The Five Most Common PowerPoint Mistakes

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on March 10, 2011 – 5:24 AM

Editor’s note: This post was updated and rewritten in March 2014.

I’m guessing you’ve had to sit through an awful PowerPoint presentation at some point in your life.

Perhaps you saw a speaker fly through 100 word-filled PowerPoint slides in 20 minutes. Maybe you had to listen to a speaker reading each slide to you verbatim. Or perhaps you had to strain to see the cluttered slides, each filled with microscopic text.

Maybe you’re even guilty of committing those PowerPoint sins yourself.

After seeing so many bad presentations, you might have concluded that PowerPoint is awful. And if you’ve ever seen a slide like the one below—a real one prepared for U.S. commanders in Afghanistan—it’s no surprise that you reached that conclusion.

Military PowerPoint

But PowerPoint is just a tool, which means it’s only as good as its users.

Used well, PowerPoint can be an enormously valuable tool, one that can help you communicate more effectively. (Here are some wonderful sample slides.) The right visuals, displayed in the right way, can make your messages stickier and your key points more memorable. They can make your audiences feel deep emotion and drive people to action.

Here are the five most common PowerPoint mistakes—and how to avoid them.


1. Too Many Slides

People often ask how many slides are appropriate for a PowerPoint presentation. They want an easy answer, such as “one per minute,” but the truth is that there’s no easy answer. Some presentations would be better with no slides at all, while some expert speakers can click through 120 simple slides in an hour.

How many slides should you have? Only as many as required to visually support what you’re saying orally. That doesn’t mean putting words on a screen, which creates a conflict for your audience (should I read or should I listen?). It means using limited text with simple visuals and graphics (e.g. bar charts, line graphs).

Here’s a useful test: Go through every slide in your presentation and ask yourself this question: “Do I absolutely need this slide, or can I find a compelling way to deliver this information verbally instead?”

101 Ways to Open a Speech Copy Tease Clickable


2. Too Little White Space

As presenters, we want to focus our audience’s attention on exactly the point we want them to focus on. But when speakers fill almost every centimeter of their slides with words, bullets, and graphics, they give the audience no sense of priority. Cluttered slides make it impossible for the audience to know where to look first.

Don’t fill every inch of the frame. White space—or “empty” space—is a critical component of guiding viewers to your most important point.

As Garr Reynolds writes in the excellent Presentation Zen Design, “White space is not nothing. It’s a powerful something.” Nancy Duarte echoes his point in her wonderful book slide:ology: “Whitespace is as much an element of a slide as titles, bullets, and diagrams.”

This slide, from one of our training workshops, is a good example of a slide with plenty of white space.




3. Too Many Words, Not Enough Visuals

What is the goal of PowerPoint? The main goal—as with all communication—is to transfer information, knowledge, or inspiration from you to your audience.

Words on a screen can do those things, but not nearly as well as an inspired presenter who uses simple graphics and visuals to reinforce the most important points.

As an example, here’s an ordinary slide about the importance of Search Engine Optimization (SEO):



That slide isn’t terrible, but it’s not likely to reach the audience on an emotional level. The point I wanted to make with that slide was this: If you’re not visible when your audience is searching for you, it’s as if you don’t exist. Here’s the final slide I used to make that point:

PowerPoint Sample 4 GOOD


4. The Slides Double as Handouts

Many presenters print their PowerPoint presentations and distribute them to the audience as a takeaway document. Because the presenters know their slides won’t make sense without explanation, they add a lot of text to make sure their slides can be understood months or years after their presentation.

The problem with that approach is that speakers end up developing what Nancy Duarte calls a “slideument”—a slide that is half written document and half presentation visual. Slideuments fail in both roles; they lack the detail required by a written document but are too cluttered to serve as an effective visual.

The best solution is to separate the two. Design visuals that grab the audience’s attention and demand your explanation during your presentation, and create a detailed document that people can take away from the presentation once you’ve finished speaking.

101 Ways to Open a Speech Promo One


5. The Slides Are For The Speaker

Many of our trainees confess to using slides as their personal speaking notes. “Without the slides,” they protest, “how am I supposed to know what to say next?

Slides are intended to help the audience remember your information—not to help you remember your own information.

Instead of using your slides as your speaking notes, print out your notes on paper or notecards. Place your notes on a small table set slightly to one side. When you forget what to say next, simply look down (while not speaking and remaining calm), look back up, establish eye contact, and resume speaking.


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Comments (13)

  1. By Brian:

    Thank you for the post – I think your are absolutly right about your points. Often when I attent meeting in my network then people are often just use a PowerPoint slideshow with a lot of text and no images. That is so boring to watch 🙂

  2. By Donna:

    I hate, despise, loathe PowerPoint slideshows with a passion! Entertain me with your wit, your stories painted with glorious vocabulary, your humor…but please, don’t show anymore PowerPoint slides! Let me use my own imagination.

  3. By Jill Chamberlin:

    I’ve worked for years as a speech writer in politics and at a university. Some PP conclusions:
    1. Usually PP means speaker will turn off the lights…a portion of the audience will likely nod off, or at least want to. Seen it happen.
    2. A few charts for the data driven are very helpful and PP is a good way to offer them, along with some duplicates as handouts as the audience is exiting.
    3. PP is NOT a safety net for the speaker but most who use it hang off it with such dependence that it sucks the life out of the remarks.
    4. Although he’s an academic and a bit overwhelming, Edward Tufte is an expert at the corrupting effect of PowerPoint. You can glimpse his point of view on his web site:
    5. Imagine if Barack Obama or Marco Rubio used PP and weep.

  4. By Brad Phillips:


    Great feedback! Thank you for leaving the comment on the blog — I hadn’t thought to include your point about PPT meaning the lights are turned down, but you’re exactly right.

    To good speeches and great (e.g. short and minimalistic) PowerPoints.


  5. By Pedro GR:

    Most people don’t know they can press ‘.’ (dot) in Powerpoint to produce a black screen, and ‘,’ (comma) to get a white screen. Then press any key to get on with your presentation (exactly where it was).

    I _always_ use one of these (whichever color better fits my template and the surroundings) to turn off the image when I want people to look at me.

    I think leaving the last slide there, after it has been read by the audience, when you want to explain further, isn’t enough. It is still distracting. The more emphasis and emotion you put on a point, the more people will tend to avert your eye contact, out of shyness – and a projected image right next to you is an irresistible temptation… it’s better not to give them any.

    Another neat way to use this feature is save it only for your main point. Give people 20 minutes of slides, and then, when the moment comes, bam! black screen, slow down your voice, look someone in the eye and say “look, there’s one thing I really want you to think about today…” – tremendous effect!


  6. By Julie:

    When there is a PowerPoint presentation in the offing, part of me wants to be caught up in the visual underlining of what the speaker is saying. What happens each and every time is visual text only, handouts and the eventual recycling bin with no staying power to any of the information.

    I’m starting a new business and will be presenting, but without PowerPoint. I hope to engage everyone with splashes of color in props and handouts along with energy/information, leaving my target audience satisfied and interested in my services.

  7. By lw:

    Pedro — “B” and “W” do the same thing (mnemonically easier to remember, at least for me).

    If you’ve had a really terrible experience with the audience — and who hasn’t, at least once? — you can just wail on these keys like you’re playing the world’s fastest rendition of “Heart and Soul”, probably causing more than one seizure in the process.

  8. By AB:

    I’m sorry, I do so many presentations with different content that I’m guilty of using PP Slides as notes for myself and the audience afterwards.

    What I have started to do with the content I’ve taken over, though, is replacing slides with pictures, or glossing over slide content (it’s for future use after I’ve long gone) and go to a picture to make the point that the previous wordy slide detailed.

    Far from perfect, but moving in the right direction.

    And thanks for the ‘B’ ‘.’ and ‘W’ ‘,’ hints; I must look for more!

  9. By Trudy Phillips:

    Great solid advice and I agree. I have found that audiences will comment on evaluation when no PPT is used with a negative comment “no visuals”. I feel that to off set that, provide them with a 1 page “take away” document written by you or someone else that compliments what was shared verbally. I personally feel better and more comfortable with a presentation if I simply talking. I may have a note with bullets of the flow/points I want to be sure and cover as a prop for me. Just did this recently to an audience of about 50 and at the end of my presentation, we had great dialogue. So refreshing.

  10. By Ben:

    Treating presentations as a one-way ‘lecture’ is often the problem. Presenters who interact with their audience are always more engaging. This could be just soliciting questions from audience members or something more interactive such as using a PowerPoint polling tool like

  11. By Julian from

    After many years working with PowerPoint and witnessing presentations I could see, bad, average and good presentations. Unfortunately the bad and average presentations are the predominant but this can be coached and the tips you shared in this post are good reminders for any presenter who is trying to deliver a clear message to the audience.

    I’d also recommend to: create a consistent look and feel, limit each slide to express a single idea, adapt the number of slides beforehand to the duration of your presentation, keep your slides clean and uncluttered.

    On the other side, here are some “don’t” rules I follow: eliminate any element that do not sum to the presentation, try to avoid animations, avoid using too many words and replace them by visual aids, avoid little text on the slides.

  12. By Esphan:

    Thank you for a very educative post. I have learned a few tips that I have been struggling with in my slide preparations.

  13. By Heather Pincelli:

    Excellent article and tips! There is a definitely a delicate balance when it comes to slides and presentation. I also encourage presenters to remember that they are human and it is okay for them to have notes and not feel like they have to give the image of remembering every word! Heather Pincelli

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