Four Ways Not to Suck at PowerPoint Presentations

You probably suck at PowerPoint presentations.

I know this because almost everyone does. No offense. If you are the exception, I really want to hear from you in the comments below.


You probably suck at PowerPoint presentations. Here’s how not to. (Click to Tweet)
I sucked for thirty-one years. Until the day I delivered a presentation so awful, I knew I had to change quickly.

It was the presentation I had planned for three weeks. It was to be the moment that I inspired my team, changed the course of our company, and…there was an audible thud from Nashville to each of the coasts. I was that bad.

What mistakes did I make and what can you learn from them?

Here is the first I made and what you can learn from them.

Mistake One: I spent all my time on the slides. I put my focus where it shouldn’t be: one the screen. I wrote and wrote, agonized over fonts, edited and re-edited. I searched and searched for the right images, moved slides here and there, and spent exactly zero time rehearsing what I would say.

Lesson One: The focus is on the speaker (you) and the audience, not the slides. Here are six ways to keep the focus on you and the audience:

  1. Write bullets, not sentences. People are going to read what is on the screen, whatever you give them. Do you want them to focus on reading the screen or focus on you? Proper grammar and correct English should be thrown out the window in favor of short bullets.
  2. Focus on speaking the key words from the bullets. That helps the audience keep pace with the slides but allows them to focus on you. Under no circumstances should you read what is on the screen.
  3. Face the audience. If it weren’t for the almighty presentation on the screen, would you dare turn your back on the audience? Of course not. When you face the screen, you convey that the audience should do the same. Keep your eyes on your audience as much as possible.
  4. Make yourself the center of the room. One of the worst things many companies have done in their conference rooms is to put the screen in the center of the room. A centered screen says “here is your focal point” and relegates you, the speaker, to the side of the room. You are now an afterthought to the almighty screen. If possible, move the screen to the left or right side of the front of the room. If you can’t do that, use tip #5…
  5. Darken the screen. No image or bullets could possibly be so good they deserve to be on the screen for more than one minute. So press the “B” key. That darkens the screen and allows you, the speaker, to reclaim your rightful place as the center of attention. When it’s time for the presentation to resume, press “B” again or go to the next slide.
  6. Stay silent with each new slide. The best way to not be heard is to talk as you introduce a new slide. When a slide changes, it draw’s the audience’s attention like a bright light on a hot summer’s night. Your eyes naturally go there. So does your brain. So if you want to be heard, keep quiet as you advance to the next slide and allow the audience to digest what is on the screen. To avoid a lengthy period of silent awkwardness, follow rule #1. Make the slides readable in ten seconds or less.

The first mistake I made was taking the focus off me, the leader, and putting it on the screen. Follow those six tips and you won’t make the same mistake.

But that wasn’t the only mistake I made. I made three more critical mistakes from which I learned some valuable lessons, so stay tuned tomorrow for part two. Subscribe to my RSS feed or get posts via email so you don’t miss it!

What qualities have you seen in great PowerPoint presentations?

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  • I differ with you (for once!) on *some* of this, partly because I suspect our presentation styles may be completely different. But hear me out:

    Back before powerpoint, we used overhead projectors and whiteboards and chalkboards and the presenter was the center of attention. We didn’t stop for slide transitions, but rather used whatever was being shown as supporting material for what was being said.

    Today, many of my slides contain less than 5 words and have photographic backgrounds. If you got a slide deck from me, it would be completely useless and indecipherable unless you had seen the presentation.

    I prepare my material, decide on the flow of information and what information I want to present. This takes about 50+% of my time. I haven’t yet opened any software. I do this completely analog, pen and paper.

    Next, I design my slides. Still on paper. Sketching, jotting, drawing. Analog.

    When I’m happy with the flow, I open Keynote or Powerpoint and start creating the actual slides. I average 2 slide transitions per minute, incidentally, so there are a lot of slides to be made. But the content on each is pretty slight so it doesn’t take that long.

    Then, if appropriate, I create a handout that folks can take with them. This will more closely resemble the text of the presentation I’m planning to make, and should permit them to retain the information.

    I got this approach from Garr Reynolds through his outstanding book, “Presentation Zen” and Nancy Duarte, who wrote “Slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations”. To see Garr in action (and learn a few things about bamboo):

    I also use the “B” key trick, but sparingly. It can be distracting to have the slides come and go too often. And bullets? I think the sight of a bullet on a slide makes peoples’ IQs drop by about 10 points.

    I’d also add that you need to avoid the podium. Don’t stand still. Move like Dave, or Garr, or Steve Jobs. Work the stage as much as possible.

    Thanks for getting me thinking about this today! Now, discuss. 😉

    • For the record you don’t have to actually use the bullets, just write that way :)

      Our approaches are very similar now. I work on the presentation (what I want to say) first. Then I continue to work on that. And them some more.

      I work on slides as supporting info. to help the audience stay on track and usually do them in the last 72 hours. They should not take that long actually because all they are doing is supporting the speaker.

      I think of slides as like a follow-up email to a one hour conference call. I don’t to need to reiterate the who, why, how, and all the details. I just need to remind people of the action points. It takes two minutes to read the email that took an hour to discuss. But the email still makes perfect sense because they have the supporting information.

      I do agree with the handouts and slides after the presentation. Of course, do not tell them there will be slides afterward. To me, that is a signal that I am going to tune them out because I can just read it later at lunch. Doodle time!

      • I also think it’s really important to try to tell a story; it draws the audience in and asks them to buy in and before they know it, you’ve got them engaged. Instead of sitting through a boring presentation, they’re listening to you tell a story that conveys the same information.

        One other thing I think that I’d add to your list: Don’t have an associate forward the slides for you. Hearing someone say, “Next” repeatedly during a presentation is jarring and reminds you that this is a presentation. Spend $50-80 and get a remote and make the thing seamless.

        And don’t forget to practice! 😉

        Can you tell this is a pet topic of mine?

        • Ebay has the wireless presenter remotes for less than 30. It’s on my list of things to buy.

          • It will rock your world. I’m a big fan of the one from Logitech which has a countdown timer and will buzz silently in your hand at 10 and 5 (configurable, I think) minutes from the end of your time.

  • Wade_Thorson

    Thanks for the suggestions! It is definitely very frustrating to have someone read a presenation right off the slide, if they were going to do that they might as well just emailed me the presenation and I could of just read it. I another good idea is to even just have one picture on the slide, and talk to that. A pechakucha format is a good example of this, where they do 20 slides in 20 seconds. And then words have to be 20 font, but they recommend just one picture per slide. The key is like Matt said, few words and draw the attention to the speaker and not the slides.

    • Pecha Kucha is awesome. But it’s 20 slides at 20 seconds each for a total presentation length of about 6 1/2 minutes. And the slides advance every 20 seconds; you can’t go early or late. Wonderful way to practice and trim the fat from your presentation!

  • Wade_Thorson

    Maybe you will get to this in the next mistakes, but when in a business meeting of say 4-5 people and you are doing a presenation do you stand in the front by the slides, stay seated in the front by the screen, or something else. It seems odd to stand when doing a small presentation like that, but I think it makes sense to be on the same side as the screen.

    • Seems odd only to the presenter. That was what held me back Wade.

      When you present, it’s probably a good thing to feel uncomfortable.

      If possible, stand front and center. You are the focal point, not the screen.

      Caveat…our generation has been trained that opposite is true. It will take time for them to adjust to this style, but it’s worth it.

      • I agree. Always, always, always stand. Otherwise the screen is the focus of everyone’s attention, and this is one time you don’t want to be a peer to everyone, sitting at the same table in the same chairs. You need to stand apart.

  • Very good notes Matt. Here are my 2 adds: the screen should be to the left or right. Not center stage, unless it way over your head. Don’t stand in the projector light.

    A bright face is more important than a bright screen.

    • Agreed. That was point #4 :)

      Sometimes that is not possible, which is when point #5 becomes very important.

    • If you’re stuck with small screens, maybe. But I like the images I use to enhance my presentation, so I generally have had my greatest success having it right behind me, as big as possible. Projected from overhead or behind, standing in the light isn’t a problem.

      Think of any Steve Jobs keynote you’ve ever seen. He’s this small figure traipsing the stage in front of a huge screen. But your focus is always on him, and it doesn’t look weird at all. Or watch any TED or TEDx talk — same thing. Big screen, center stage.

      I believe the main reason for this is that the viewer doesn’t have to take their attention very far from the presenter if the slides are center stage. If they’re on the side, you have to look away to see them. It’s one of the things I disliked most about FPU tapes — that screen on the left side of the stage always drew me away from Dave whenver the slide would advance. Even on the DVDs….

      • Ah! The debate begins :<) Steve Jobs always had a backlit screen, or monitor. And it was HUGE! Standing in the light is ALWAYS a No-No. That flat screen works better than my round stomach.

        TED Talks are great, sometimes. Half of the speakers there are experts in the field, and beginners on stage. It shows, big time.

        Plus – the camera tells you where to look in a lot of the new TED talks, so . . different.

        Matt – my addition was the left or right of the stage. I want to make sure that no one is putting it behind the audience. Gee – you really need to be more specific in your How-To posts! 😉

        • You’re right. Not all TED talks are winners. But the ones I come back to again and again, the ones that capture my imagination and make the time fly, those tend to have the features I described.

          And I agree, standing in the light should be avoided. When you don’t control the environment, it becomes a question of lesser evils sometimes.

          These are the delivery tips I have employed as much as possible, and when I keep them in mind, I have significantly improved results:

          And here’s a wonderful example of someone not just standing in front of his presentation, but actually interacting with it; I suspect the whole thing was a video, and he just artfully paused and un-paused it as he went:

      • I like to think that you SHOULD have your attention drawn away for a moment. Then back to focus on the presenter.

        That being said, if you darken the screen, it really isn’t a huge deal.

        • I do it mostly when I’m going to digress, however briefly, or when I’m answering a question. It helps make the point that we’re leaving the main context of the presentation, and reactivating the screen helps bring everyone back into it. In that context, you’re absolutely right — I want to divert attention.

          This is an awesome discussion and a fantastic post, Matt! I’m learning lots today (mostly by seeing where exceptions to my “rules” make sense!)

          • Good ones Bret.

            Agreed…GREAT discussion! I am learning a ton too.

  • One way to not suck is to “just don’t do it.” I team taught a class: Public Speaking and PowerPoint. Your tips are good. PowerPoint should be a tool, but many use it as a crutch.

  • Start with this video and that takes care of a whole bunch of issues with PPT presentations.

    I am starting a campaign called “Ban the Bullets”. There are way more engaging ways to place text on your slide without using bulleted lists. Shameless plug, I have a series on this topic.

    Bottom line, be prepared. PowerPoint will not engage your audience. That’s your job!

    • “Ban the Bullets”

      I love that! Watching the video now and reading your series.

      • I really dont know why you two are sooo anti-second amendment… I’m just saying!

  • A couple of things I follow – Every slide should have to be narrated. Use images over printed words whenever you can (don’t kill them with bullet points). I like to use pictures of people, but that’s just me. Don’t hand out your slide presentation, I give them all the detail at the end. It keeps them focused on you. Don’t clutter up your side with dates and other useless info. Keep it simple. I like the book and blog Zen and the Art of Presentation.

    • Well said Jim!

      I like the point about clutter with dates etc.

  • Few words and more pictures. The pictures should help tell a story that get your audience to remember your one main point.

  • Great points. I have not used PowerPoint a lot but have learned the main message your delivering should come from you and not the PowerPoint. I think short key bullet points are the best.

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  • Good stuff Matt! I’m excited to read all four! I just got a powerpoint from our corporate office that I can use for a presentation I have to do next month. I’m already seeing some things that need to be adjusted with it after just your first lesson!

  • Keeping to short bullets is definitely the best. I have also found that simple is better – skip the images/graphics or use them sparingly.

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  • Clem

    Hi Matt, thanks to these great tips covering both the design and the presentation of PowerPoints! I’ve written a couple of posts covering PowerPoint presentation design as well. Feel free to have a look!