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PowerPoint for Those Who Must Use It

There's a lot out there about how to use MS-PowerPoint, starting with Edward Tufte's advice to NEVER NEVER use it

An example from Edward Tufte of what you should do graphically, instead of using PowerPoint.
But I cannot resist this chance to throw my hat into the ring.  What if you are not a graphic designer, and someone asks you to build a PowerPoint deck, and the thing they need to know about is not Napoleon's invasion of Russia?

I am a person who prefers to put as little effort into this as possible, so you will not get any cool design tips from me.  But to me, a very pragmatic and plodding user of the PowerPoint technology, the handiest thing is just to have a good example to follow, and guess at the rest.  So you can skip the rest of the blog and just look at this handy sample if you like!  That's what I would do.

If for some reason you are still reading, then in my opinion, the following are the most important points to keep in mind. (And most of the following apply to the Apple equivalent too, Keynote, despite its lovely, clean layout designs).

1)  Is it a live presentation, or is it a leave-behind, or is it both? 
  • Best practice for a live presentation is to 
    • Keep the slides very simple (25 words per slide, maximum, use a lot of images).  
    • Keep your main presentation as short as possible (20 slides per hour is a good starting point).
    • If you need more visual content available, in case questions arise when you present your deck, create an "appendix" section at the end of the deck with additional information you can show as needed.
  • Best practice for a leave-behind requires a lot more content, since there isn't a person talking to supplement the visual material.  If you promise never to present the deck live, write it any way you want, with as many words as you want.  You're essentially using PowerPoint where perhaps you should be using Word.
  • If you want to present live, but you want to end up with a leave-behind that can stand on its own, then the solution is:  
    • For live presentation purposes, keep the main body of the deck short, and keep the slides very clean.  You want to prioritize the comfort of your live audience over that of your later readers, because the live ones can and do fall asleep while you are talking, and that will make you feel bad.  Future private sleeping in the privacy of the reader's cube does not have the same visceral effect on the speaker.
    • For re-use of the same deck as "leave behind" material, paper or electronic, create and distribute a PDF which includes the "notes" section at the bottom of each slide, and put everything that needs to be said to interpret the slide in the notes section, along with hyperlinks to important available online content elsewhere.  
    • Important:  if you will be using physical handouts, you should spell out all referenced urls on the slide or in the notes, not use just hyperlinks, because you can't click on a piece of paper.  Or if you do, all you will get is a faint stain from the Cheetos you had at lunch.
    • There are several schools of thought about whether to have printed handouts that you distribute BEFORE or DURING a live presentation.  For maximum "surprise," don't distribute ahead of time.  For minimum "surprise," distribute.  My only recommendation here is that you do not include the notes in handouts you give to people to use while they are watching you present it live.  The version with notes is definitely for after the fact.
2)  Standard "Tellum" rule (tellem what you're going to tellem, tellem, then tellem what you toldem): 
  • Start with an agenda page as your first slide after the title slide, and visually bring back the agenda for each major point of the talk, and indicate on that agenda slide where you are now.  It reassures people that the talk will be over at some point. 
  • One nice "breadcrumb" technique to use is to create a long horizontal rectangle of some color, a little bit wider than the width of the agenda bullet points, and as tall as needed to fully cover whatever section of words it is highlighting (this will vary per bullet).  Set its properties to 50% or more transparent.  
    • The first time you show the agenda, it should be without the rectangle.  
    • Then, at each point where you are returning to the agenda to show progress, overlay the rectangle over the area of the talk you are now in.  It will gradually move down the page. 
  • Pro tip--build just one copy of the agenda slide as you compose your deck.  
    • When you are ready to "publish," copy that slide, add the rectangle over the first point you will cover, and then copy the slide plus rectangle for each section you need to highlight at some point in the talk.  
    • To make it beautiful, use the arrows to move it up and down, not the mouse, because you don't want horizontal wobble.  Keep all of your agenda slides together and build them at once.
    • Then move those other copies of the agenda slide, with the rectangle properly positioned, to the right point in your deck.  Otherwise you will be constantly changing the agenda points on multiple slides, every time you change your mind about what the structure of your talk is going to be.
3)  Use consistent capitalization and punctuation.
  • One rule of thumb is to Capitalize The Words for the actual title of the presentation, and for each slide, but Only capitalize the first word of all bullets and sentences in the actual slide content.  
  • And either use punctuation at the end of bullets, or don't.  You can drive people very crazy by interspersing commas, periods, and the occasional nothing
4)  Just choose a simple built-in theme and stick with it at first.  If you don't try to get fancy, you won't go too wrong.  Do not get caught up in drama over which type of slide to use.  
  • Complex is not good in the theme, and the built-in ones are generally well behaved.  If your executive or some communications authority unskilled at powerpoint has already "customized" a template for himself/itself, that can be a drag.
  • Usually, a powerpoint theme has a "title page," a "section page," and a set of "page pages" that have some combinations of header and content.  I typically prefer to use one title page at the front, and then all page-pages, because I prefer to use an agenda page with a moving bar to a "section" page.
  • Common page templates to use--blank, header plus blank, header plus content, header plus two columns of content.  For uniformity, do not move the "content" area(s) around or resize it (them).
5)  Executive pro tips. 
  • Each content slide should have a title at the top, a main take-away point in smaller print beneath the title as the top line, and then some other content.
  • Use a discreet page number in the bottom corner of the slides.
  • If you are presenting with physical hand-outs to a group of executives, print the slides out in color, one-sided, unstapled.  Paperclips are okay.
6)  About animation.  Generally, I am in favor of animation, used prudently, because it's entertaining.  But the problem with it is if you aren't expecting it, you may bring up your partially blank slide in front of an audience and freak out, forgetting that you have to click again to get the fly-in.  
  • So if you are giving the presentation live, or if you are writing it for someone else, make sure everyone is on board about the animation.  
  • Also, if this is a deck you plan to use as a leave-behind, do not do "layered" animation where the printed version of the slide only shows the slide as it appears before everything has flown in and out. 
  • Note that animating is fun and addictive.  Do not be lured into something you will regret.
7)  When you get to be a communications director, you will want to invest a few hundred dollars to have a powerpoint designer create a template which is well behaved and has proper colors and branding on it.
  • A well-behaved template has a standard color and theme, and does things like handle bullets uniformly.  
  • I have worked with a lot of corporate templates that had the color, theme, and font perfect, but which were horrible when it came to bullets.  There's a technical side to a good powerpoint theme--make sure someone handles that after the designers are done.
 A "power" powerpoint user might get into creating templates, applying layouts, etc., but if the whole point from the get-go is to create a simple presentation with useful add-ons in the notes or somewhere on the web, you don't need very much of that stuff.

If any of this resonates, feel free to steal my handy reusable powerpoint deck, and alter it at will.  To get the full effect you will want to download it and print it out with notes.  And now go out and make 'em, well, not doze! 


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