After watching over 100 class presentations in my time in college, I’m officially convinced that no one knows how to use PowerPoint properly. Slides are like salt: some can be good, but too much is gross and leaves your audience thirsty for an actual public speaker. Yes, I’m salty about this.
In this post, I’d like to set the record straight on how to properly use PowerPoint. Hint: you’re using it wrong.
1. You probably don’t need a PowerPoint presentation
The reality is that there are very few cases in which you should use a PowerPoint presentation. Here are a cases where you should:
- Showing pictures from a trip or a similar situation.
- You’re conducting some sort of training, and you need to give the audience some visual reminders (you could also use handouts or props instead).
- When the subject of your talk has to do with a picture or graph that is on your PowerPoint presentation. (In other words, you couldn’t do the presentation without that picture).
- When you’re required to and you have no choice but to subject your audience to literal torture. (Class presentations are a great example of this—teachers often require PowerPoint slides and want them to basically be a manuscript of what you’re saying for some dumb reason).
Never default to creating a PowerPoint presentation—think long and deep about it. Imagine that using PowerPoint is equivalent to giving your audience melatonin pills. In order to counteract the negative effect, you better have something really awesome on your slides.
2. The PowerPoint slides are not your outline
Too many people write their slides based on their speech outline. They figure it’s a way to let audiences know where they are and keep their eyes interested while they speak.
Let’s get this out of the way first: it’s your job as a speaker to interest the crowd. You should never need a PowerPoint slide or a video to keep people’s attention. Good slides can help entertain or inform your audience, but you shouldn’t be dependent on that crutch.
If you’re going to use PowerPoint, then don’t put bullet points with words like literally everyone does. In fact, the best slides have no words, besides maybe the title page. You don’t necessarily need a title page, though. PowerPoint slides are designed for visual content like pictures or graphs that illustrate your point.
If you need to have words on your slides for some reason, make sure they are in a huge font. Preferably bold and centered.
3. Use blank slides
You want your audience to be looking at you when you speak, not your PowerPoint slides. If they aren’t looking at you, they can’t connect with you. If they can’t connect with you, then your presentation will be less effective.
Once you’ve given the audience enough time to look at a slide, you should have a blank slide after that you can switch to. If you leave the slide in the background, people will likely look at it instead of you.
4. Never look back at your slides
This is the #1 problem I see with people who use PowerPoint presentations. They didn’t prepare enough to give their speech without notes, so their PowerPoint becomes their note-sheet. This goes hand-in-hand with the people who use their slides as an outline of their speech.
Some people literally stand facing the PowerPoint, read off the text on the slides, and add a couple of sentences here and there. It’s awful.
The only time you should ever look back at your slides is if you’re pointing out a specific part of them with a laser pointer or your hand. Even in those cases, you can often vaguely point to it while facing the audience, or say “as you can see on the slide behind me, [x]”. Doing that is the ultimate power move, by the way. It communicates that you know exactly what’s on that slide without even having to look.
If you stare at your slides while you speak, your audience will just follow your eyes and stare there as well. Your physical presentation—your oh-so-important nonverbals—are completely useless if no one is looking at you.
One last thing. Obviously, a confidence monitor makes it easier not to stare at your slides, because you know that you’re on the right one without turning around. (A confidence monitor is one that faces the speaker so he/she can see what the audience sees). But you should realistically have very few slides and it should be well-rehearsed, so that you know exactly where you are without looking. If you have to look, glance at the slide while gesturing at the thing you’re talking about. It shouldn’t even last a full second.
5. Avoid gimmicks
You know those cute little PowerPoint transitions and the sound effects you can embed on slides? Yeah, don’t do that. It’s distracting and cheesy.
If you are doing the type of presentation that requires multiple lines of text on a slide, then make sure you manually click each line onto the slide instead of showing them all at once. (Otherwise the audience gets ahead of you and you are just repeating what they just read). But if you do that, don’t add a transition to those lines of text. Let them just appear.
Kudos if you can figure out a creative use of a transition that fits in with the subject at hand and makes the audience laugh—but if you’re that good, why are you even reading this post?
Speaking of gimmicks: I don’t particularly like Prezi. While I’m sure its unique structure can be used effectively, I’ve never seen someone really pull it off. It ends up being jarring, distracting, and altogether confusing for the audience to follow. If you need to use free presentation software, just stick to Google Slides.
6. Use one slide per major thought, at most
If you use more than one slide per thought, you are bringing the PowerPoint presentation into the forefront of the audience’s attention. As I said earlier, slides are like salt. You should only be switching slides once in a while—not multiple times throughout a couple of paragraphs.
Keep your PowerPoint short. For a 10 minute presentation, 4-5 slides is probably fine (not counting blank slides in between them).
7. Avoid using PowerPoint as a word document
I’ve seen some people create PowerPoint presentations to deliver information that would be better in a word document or .pdf file. While there are some cases where this might be useful, it’s generally not. In these cases, the offender isn’t even planning to present with these slides. Pitiful, isn’t it?
If the content you’re sending is word and information-dense, then use a different medium.
One way to create beautiful image-based presentations is to use Canva. They have a lot of presentation templates that can get your creativity flowing. Canva is a drag-and-drop “Photoshop lite” that is great if you’re not a designer or if you’re in a pinch. Once you’re done with your presentation, you can present right from Canva.
Using a tool like this will help you avoid death by text.
TED Talks: the ultimate example
Have you noticed the way speakers on TED Talks use their slides? Not all of them are good, but a surprising bunch of them are.
TED Talks generally feature minimal slides with 5-10 maximum. As a result, you can focus on the speaker and the content instead of just staring at the slides. TED Talks are a great resource for learning public speaking tips in general, but the use of PowerPoint is something specific to learn from them.
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