Wednesday, 4 July 2007

How to Avoid Death by PowerPoint

I keep saying - there's no such thing. There are either good or bad presentations but Microsoft are not to blame!

So how can you prepare and present the killer presentation? What should you do and what should you not do?

I've written about this before in the days of overhead projectors (OHPs) in the pages of the National CMIS Board's newsletter but there is obviously still such a need. Someone prompted me to update the article in an attempt to save conference audiences everywhere from depression and intense boredom.

So let's cover everything - the presentation itself - what should it look like, how fast should it move, should it have sound, video, special effects? Speaking - what should you say, how should you say it, using microphones without fear. The way you act - where should you stand, where should you look, can you read a script, should you stay still or move about?

Oh... that's the first lesson - tell them what you are going to tell them first... then tell them!

The PowerPoint Presentation

This should be simple and not fussy. Don't try to put too much text on screen. A presentation is not an essay.

Use a simple easy-to-read font such as Arial or Verdana. Not a font that tries to look clever but can't be read easily. Not a script (joined-up-writing) or anything with flambouyant curls or even stuff that looks informal like Comic Sans. Arial is wonderful.

Keep jargon to an absolute minimum!

Use a large font. 28 is good, 24 should be a minimum. The acid test is this. Put the presentation on your desktop screen. Now hold your hand up in front of you at arm's length as though you were signalling someone to stop. Then move away from the screen until the width of your hand just covers the width of the screen.

That's how big the presentation will look to people at the back. Some of them will have worse eyesight than you have. You should be able to read the screen easily and look away, then easily find the line you were reading when you look back.

This means that you should have no more than ten lines of writing at the very most. Aim for no more than eight. Space is good!

Yooz a spel chekker!!! Nothing looks worse than someone, who the audience thinks should know better, having spelling mistakes littered all over their presentation. If you are not sure, paste it into Word and spell check it.

It's a Rainbow!

Pick two simple colours that contrast sharply with each other and that won't cause anyone with colour blindness a problem. One for the background and one for the text. Now stick with them. Use a third colour for headings or emphasis if you must but don't have so many colours that the audience is tempted to psychoanalyse you to see if they can understand why...

Having a pastel shade as a background can be good, as it will reduce any glare that you can sometimes get from a totally white background. If you are going to have a shaded background don't have it from very light to very dark as the text will disappear at some point on the screen. Have it from very light to light, or from dark to very dark if you have white or very light text.

It helps if all slides have the same colour combinations. It is tiring to the eyes if your presentation looks like a 1970s Top of the Pops programme.

You'll Believe a Word can Fly

Keep special effects to a minimum if you use them at all. If you really must, then use them for lines of text not individual words or (worst case scenario) each letter! I once sat through a presentation where each letter appeared seperately to the sound of an old typewriter. It was funny for the first word but after ten slides of tightly packed writing, half the audience were discussing methods of suicide...

The safest is to have lines of text fly on from right to left. That way they appear in the direction you would read them. Having text fly from the left jars at the audience. The words come on screen in the wrong order and they cannot read it until the effect has stopped.

Use of special effects makes the size of your presentation file grow enormously. Limit your use of them to images and even then use the same one rather than have lots of different effects.

Sound Effects

Are naff. Don't. Not even for... Not ever.

Use sound only if you have a sound file that adds to the presentation. An interview; the sound recorded at the spot where you took the photo that is on screen, eg, to illustrate how noisy a factory is; to let the audience hear a birdsong or a piece of music being discussed or something like that. No whooshing noises. No typewriter sounds (unless a picture of a typewriter is on screen because you are teaching journalists). No ray guns or aircraft etc.


Can be very good as long as it is relevant. Video can make jaded audiences sit up and take notice. They don't have to be part of the PowerPoint file. You can switch to them by having them open behind the PowerPoint window and then use the Alt-Tab key combination (hold down Alt like you would the Shift key whilst tapping Tab) to bring the video to the front. If you are using Windows Media Player, once you have started the video running use the Alt-Enter key combination to maximise the video. The video will be shown full screen without any controls being visible. Use Alt-Enter again after it ends to close the window. Then Alt-Tab back to the presentation.


Give yourself something to say. It should not all be written on screen. Reading aloud what people can read for themselves is annoying for an audience, especially if the speaker does not add anything other than the words off the screen. If needs be, write up your presentation and then cut out two screens from every three. The two that have gone become the things you say whilst the other one is on screen!

Use diagrams on screen and talk over them. Use bullet points so that you can expand on them. Use images to illustrate what you are saying. If you can't think of any image then whilst PowerPoint is running you can press the [B] key to just blank the screen. It will go black. You can even use it as a joke and say "Whoops - well never mind I'll just talk for a bit..."

An audience will find that impressive that you are not phased by an apparent equipment malfunction. When you are ready to resume the slide show just press [B] again. Spooky! But it gives you the appearance that you know what you are talking about and are confident enough not to let a mishap bother you.

Use a script if needs be. But keep looking up - don't stay head down, ignoring the audience. And read your script aloud beforehand to "test" it. We use slightly different language and syntax for writing that can sometimes sound strange when spoken aloud.

Remember to speak clearly and (worst "crime" of all presenters) do not mumble or talk in a monotone. Your voice should go up and down, you should practice this if you talk normally in a bit of a monotone. More of this under "How do I Act" later.

If it is a large room you may need to project your voice. There's nothing worse than a presenter you cannot hear properly. If you have a quiet voice or a large room, make sure you have a microphone. It doesn't need to be an expensive bit of kit - plug a cheap one into your PC and turn up the speakers!

To do this you need to make sure the mute is not on. Go through the menus - Start > All Programs > Accessories > Entertainment and open the Volume Control. Then make sure to uncheck the box for mute in the microphone column.

Microphone Techniques

Amazingly, a microphone can turn the most fearless person into a nervous wreck. Why, I have never been able to fathom out.

So here is the John Burke easy guide to showing off with a microphone. This does not entail striking any "Elvis" poses...

Ok, now breathe... No honestly... the mic will not pick up your breathing, making it sound like an old-fashioned steam engine roaring out of a tunnel. Breath normally.

In fact do everything normally! You don't have to talk in any special way, put on a "posh" voice or feel the need to point the microphone at the audience yelling "Lemme hear ya!". Just...act...normally.

Microphones do just one thing. They make any noise coming from directly in front of them come from speakers. That's all. But that is what most presenters forget. So I'll repeat it. ...any noise coming from directly in front of them...

Microphones in conference rooms whether hand-held or fixed are directional. Stand to one side and it won't pick you up. If you have a fixed mic, on a lectern for instance, then stand still behind it. Still - not rigid. You don't have to look like a corpse that's been propped up.

If you have a hand-held mic then don't act as though it's going to explode at any moment. It won't. Neither will it give you an electric shock, turn into a death ray or anything like that. It needs to point at your mouth, not at the sky or the audience. It needs to be fairly close to your mouth too - not held down at waist height. The normal recommendation is to rest the head of the mic on the front of your chin. Then it will always remain at the same distance away so you don't sound like a fly zooming past your ear - quiet, loud, quiet - and it will be pointing more or less the right way no matter what you do. The advantage to a hand-held mic is that you can turn your head to look at the screen from a lectern, to look at the audience, to look at your notes and it still works.

With a fixed mic, if you turn your head to the side your voice is no longer heading for the mic, it is heading across the screen and you will go a lot quieter. Avoid.

How do I Act?

There are not a lot of points to make here - you can act however you want, depending on how extrovert you are, but there are some basics so let's mention those.

It's amazing how many people act as if they are giving the presentation for themselves instead of the audience. Turning your back on an audience to read from the screen is - despite all the people who do it - not a good thing. If you need to refresh your memory of what's on the screen and don't have a monitor in front of you then step to the side and turn your head whilst leaving your body pointing at no less than half the audience.

Try not to stand where you would block anyone's view of the screen. People craning their necks sideways is a clue. If you cannot avoid blocking someone's view then move about a bit. Block everyone's view but not for long. Make sure that everyone gets time to read the screen.

Here's a basic that only about half of presenters seem to get right. Enjoy yourself! Be happy. Smile. That's not a joke it's a tip. Smiling makes your voice sound far more interesting and alive. I'm not saying grin at your audience like an idiot in search of a village, just try to relax and sound interested yourself in what you are saying. If something excites you, allow yourself to sound excited. You'll start to get feedback that mentions your "enthusiasm". There's no better compliment! If you as a presenter are obviously bored by your subject, how do you think the audience will react?

Obviously you will need to choose the right moment to get excited. If teaching health and safety and about to show a video of a car accident, it's not the time to say "Watch this - this is great...!"


I can't say that enough. It is the absolute key. Giving presentations is a skill that you get better at the more you do them.

A lot of people worry that their audience might know more than they do. So here are a few tips.

The audience understand that you are speaking. Therefore they assume you have knowledge. If you say just one thing that they didn't know you have proved it. If they already knew most of what you said then their reaction will be to feel good about themselves. Not too disappointed in you. If someone asks a question that you cannot answer then be upfront and say so. Tell them you'll find out and come back to them. Make sure you get contact details if it's a conference rather than a class.

Another ploy is to ask them right back - "What do you think it means?" Involve others in the discussion. The answer may well come out. Otherwise you can again say, "well I think we've covered a lot of ground there but I'll check my own understanding tonight and we'll come back to it at the next class."

Use the same ploy, by the way, to the person who asks you the meaning to something totally obvious just to make themselves look big in front of their mates. It will soon deflate them and as long as you remain innocent, asking the rest of the class if anyone else has a problem or can explain the answer, it won't come off as being a deliberate put-down.

Discussion is now open! Leave comments here or get in touch with me directly. How did you learn to love presenting?


Chrissie said...

Wow! John, this is fab. I'm going to put a link to this on our new website. There's so many useful tips in here and stuff that, although known, isn't confirmed in writing. Watch out for a snippet in our next newsletter too. Can't wait for the next article. Chrissie, JISC RSC Northwest

Denna said...

Great work.

slappiwag said...

Thanks very much for this - I know a lot of people who could benefit from this article!

Like you say it's not that Microsoft are to blame at all. PowerPoint can be a fantastic tool when used as more than a replacement for a an OHP which as far as I remember was rarely used to its full potential either.

I particulalry like the advice on animations and sounds - less is definitely more with them.