Ten Tips to Improve Your Presentations with PowerPoint

Ten Tips to Improve Your
Presentations with PowerPoint

PowerPoint has dramatically changed the way people make presentations. Some accountants, engineers and other professionals consider PowerPoint a more essential tool than a word processing program. We are beginning to see lawyers use it in the courtroom , seminars and other legal settings. Lawyers use PowerPoint for opening and closing arguments to summarize witness testimony, outline the basic points of the case, and explain complex concepts.

PowerPoint takes advantage of the fact that most of us learn best visually. We are members of the TV generation and like variety, visuals and variation in the ways we learn new things. The term "edutainment" accurately describes how most of us like to get our information.

PowerPoint adds visual interest to our presentations, organizes our points, de-emphasizes the need for high levels of personal charisma and "speaking skills," and allows us to present to people in ways that enhance our ability to connect with and persuade audiences.

Best of all, PowerPoint is easy to learn and use. Because it is so easy to use, however, it can also be easy to misuse or not use effectively. Here are ten tips for making good use of PowerPoint in your presentations:

  1 . Make Use of Other Presentation Elements That Work Well . If you find slides that you like (and get permission), import those slides into your presentations or use them as models. If you like the colors or textures you see at a presentation, find out what they are and use them in your next presentation. Many speakers will give you copies of their slides or tell you how they prepared them. It never hurts to ask. Better yet, make use of the pre-fabricated templates and presentations that come with PowerPoint or that can be downloaded from the Microsoft web site or other sites on the Internet. PowerPoint also has "wizards" that walk you through a set of choices and automatically generate the format of your slides. Most of us are not graphics artists, but the people who put the templates and wizards together are. The point is to communicate if someone has a good way of doing things, learn from it and use it.

  2 . Don’t Overuse Effects or Overcrowd Slides . Don’t let people focus on the "gee whiz" aspects of your program. You want them to focus on the content of your presentation and on you as the deliverer of that content. Crowded slides turn off audiences and obscure your main points. Your slides should be designed to illustrate your speech, not to replace your handouts. Don’t cram them with information that belongs in a handout. Limit your points on a slide to 3 to 6 points. Avoid sub-headings. Instead, break major points into separate slides. Stick with the same backgrounds, styles and transition effects throughout your presentation. Think carefully before using animations, sound and video. It’s best to use those effects sparingly they’ll have more impact.

3 . Use Headlines Rather Than Outline Headings . The typical slide will have 3 to 6 bullet points. Compare the headings I have used for the first three points in this article with ones I could have used: " 1 . Resources; 2 . Effects; 3 . Bullet Points." Each bullet point on a slide gives you a chance to introduce, set expectations for and sell your argument on that point. Writing the points as headlines gives your presentation energy and power.

4 . Find Your Own Style . On each slide, I like to use 3 to 6 bullet points and a single, simple graphic that illustrates the slide title. I prefer to bring my points onto the slide one at a time with no special effects and I like to "gray out" points after I finish with them. This approach gives better control and pace. I typically don’t use sounds or movie clips. I’m just not comfortable with them and think that they tend to make cliched points (e.g., you say: "we hit our target" and then play an animation of, what else, an arrow hitting a target). Other people may find that sound and video work perfectly for what they are trying to do. I’ve seen people incorporate music clips, for example, very effectively. However, they are comfortable in using music. PowerPoint gives you plenty of tools to fit your style.

5 . Prepare for the Unexpected . Any experienced speaker can tell you hair-raising tales about air conditioning, microphones, seating and a variety of other elements of speaking that can go wrong. My favorite of these, by the way, is leaving the wireless mike on after you leave the room. Using presentation programs, laptop computers and projectors brings in a whole new dimension of things that can go wrong. Projectors are especially tricky I wish manufacturers would standardize where to put the on/off switches and sometimes will not work with your laptop computer. Some speakers carry whole tool kits: extra bulbs, extra hard drives, copies of the presentation on floppy disks, cords, cables and adapters. Most of the time, things work quite well, but your failures are quite visible. The best advice: get to the room early and get everything set up and tested. Find out if the meeting place has a technical person assigned to your presentation. If so, befriend that person. If you make a lot of presentations, give serious thought to buying your own projector.

6 . Think Like Someone in Your Audience . Picture what your audience will be seeing and hearing. Spend more time on content than on design issues. You can be creative but don’t be silly. A very important point: readability. Use large fonts. If you can’t fit all your points on a slide without moving to a smaller font, break the points up onto separate slides. Colors matter because they have connotations. For example, you want to avoid reds because they can agitate people negatively. Font styles and graphics choices set your professional image, so be smart in your choices.

7 . Practice, Practice, Practice . Your success with the PowerPoint presentations will depend on how comfortable you are using the program. It is vital to practice your speech and running the laptop computer at the same time because you have to do both at the same time in your presentation. If you can’t do both at once, it makes excellent sense to have someone else run the laptop computer. You don’t have to do everything, especially if it inhibits your performance. You will want to practice your talk with the person who is running the computer. I have noticed that it is easier to do full rehearsals of talks with slides than it is when using only notes. The slides make the rehearsal more fun.

8 . Storyboard Your Presentation. PowerPoint helps you think structurally about your presentation. You know you need an introduction, a conclusion and main points, all supported with arguments, stories and examples. Some people work best with outlines. PowerPoint will automatically turn an outline into a set of slides. I like to sketch out my presentations as a series of slides. This process is called "storyboarding" and is done in moviemaking. I can then conceive my presentation as a set of slides and sketch what kind of graphic I want, how many bullet points, and where anecdotes and examples will fit into the talk. I makes it easier for me to imagine the presentation in its entirety and to visualize my performance.

9 . Never Forget Your Conclusion Slide . One way PowerPoint will make you a better speaker is by reminding you that every presentation needs a conclusion. Too many speakers simply end a presentation by saying "that’s all I have." If you have a concluding slide with 3 – 5 summary points or action steps, you’ll leave the audience with a much stronger impression and you can never emphasize and restate your main points too often.

10 . Own Your Presentation . It’s very easy to tell when someone is delivering a speech that they haven’t written. It’s just as easy to tell when someone is using a PowerPoint presentation that someone else has put together. You may see expressions of surprise or puzzlement or even comments that a graphic is especially good. You can have someone else prepare the slides and even have someone else running the computer, but you have to own the presentation as if you created it yourself. When you know the presentation and are comfortable working with the slides, you become free to connect with your audience and shine as a presenter.

While PowerPoint will not take the place of communication skills, it can be a great tool for enhancing and improving your skills. You can learn to be a great presenter through practice, repetition, hard work, study and the right tools. Keep in mind, though, that the best speakers are the ones who are able to speak in a way that is most congruent with their own personality. The more authentic you are the more effective the communicator you are. The power of PowerPoint is that it gives you the flexibility to use your own style and get your message across to your audience. These ten tips for using PowerPoint will help make you a top-notch communicator.