In my last post, I spent several paragraphs bemoaning the way email can be misused. But Outlook abuse is nothing compared to the weapon of mass distraction that is PowerPoint. I suspect many of us have endured someone dutifully reading through paragraph after paragraph, on slide after slide, while we’re actually concentrating on appearing interested and not yawning or looking at our watch. The problem is simple: PowerPoint doesn’t do presentations, people do.

If you’re standing in front of a group with a set of slides to hand, it’s likely you’re there for a good reason. There’s something that people need to know and you’re there to tell them. Many presenters seem to believe their job is to point at the slides. Actually, they’ve missed the point. The presenter’s job is to tell a story, wrapping context and meaning around the information. The slides are only there to support the narrative. When Steve Jobs stood on stage to announce the latest Apple gizmo, he didn’t just point to bullets and numbers, he generated interest and enthusiasm. He told a story.

For most people, presenting is a skill they will need to practise and develop. But there are some basic guidelines for using PowerPoint that will help.

About six slides for a thirty-minute presentation

A good rule of thumb is to create 1-3 slides for every ten minutes of the presentation. You may be unable to present all the information necessary within those guidelines but keep in mind that people are rarely thrilled or engaged with a seemingly endless succession of slides. Remember, the main focus should be the presenter, not the slides.

Black on white

There’s a thread that runs through many of these guidelines – keep it simple. Use colour sparingly and only when the effect adds something to the presentation. Black on white is the easiest to see and avoids any issues for colourblind folks.

No more than three fonts

Using too many different fonts makes a presentation appear messy. Sans-serif fonts tend to look better. Don’t over-use bold text, either. Trademarks and logos are the exceptions.

Six bullets or fewer per slide

Be strict about editing down your content to the bone. Consider the impact of a single point in a slide compared to a cramped stack of them.

Use 24pt fonts

Everyone needs to see what’s on the slides, not just the front half of the room. If you’re sparing with the content of each slide, this won’t be a problem.

Maximum of two lines per bullet

Paragraphs of text are rarely, if ever, necessary. Hone your editing skills and remove every word that adds nothing to the point you’re making. Then chuck out most of the rest. Consider the essential message and don’t forget you’ll be talking about the subject as well.

An exception for paragraphs

There is one valid reason to put a paragraph of text on a slide – when it’s a direct quote. Even then, only use it if the message is important and keep to one quote per slide.

Don’t read the text on your slides

This is perhaps my biggest bugbear when I’m attending a presentation; putting a paragraph of text on a bullet point and reading it to your audience gives all the wrong messages. For one thing, it’s safe to assume everyone can read! As the presenter, you’re objective is to provide a narrative with the slides underpinning your message. Reading your own slides out loud may suggest you’re lacking an implicit understanding of that message.

Avoid gimmicks

A poor presentation will not be rescued by use of transitions, animations and sounds effects. They’re distracting at best and downright irritating at worst. Don’t be tempted.

Visual clarity

Clarity is always king. 3-dimensional charts may look good when they’re on the monitor in front of you but at a distance, on a projector screen, your graphs may not be pin sharp. A 2D chart is easier to see and helps avoid someone misreading the data. Similarly, spreadsheets can be tricky to see at a distance if the numbers are quite small. Is that a ‘6’ or an ‘8’? If the spreadsheet is necessary, consider using call-outs to highlight the important information.

Spelling and grammar

Use capitalisation correctly and make sure it’s consistent across slides. Use title case (Use Title Case) for titles and use sentence case (Use sentence case) for bullets. Check for grammatical errors, too. Automatic checkers aren’t infallible. Ask someone else to proofread your content before you put it in front of senior stakeholders! I see a surprising number of documents and emails written by people with a poor grasp of the capitalisation rules for nouns and pronouns. Correct spelling, grammar and attention to readability will make your slide deck look professional.

Good presenters create a story, consider their audience and build their message accordingly. When you have that nailed, create the slides and content that support the message. You’re unlikely to receive any applause but interested or even enthused people are a pretty good reward for your effort.