 2, you’ll get some interesting insight on how to sync text. Of course, you don’t always want to go crazy with these kinds of effects, but be aware that, at times, they can really make your PowerPoint pop.

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