The Two Fundamentals of effective PowerPoint presentations

MS PowerPoint is an awesome tool, and it’s kinda disappointing to see so many people basically failing to get the most out of it, simply because they seem to be unaware of the two fundamentals of effective .ppt presentations.

I admit it: I’ve been slideshow geek since I was a graduating university student in 1994, working on my thesis. Of course, back then, my classmates and I used Harvard Graphics and an SLR. Yeah, the kind that used 35mm film.
LED Precursor

Just a bit of context. We didn’t have the kind of LED projectors that are ubiquitous today. Heck, back then, the use of computers wasn’t anywhere near as common as it is today.

In 1994, the closest thing we had to an LED projector was essentially an LCD – or liquid crystal display – that hooked up to a PC, and which you placed on the Fresnel lens of a basic overhead projector.

That kind of set up was only available at the computer lab of my university, and as far as I knew, it was one of a kind. Keep in mind that around this time, laptops cost a fortune and you actually had to have special permission to use the CD-ROM disks of the library.  All this made the use of a slideshow computer program way more complicated than was practicable. The solution was to use a carousel slide projector instead. And to use that dinosaur, you needed to have photographic slides.


So what we ended up doing for our thesis presentation was that we would use Harvard Graphics to compose the text-only plates, run the presentation on a PC, and then take photographs of the slide show, using an SLR camera, one plate at a time.

nextslideImagine that. There was a PC with a huge colored monitor, running the slide show. About a foot away from the screen, the SLR would be mounted on a tripod, and someone – usually me – would be taking snaps of each plate. And over the monitor, the camera, and the photographer (me!), we’d drape a dark cloth to eliminate glare from the convex screen.

We’d stay up nights just doing this, and come morning, we’d have the film developed and turned into slides which we could then load up on a carousel slide projector. The quickest film developer we found could process a roll of film in about a a day and a half. Which meant that we had to spend an entire day just waiting to find out if we’d gotten everything right. And usually, it was in the text-only plates that we had the most trouble. Misspellings, missing words, sloppy punctuation – things like that and more meant that we had to go back and make new slides, pushing back the completion of the presentation by at least another day.


To say that the whole procedure was cumbersome and tedious would be to criminally understate things. Compare that with the ease of using modern slideshow programs like MS PowerPoint where you can make changes on the fly.

On the bright side however, the trouble we had to go through just to make a single slideshow taught us – well, it taught me anyway – two very important lessons that I have since come to appreciate as the two fundamentals for effective PowerPoint presentations.

Pictures are your friends.

While preparing the slideshow for our thesis presentation, we learned that the easiest way to prepare the slide show was to use pictures. Obviously, a picture is worth a thousand words. A more practical consideration, however, was that it was much easier to just take pictures of what we were talking about than to take pictures of text-only slides on a computer screen.

The greater insight, however, was that we could use pictures to tell the story, rather than use pictures simply as decoration.With this realization came the conscious effort to compose the pictures we were taking – to frame them properly, among other things – so that each image would tell a complete story, in and of itself.

Of course, nowadays, you don’t actually have to go out and take pictures yourself. Google image search is typically more than adequate for the job. But the philosophy behind choosing the pictures you’re gonna use remains the same. Use pictures that illustrate your point as cleanly as possible, instead of choosing pictures just because they’re cute or funny. Obviously, funny has its place but even then, try to make the inclusion of funny pictures as purposive as possible. And remember, what might make you laugh might also be unfunny to your audience.

As much as possible, strive for uniformity in tone across all your pictures. There is nothing quite as jarring as using cartoons on one slide and two slide later, slipping in an actual photograph. Although admittedly, some presentations can benefit from that sudden transition, it doesn’t work for most presentations. Make that decision carefully.

Edit text ruthlessly

There’s no escaping textual content in a slideshow. Inevitably, some things will have to be spelled out. But this doesn’t give license to be lazy and just throw entire paragraphs on a slide.

Preparing our thesis presentation, this was exactly how we started out. We’d lift entire paragraphs out of our paper and turn them into slides – easy peasy. But it gave rise to a whole host of problems, ranging from rendering the text too small to be of any use for the audience, to having to use three or more slides just to complete a thought, to bloating the presentation needlessly. And of course, the more slides you have, the greater the possibility of not catching errors in the text.

After a few disastrous dry runs with our adviser, we realized that we didn’t need to always quote our paper verbatim. So, we started editing the text and in many cases, skipping the quotes entirely. In the end, we were left with the barest minimum amount of text necessary to get our point across. For the most part, our text now consisted of numbered lists and bullet points, and the occasional pull quote.

Over-all, we were able to cut down the text component of our presentation by more than half, leaving with us a with a lean and very graphically oriented slideshow presentation.

Certainly, some presentations will require more text than others. Slideshows that are being presented in support of an official report, for instance, are going to need a lot of written information. But that doesn’t excuse slides that look like solid blocks of text.


Try, instead, to present the information using graphs and tables. Bullet points and numbered lists in particular, are very effective at conveying a large amount of information. Be careful tho’ because even bullet lists can end up looking really blocky.

In the end, it’s about trimming the fat from your text until you’re left only with the most important details. Admittedly, this puts a lot of pressure on the person making the presentation. But, as I always say, if you made the presentation yourself, that shouldn’t be any problem.

And there you have it.

The two fundamentals that PowerPoint users sometimes ignore: use pictures – because ultimately, a slide show is most effective when it is built around graphically presented content; and edit your text ruthlessly until you’ve got it down to absolute minimum needed to convey your point.


If you think I missed something important, please let me know in the comments. I appreciate the feedback.


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