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.
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?”
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:
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.
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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