The art of making PowerPoint look good

As my colleagues are well aware, I am a pedant. I find this a particularly useful characteristic when it comes to writing research papers. Tables and figures need to be accurate and clear. Layout of the text must be consistent. I am a stickler for grammar (even blogs, to a degree; yes, I am a great fan of Lynn Truss’ book about the gun-toting panda). And a clearly reasoned argument must come across at all stages, with carefully structured and fluid prose. I hope that this makes my papers more likely to get through the peer review process, and it certainly seems to reduce red pen being scrawled over drafts by my co-authors (read “boss”). More importantly, I think it makes it far easier for readers to understand the message I’m trying to convey.

Of course, a closely related area where I think pedantry can be equally helpful is when it comes to PowerPoint presentations. After all, you are still trying to tell a story and sell those key messages, so attention to detail matters. And with presentations, you may only get one shot at it. With a paper, readers can always go over your paper again, propping open their eyelids with matchsticks and consuming vast quantities of caffeine until they finally manage to “get” the point you are trying to make. In a conference or seminar, they’ll simply fall asleep, or alternatively resort to playing Angry Birds on their smartphone.

I’m not a graphic designer, but as an academic I’ve seen a lot of scientific presentations over the years. The vast majority of presentations are done with PowerPoint, and – I shall be blunt – many look crap. Some people have turned to alternatives to PowerPoint in an effort to improve presentations. Prezi appears to be a favourite at the moment, although I reckon those “cool” motion-sickness-inducing effects are losing their originality somewhat. Other systems are also available – just Google it. But assuming you are compelled by the conference authorities to use only PowerPoint, what can you do to improve things? Here’s a few tips, hopefully relevant to both a ten minute conference presentation or a one hour lecture.

1. Have a clear message

Let’s be frank. Flash graphics and special effects may help, but they cannot turn poor underlying structure and content into a good presentation. So my number one tip is to have a clear message. Organise the presentation in a clear, logical manner, with a beginning, middle and end. Use key individual (yes one, not two) slides to present essential points such as aims, research questions, key findings and important conclusions. I usually start by sketching out my presentation on paper, before moving on to getting the text of the slides written. People love stories. Tell a good one. The pictures come later.

2. Stick to the essentials

All too often, presenters try and get down every tiny detail of methodology and results. Generally, this is a bad idea. Usually there is no need to mention that you applied for the obligatory ethical permission for your clinical trial, or to list a table containing all 47 coefficients of your mixed-effects logistic regression model. If you yourself are not able to identify the key methods or results that matter, your audience probably won’t be able to either. Less is more. Use handouts or separate “extra” slides at the end if you need to address the minutiae during the question and answer session.

3. Go slow

Many presenters rush through their slides. Always cut the detail rather than talking faster. Some people advocate having one slide per minute, but I think it’s better to find what works best for you (I’m probably nearer 1.5 slides); take more time if there is a particularly important or challenging concept you need to get across.

4. Keep slides simple

This is related to the previous three points. Loads of text on a slide is hopeless, as the audience will not be able to read a big chunk of prose whilst simultaneously listening to you talking. And generally, simply reading the entire text off the slide verbatim doesn’t come across as very professional. Better to list key bullet points, and then provide more detail by talking about them. A simple rule of thumb for the content on a single slide is a maximum of seven lines of text, one figure, or a single 5 by 7 table. Less is more. Have I said that already?

5. Who is your audience?

Make the presentation relevant to the audience you are speaking to. Don’t assume that the psychologists in the auditorium will know about the common variants of coronary anatomy, or that the cardiologists have ever heard about theories of behaviour change. At the other end of the spectrum, spending five minutes explaining the assumptions of linear regression models to an audience of statisticians will not win you many fans. Mixed audiences are common, in which case try to avoid excessive jargon and ensure key concepts are defined.

6. Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. Probably.

Practice makes perfect, so it’s usually a good idea to think about rehearsing your presentation. Avoid using notes, and talk about the slides – don’t simply read them. Make sure you’ve got the timings right; over-running is a definite no-no, so better to finish 30 seconds early than 30 seconds late. Practice in front of a mirror. Also try and get some willing colleagues, friends or family to listen and comment. Finally, try to anticipate possible questions you might be asked at the end. And when preparing answers, it’s worth attempting to use the opportunity to re-emphasise the key take-home messages again or talk up particular strengths of your work. However! A word of warning. You still need to be yourself, and over-rehearsing can potentially detract from the spontaneity and enthusiasm which might otherwise come across; if you truly know your stuff, and have a clear vision of the message you’re trying to convey, you won’t need a script to read.

7. Appearance, I guess…

Actually, I’d happily stop after my last point, but given that so many presentations look graphically dreadful, it’s probably worth making a few additional comments in relation to this area. Perhaps the most sensible suggestion in this respect would be to browse the web – there are a lot of great designs out there, and you can pick and choose what works best for you (you might even look at some of our own presentations, some of which are better designed than others…)

  • Learn how to use the “slide master” to create a single consistent theme throughout your presentation. This may involve using your institution’s standard template (although often these are awful). Avoid the built-in, unoriginal PowerPoint templates.
  • Use sans-serif fonts – the ones without the little projections at the ends of the strokes – which are easier to read. Arial or Helvetica are good examples. Avoid Comic Sans unless you specifically need the comic book lettering it is designed to emulate. Non-standard fonts need embedded in the presentation so they will work on any computer.
  • Images can help minimise text and brighten otherwise boring text-heavy slides, but a few points are worth making. Use high resolution pictures to avoid excessive pixelation, and don’t use pictures with copyright watermarks. Tweaking pictures is best done with a dedicated graphics package (GIMP is a decent free alternative to Photoshop), although PowerPoint’s crop tool is very handy. Flickr, institution photo libraries, and specialist organisations are useful image resources to complement the usual Google search. Make sure the pictures are relevant to the text and if you have more than one image on the same slide, consistent art styles or colours may help.
  • Have a decent colour palette. Check out colorschemedesigner.com if you need help working out what goes with what. Make sure your text contrasts well to make it easily readable. The all-too-common blue backdrop with yellow title and white writing looks dire.
  • Layout – keep text left justified, with decent line spacing, and avoid clutter. Use the align features and sizing tools to make sure pictures, diagrams and so on line up properly.
  • Think very carefully before including animations. In the past, PowerPoint animations were inconsistently handled by different versions of the software, but this has now improved. Nevertheless, they can still appear rather kitsch, and the quality is often slow and jerky. I generally don’t use animations unless I think they can significantly add benefit to a slide – perhaps emphasising a particular point or explaining tricky concepts – and even then I would stick to relatively simple effects (appear, fade or at a push, wipes). Slide transitions are best avoided.
  • Spelling, grammar, punctuation. Be pedantic.

Want to know more? There’s loads of examples of good (and not so good) presentations on line, both in relation to general technique and graphic design – I’d especially point readers towards:

  • A list of really useful tips by Ken Krogue at Forbes.com.
  • Garr Reynolds’ excellent blog on presentation design at presentationzen.com.
  • Some of the most inspiring speakers in the world showing how it should be done at TED.
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