PowerPoint Slide Design 101

PowerPoint has become synonymous with a presentation that’s a data-laden snooze fest—and is even something to be mocked occasionally. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Sharp PowerPoint slides can elevate your presentation and solidify your credentials as an expert.

It’s not just about the material—although that has to be compelling, of course. But the success of a presentation hinges on how well you tell the story, which relates directly to the strength of your PowerPoint (PPT) slides.

“Presentation as Document” Syndrome

“The graphics were cluttered.
“The slide looked like an eye chart.”
“The slide was a data dump.”

These common laments underscore the core problem with most PPT slides: a presenter wants them to tell the whole story on their own. There are two reasons why counting on your slides to tell the story is asking too much:

  1. Slides are not transcripts. Don’t let your slides upstage you. The audience is there to listen to you, not just to read your slides. The truth is that when the audience starts reading, they stop listening to you. It’s best to allow your slides to act as signposts, with you as the interpreter rather than the narrator.
  2. Slides are not handouts. The tendency to put everything on the slides has led many people to assume the actual presentation is dispensable. “Just send me the slides,” they will say. But if the entire presentation can be told through the slides as a stand-alone document, then your slides aren’t serving their main purpose – which is to support you, the presenter.

If you do have to hand out the slides, as required by the meeting organizer, don’t let that extra step ruin your clean slides. Instead use “Notes Page View,” which allows you to add material you are discussing as part of your presentation, without displaying the material on the slides. And make sure to pass this out after the presentation. If you must hand out something before, offer a business plan or executive summary, rather than the slides and supporting material in the notes section, to ensure the integrity of your presentation.

Remember that the great Microsoft, in its infinite wisdom, made two different programs: Word for documents and PowerPoint for presentations, and “never the twain shall meet.”

The Fantastic Four of Slide Elements

When you break down the content that appears on PPT slides, it falls into four basic categories:

  1. Pictorial—Photos, maps, logos, and sketches
  2. Relational—Tables, matrices, and charts (think of this content as an image that captures a set of relationships or connections in visual form)
  3. Text—Bullets and headlines (more on why these should not be sentences to follow!)
  4. Numeric—Bar charts, pie charts, and histograms

The first two elements easily illustrate the concept of Less Is More. The problems begin when your slides bulk up with text and numeric elements.

Less Is More: The Eyes Have It

One of the main reasons many PPT slides fail is that they don’t take “perception psychology” into account. That sounds like a complicated principle, but it’s not.

Perception psychology is how many times your eye has to “sweep” across a slide in order to take in the information. In Western culture, the eye is trained to start in the upper left corner and then view things from left to right—just as you’re reading this right now.

But when there is too much information on a slide, the eye can’t take it all in at once and has to do multiple “sweeps” across the slide. This makes your audience work harder to absorb your information, and the harder you make them work, the more likely they are to tune you out.

Here are a few things to keep in mind when designing slides for one “sweep”:

  • Try to keep text to one line.
  • Make sure any progression represented in images moves from left to right.
  • If there must be multiple pieces on a slide, align the most important to the left.

The left-to-right motion also applies to animation. If you have animation on a slide that you want a favorable response to, bring it in from the left edge and move it to the right across the slide. If you are presenting a conflict of some kind, move it from right to left across the slide to make it feel disruptive.

Less Is More: Bullets vs. Sentences

Many presenters fall into the trap of taking their narrative and placing it, in sentences, on a text slide. But sentences contain too many words you don’t need, which is why using bullets is a far superior method to express core ideas.

Think of a headline: it’s not a complete sentence—it contains key words in an easy-to-scan format. Slides with bullets should read like a series of headlines, and the presenter’s job is to address each bullet in their narrative. In fact, the only time you should use a sentence on a slide is when you are quoting verbatim.

As you create your bullets, beware of the tendency to add too many sub-bullets. They make a slide look cluttered and are typically extraneous if the presenter provides the appropriate level of discussion in the presentation itself.

For easier scanning, use parallel construction: make the bullets on a single slide start with the same grammatical form, such as adjective + noun.

Bad bullet points:

  • Speed is improved.
  • You can collect better data.

Good bullet points:

  • Improved speed
  • Better data

If you are worried about your audience reading ahead—even though you only have a few bullets on the slide—build your bullets by using the “Custom Animation” feature to add one bullet at a time. This allows you to fully discuss each point without your audience jumping ahead of you.

As you build bullet points on a slide, use an animated transition to avoid the jarring effect of new information suddenly appearing on the screen. Here are some tips for bullet point animation:

  • Introduce positive information from left to right, so it moves with the natural motion of your audience’s eyes.
  • Present negative information from right to left to create discomfort in your audience.
  • Let data information rise or fall on the screen in accordance with the information being presented: rising revenues can move up from the bottom, while declining expenses can move down from the top.

If you lean more toward simplicity, using the same animation for everything is fine. Wipe every slide and every bullet point from left to right, and you’ll create an effortless presentation for your audience.

Less Is More: Graphical Elements

We’ve all seen slides that have the “ransom note effect,” with a busy patchwork of colors, sizes, and fonts. You don’t have to be an artist to design slides that are both aesthetically pleasing and functional, just keep a few tips in mind:

  • Limited graphic effects—Avoid extraneous shadows, boxes, multiple fonts, overly creative bullet points, and other graphical elements that can make a slide hard to read.
  • Limited color palette—Stick with two key colors and consider the use of contrast: dark text on a light background, for example.
  • Less clutter—Remove “footers” with recurring dates, confidentiality notices, and copyrights.
  • Appropriate font size—Don’t make your audience squint; use a font that is a minimum of 24 or 28 point.
  • Proportional spacing—Blank space is your friend, but center the text or graphs appropriately so they fill up the slide proportionately.

Quick tip: Avoid using a dash as your bullet point of choice. Accountant types are trained to interpret that as a negative number so the subconscious could be working against you.

Less Is More: Mind Your Numbers

We’ve all seen busy charts that convey so much information you can’t possibly take it all in. While that’s fine for a business plan, annual report, meeting notes, or document where the reader can take time to absorb the data, it creates far too many eye sweeps for you audience in a presentation. There’s so much to process that it distracts the audience from its most important function—listening to the presenter.

Numbers and data are powerful tools for making your point, but they can be challenging for some to grasp. Skillfully designed numeric graphics on your slides can help you reach both the number-fluent and number-challenged in your audience.

  • Bar graphs—A key way to make bar graphs easier to consume is to remove unnecessary numbers, often depicted inside the bar itself. How can the numbers be unnecessary? Because the goal of the bar graph is to show relative positioning, exact numbers might not be needed. The bars themselves will tell the story.
  • Pie charts—With too many numbers around the circle, it can be challenging to know what’s most crucial. A better way to position the information is to put the key numbers inside; for example, to show the percentages you are depicting. You might find in many cases that concrete numbers can be left off, because as with the bar chart, the goal of the pie chart is to show relative size.
  • Typography position—Don’t make your audience rotate their heads to read your vertical labels. Rather, create horizontal labels so it’s easy for your audience to take it in with one eye sweep.

Always make sure that the bars in a bar charts are going up (from left to right), rather than down, if possible. It seems intuitive, but sometimes people want to start with the best number first. However, your audience, with their left-to-right eye sweeps, is oriented to expect numbers to be improving, which means the lower numbers should come first so the bars ascend.

Less Is More: A Storyboard Helps With Flow

It’s hard to argue with the success of television and film producers in telling a story. That’s why we borrowed one of their tools of the trade: the storyboard, which is used in visual industries to map out the end product. (We have a Storyboard Form template for you to use.) The storyboard helps with three key aspects of flow:

  1. You can see if slides are in the wrong place. For example, you might find that a slide you’ve grouped with the introduction would be better as a proof point. Here’s a quick trick to test your flow: Read only the titles of your slides. Is the flow logical? If yes, then your presentation will flow. If no, see how you can shuffle the slides to find a logical flow.
  2. You can see if the graphics flow. Seeing an overview of the graphics without reading each data point will help you see any flaws in the graphical elements—from too many font types to extraneous bullets. As you scan your storyboard, ensure your slides have an overall consistent look and feel.
  3. You can see where you might need to add a “bumper slide.” This is a slide that will indicate to your audience that you are transitioning to a new topic. Think of it as the chapter page in a book. For a longer presentation (roughly 30 minutes or longer), you might want to reinsert the agenda as a bumper so the audience knows where you are in your presentation.

Less Is More: Fill the Blank Space

Is your presentation over? Leave your audience with a lingering positive message. Your last slide should always be your logo. As Taylor Swift says so eloquently, “I’ve got a blank space, and I’ll write your name.” Take a cue from her, and make it your brand name.

When Less Is Not More: Take the Time to Develop Your Slides

Seasoned presenters know the thrill of really connecting with their audience—getting them behind the ideas you presented and on board to take action. Strategic, well-designed slides can support the presenter by using visuals to tell a more compelling story, further strengthening the message and encouraging the audience to take action. The extra time you take in creating strong PowerPoint slides will pay off in a winning presentation.