Ten Commandments of PowerPoint™ presentations

In my “most cringing” file, ranking somewhere alongside brussel sprouts and Abba, are PowerPoint(TM) presentations that are unreadable and distracting. I have made it my mission to rid the world of annoying animation, fantastic fonts, garrulous graphs, and tortuous tables. The following are my commandments – ignore them and dreadful things will be visited on your presentations to the tenth generation, follow them and you will be showered with the blessing of satisfied audiences the world over.

  1. Thou shalt have no other PowerPoint but the compatible version

Make sure the version of PowerPoint you are producing your presentation on is compatible with that being used at the conference. Mysterious disappearing images and font changes can occur otherwise.

  1. Thou shalt not make thyself animated images

Little creatures running across the screen are no longer cute – just annoying. Everyone has seen them before. Furthermore, they have the disturbing habit of crashing programs. If you are new to PowerPoint they may excite you – do not fall into temptation.

  1. Thou shalt not sully a slide with masses of graven clipart

Any image displayed should be illustrative of a point being made. Rarely should one use more than one image per slide. Too many images are a distraction to the audience.

  1. Remember to contrast text and background and keep it sharp

Light coloured fonts must be on very dark backgrounds and vice-versa.   Yellows on pale blues, for example, are usually not visible when projected. Remember, the projector screen is going to have lights shining on it – so it will be much duller than your computer screen. A test is to try and read your computer screen from 5 or more meters away.

  1. Honour thy audience

This commandment requires you to consider your audience and their needs.   They can only take in “so much” information, so keep the number of PowerPoint slides to a minimum – no more than one per minute of presentation (preferably one per 3 minutes). Present your name and who you represent on the first slide (so they know they are in the correct room). Don’t display your full letterhead on every page. Be careful not to display images of half dressed women or cartoons that may offend someone in the audience.

  1. Thou shalt not write screeds of text

As a rule of thumb – No MORE than 6 or 7 lines of text per page. Unless there is a need to quote something AND for the audience to read that quote, then do not write paragraphs. Keep the text simple and short (bullet points). Remember – the text is to illustrate what you are saying and provide a skeleton to hang your points on. The text is NOT the presentation.

  1. Thou shalt not display small fonts

All fonts should be 24pt or above. It may look large on your computer screen, but to someone sitting 10 or 20 metres away from a projection screen it will be the equivalent of a 10 point font in a book.

  1. Thou shalt not display serif fonts

Serif fonts are those like Times New Roman or Garamond that tend to get thinner in the middle of the letter. These are good for reading on paper, but NOT for projecting as they are much more difficult than the non-serif fonts like Arial or Verdana to read. Also, only use the most common fonts that all computers are likely to have as you may find your favoured font is not displayed as you expect. Furthermore, avoid italics and any hand-writing fonts – they can’t be read.

  1. Thou shalt not use images as backgrounds

Images behind texts nearly always make the text difficult to read. Don’t do it.

  1. Thou shall at all times and everywhere minimise the use of graphs and tables and shall only display the necessary information

Alas, this commandment is one that is broken time and again. Any lines on graph must be AT LEAST 3 pt, preferably 5pt thickness. All axes must be labelled (preferably 24 pt). Put on the graph ONLY the data that you are going to speak about. If you are going to talk about a specific data point then put a large red circle around it. Similarly with tables – display ONLY the data you will talk about. You will find that you can’t fit more than about three columns and 4 rows of a table. If you have to, split the table up over a couple of slides. Alternatively, provide the full graphs and tables as handouts. Presenting graphs and tables that cannot be read easily by everyone in the room will irritate your audience and to fail to communicate.

In all that you do, remember that PowerPoint is but a tool to support your voice and your message. You should always be prepared to deliver your presentation if, for some reason, the PowerPoint projector fails.

Here endeth the lesson

John W. Pickering (C) 2005

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