How to do a good powerpoint presentation

For the past month, I’ve been taking a course in project management. Mostly to “sharpen my business profile” and get a better understanding of the requirements and expectations that might be put to me in the corporate world. Apart from a lot of weirdly fascinating business jargon such as “Lean”, “Synergy”, and “SWOT-analysis”, I found how central powerpoint presentations have become – not only in the teaching of the course, but also in the work of presenting new ideas in a corporate context. As part of the course, we all had to do presentations on specific topics, and my group did one which was much applauded.

Why? Because we sought to use imagery to support what we said, rather than depending on the slides to remember what we were to say.

And it seems that though Powerpoint is considered an essential tool by so many people working with presentations on a daily basis, only very few of them actually have considered the effects which you can achieve through good powerpoint. Most people seem to use it in a complete mechanical and uninspired way, which has been parodied so effectively in Peter Norvig’s Powerpointization of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

Powerpoint is good for presentations, but as several people have noted, it is rarely useful for teaching, as it is linear and doesn’t allow for questions “out of sequence” and jumping back and forth in the presentation. Alternatives have been suggested for use in a teaching context. So first of all, you have to make it clear to yourself what you want to present, and whether powerpoint is the right medium to use.

Making that kind of judgement can be difficult at first, so I have compiled a few central texts on good powerpoint, which I hope can help others to make good digital presentations, as well as some specific examples of how good presentations.

One of the main theorists of Powerpoint is marketing guru Seth Godin. He has written a small 10-page booklet on the central elements of powerpoint. He points out one of the central problems with powerpoint as:

Most people treat their slides as a sort of scratch pad. They don’t figure out what information they’re going to present, then figure out what they have to say and what should go on the slides. They figure out what they’re going to say by writing it on the slides. Then they go in and read the slides.

Doing really first-rate presentations is hard. The vast majority of business types who are expected to give presentations don’t remotely have the graphics design or (more importantly) information design skills to do it well. Even when you have first-rate people doing it, it takes quite a lot of time. Supposedly a Steve Job keynote takes weeks to prepare, and there’s probably an entire team involved.

Godin sets up five rules for the design of powerpoint slides:

1. No more than six words on a slide. EVER.
2. No cheesy images. Use professional images from instead.
They cost $3 each, or a little more if they??re for ??professional use??.
3. No dissolves, spins or other transitions. None.
4. Sound effects can be used a few times per presentation, but never (ever)
use the sound effects that are built in to the program. Instead, rip sounds
and music from CDs and leverage the Proustian effect this can have.
5. Don??t hand out print-outs of your slides. They??re emotional, and they
won??t work without you there. If someone wants your slides to show
??the boss,? tell them that the slides go if you go.

His central argument is that the slides is an aid to your presentation. It is not the presentation itself. You should leverage the images to best effect to let your personal style of presentation sweep the audience off their feet. Don’t bore them with text or break the illusion in any way. Keep them focused on your words. And, if you dare: On you. You can see an example of Godin’s style of presentation here.

One of Godin’s examples of good powerpoint is Steve Jobs, the CEO of Apple. His presentations are immaculately designed and presented, but most of all, they are a perfect match for his personality. He dares to blank the screen at certain points, turning all of the audience focus on him, allowing him to connect directly with them and build up to his next point. This aesthetic is in part inspired by Zen art, where the empty space is as significant as the parts that are illustrated. There is a very telling comparison between a Bill Gates and a Steve Jobs keynote presentation, underlining both differences in personality, style and product.

Finally, I’m a big fan of Lawrence Lessig’s presentations, which I have linked several times here already. Apparently, Lessig doesn’t use the typical method of pressing a button to change slides, but rather use timers in some intricate sequences where the slides change almost with every sentence. It is horribly difficult to do, but it looks amazing when it works.

Now, I’ll be preparing a few slides for my exam presentation on Thursday, and as I’m still learning this fine art, I hope to be able to heed all of this advice.

.. oh and by the way, my Open Source friends will be sure to admonish me for calling this post “How to do good powerpoint presentation”, noting that it is only the Microsoft product that is called Powerpoint, and that the Open Source equivalent is called Impress while the Apple version (as used so seductively by Al Gore) is called Keynote. And while I do use Open Office Impress, Powerpoint has become the term describing digital presentations much like Google has become synonymous with Internet searching.

Leave a Reply