Let’s admit it, no one likes PowerPoint. Yet as much as we have lauded the possibilities of Prezi and its ilk, the reality is that PowerPoint is still very much the lingua franca of our industry. It’s what the media planner you’re pitching to needs in order to slot your offering into a larger deck. It’s the preferred medium for your executive team’s quarterly business reviews. For both internal and external marketing efforts, PowerPoint is, quite simply, the industry standard.
I spend of lot of my time helping clients improve their PowerPoint presentations. Over the years, I’ve found that many presentations can be improved greatly by following just a few simple rules. Here are eight of my favorites:
1. Use a Maximum of 15 Slides
The average presentation slot or business meeting lasts an hour. By the time you meet and greet and get through the inevitable A/V issues (the projector isn’t working, you can’t find the right adapter for your Mac, or someone is dialing in but having trouble), you’re down to 45 minutes. Since you’ll always want to encourage discussion and ample time for Q&A, you have about 30 minutes left.
Using the rule of thumb that it takes about two minutes to present a slide, you have just enough time to present 15 slides effectively. Boil down your story to just the key points and move the rest of the slides to the appendix as a leave behind.
There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. Some very skilled presenters, like my friend and former colleague David Shing, can get through 100 slides in 15 minutes. But this verbal and visual choreography takes years of practice and even David wouldn’t use that many slides in a traditional business meeting.
2. Make Your Titles Headlines, Not Descriptions
Each section of your slide is a valuable piece of real estate, adding information or insight to the story you’re trying to tell. When you use a title that simply describes what’s on the slide, you’re wasting valuable real estate. For example:
“2013 Revenue” is a description.
“2013 Revenue Grew 44%” is a headline.
The best titles provide context and explain the slide’s content, as well as conclusions — the core point of your slide.
3. Let the Titles Tell the Story
Related to the last point, many clients I work with often find themselves struggling with the order of their slides. A good trick I use is to see if the titles can tell your story. That is to say, you should be able to read just the titles of your slides out loud in order and understand the essence of your presentation. If you can’t, or if the order sounds off, chances are your titles aren’t headlines (they’re descriptions) or you need to reorder your slides.
Similarly, if while you’re presenting, you find yourself saying, “As I’ll explain in just a few slides from now…” move that slide up.
4. Layout Counts
The most important information on your slide should go in the title, the upper left-hand position, and at the very bottom, since in Western cultures we tend to read left to right, top to bottom. Our eyes tend to jump to these areas. Try putting your slide’s key takeaway in a shaded callout box in the bottom; color helps distinguish the information from the rest of the slide’s content.
5. Give Your Audience a Roadmap
Just like passengers in a car, your audience will feel more comfortable if you let them know where you’re headed. Agenda slides and divider slides can help, but they merely order your presentation; they don’t organize it.
What I’m really talking about is having a framework to your story. Frameworks structure your narrative and help keep your audience engaged because they will always know where they are within your story. Here are some example frameworks:
• Three pillars of your product’s value
• 10 trends in the market
• A day in the life of your consumer
Regardless of the framework you choose, it will only be effective if you stick to it. If you show a slide that says your product works in three environments: at home, at work, and on the go, the next slide that follows needs to be a deep dive on how your product works in the home, followed by a slide about your product at work, and finally by a slide about your mobile product. We’re human. We like order. Frameworks provide it.
6. Vary Your Format
Humans like order, but we also crave variety. If you show a slide or two with charts, make the next slide a big, beautiful visual. If you tend to have bulleted lists on the left-hand side, switch it up and place the list on the right. The change in pacing and visual rhythm will keep your audience engaged.
7. Bubbles, Callouts and Takeaways
Think of your slide as an onion – there are layers to the story you’re trying to tell.
Credit goes to Allison Tepley for this one: bubbles, callout boxes, and key takeaways will add dimension to your story. So show the chart, but also point out the interesting data point within it, the implication of the trends behind it, and the takeaway from it.
8. Always Close With an Ask
You’d be surprised, but the majority of presentations I see just, well, end. I even hear speakers conclude with “Well, that’s it.” What a waste! Always close with an ask. The ask can be for commitment to a project, for marketing dollars, or to continue the conversation.
In a speaking engagement setting, the ask could be for the audience to think about the implications of what you’ve shared, or how it will affect the way they approach their jobs. One close I often use is “Three things to do tomorrow,” making your presentation immediately actionable.
These are just a few of my tried-and-true best practices. What are yours?
This column was originally published November 14, 2013.