How to use PowerPoint effectively

Are you making your point or putting your audience to sleep? To keep viewers focused on your message, create slides that support what you're tell them--and definitely do not read.

Dennis O'Reilly Former CNET contributor
Dennis O'Reilly began writing about workplace technology as an editor for Ziff-Davis' Computer Select, back when CDs were new-fangled, and IBM's PC XT was wowing the crowds at Comdex. He spent more than seven years running PC World's award-winning Here's How section, beginning in 2000. O'Reilly has written about everything from web search to PC security to Microsoft Excel customizations. Along with designing, building, and managing several different web sites, Dennis created the Travel Reference Library, a database of travel guidebook reviews that was converted to the web in 1996 and operated through 2000.
Dennis O'Reilly
4 min read

If I were president, I would propose legislation making misuse of Microsoft's PowerPoint presentation software a Class C misdemeanor. Read a slide; go to jail.

I would empower audience members to confiscate the presenter's hardware if they're shown any slide with more text than the average tweet, with dark-on-dark or light-on-light text, or with more elements than the Periodic Table. They would also be allowed to pull the plug whenever anything on the screen is illegible to anyone in the back row.

Microsoft's ubiquitous presentation program has been used and abused by everyone from elementary school students to Nobel scientists. PowerPoint has been around so long a whole industry has been created to help people learn and use it. (Links to several PowerPoint resources are provided below.)

Still audiences everywhere cringe at the prospect of sitting through another cavalcade of boring slides. Don't be that presenter. Do your audience a favor and follow these common-sense PowerPoint guidelines.

Engage your audience, make your point

Your presentation is over and people are walking out of the room. What do you want them to be thinking about? Make sure you say that first and last.

You're the one telling the story, not the slides. Look at every element on each slide as a graphic--text and images alike. Avoid complete sentences: use bullet-point lists of single words and short phrases.

Basics of slide construction

Remember the contrast: dark on light, light on dark. Stick with two or three font styles and sizes, none too small for people in the back row to read. No italics, no serifs, and no blinking--ever. Use drop shadows and other text effects sparingly.

Play it safe by embedding everything in your presentation: fonts, images, other graphics. This will increase the size of the presentation file, but today's hardware should handle it. Besides, 16GB USB flash drives cost less than $20. (See below for instructions on compressing embedded videos and other graphics in PowerPoint 2010.)

Keep diagrams simple. If a chart or table has more than a dozen elements, break it up or consider printing it and distributing it as a handout or posting it online.

Timing is everything--keep a brisk pace, but not too brisk. The key to maintaining the right pace is practice, practice, practice. Avoid slide fatigue by averaging two or three slides per minute at most.

A notable exception to this guideline was one of the best PowerPoint presentations I've ever seen: a quick succession of single-word slides timed perfectly with the presenter's speech. The effect was hypnotic. An audience of a thousand techies was riveted for a solid 15 minutes and burst into applause at the conclusion. How often have you seen that happen?

Use video and images that enhance your message

One of the maxims of show business is show, don't tell. Images--whether still or moving--capture an audience's attention and can add impact to any presentation. But they can also serve as a distraction, diverting people's attention away from the points you're trying to make.

PowerPoint 2010 adds new features for editing images and video. Two of my favorites make it easy to remove the background from photographs and to compress embedded images and videos. Unfortunately, you can't insert a link to video on a Web site in the 64-bit version of Microsoft Office, as is explained on the Microsoft Answers forum. You have to download the file and embed it in the presentation.

Cropping the background out of a picture is almost automatic when you use PowerPoint 2010's aptly named Remove Background feature. Simply select the image, choose the Format tab under Picture Tools on the ribbon, and click Remove Background in the Adjust section to the far left.

You'll probably have to manually tweak the background crop by dragging the borders of the portion of the image PowerPoint selects for you, and by using the Mark Areas to Keep and Mark Areas to Remove buttons. The feature can't match the precision of Adobe Photoshop and other image editors, but for most presentations, it does well enough.

Microsoft PowerPoint 2010 Remove Background options
PowerPoint 2010's Remove Background feature will probably require some manual adjusting to select the areas of the image to be cropped out. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly

To make the cropped image a slide background, right-click it and select Send to Back. You can then insert a text box that will appear on top of the image. Make sure there's plenty of contrast between the text and the underlying image so everyone in the audience will be able to read them.

You can reduce the size of your presentation by using PowerPoint's Compress Media option: select File > Info > Compress Media and choose one of the three quality options. If PowerPoint finds media in the presentation that may cause compatibility problems, the option to Optimize Compatibility will be available on the Info tab.

Microsoft PowerPoint 2010 Info tab
Choose one of three compression levels to reduce the size of videos, images, and other graphics in your PowerPoint presentation. Screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly

Don't forget the dress rehearsal

Even if the presentation runs without a hitch back at the office or in the hotel room, always test it beforehand at the actual venue on the hardware you'll use to present it. Think about the people sitting in the back row--and the front row and on either side of the room, for that matter.

Sometimes the most thorough preparations won't prevent disaster. Always have a backup plan in mind if the presentation goes belly up. You may actually have to make eye contact with the audience. This is when your rehearsals in front of the mirror will pay off.

Resources for PowerPoint presenters

MakeUseOf: 10 Powerpoint tips for preparing a professional presentation
Ellen Finkelstein: PowerPoint tips, techniques & tutorials
Microsoft at Work: 12 tips for creating better PowerPoint presentations
Fripp & Associates: 12 mistakes made when creating PowerPoint slides and how to correct them
Success Begins Today: Do you make these mistakes with PowerPoint?
Boston.com Job Doc: 7 PowerPoint mistakes that drive people crazy
PowerPoint Ninja: Death by (Bad) PowerPoint--part I
LifeHacker: Five ways to not suck at PowerPoint (slide show, appropriately enough)