Making PowerPoint Presentations Effective


It’s time we cracked the code on this one.

I am talking about PowerPoint presentations. Specifically, I’m talking about bad PowerPoint presentations.

I’ll just go on ahead and say it. Most PowerPoint presentations are flat out awful. I speak from experience. I’ve put together some doozies over the years.

The funny part is, while we all know and accept that most are really bad, not much progress has been made in the Most PowerPoints Suck category. In fact, the trend seems to be fairly well established:

  1. Suffer through someone else’s PowerPoint
  2. Bitch and moan about how awful it was to everyone but the presenter
  3. When called upon to make a presentation, create something virtually indistinguishable from the PowerPoint in question

It’s not that others haven’t tried to offer help along the way:

  • Don McMillan made a great video calling out every stereotypical mistake made during PowerPoint presentations called Life After Death By PowerPoint. Unfortunately, after 1.3M views his wisdom seems to have fallen on deaf ears. If anything, one could make the argument that his work is the checklist to a successful presentation.
  • Guy Kawasaki’s 10-20-30 Rule should have gone a long way towards helping American businesses tighten things up, but it hasn’t accomplished much either.

Deconstructing the PowerPoint presentation

I love TED Talks. If you want to get inspired, this is a great place to spend an hour. Better still, if you’re interested in seeing how PowerPoint presentation skills can make or break a 20-minute window, there’s no better resource in the world.

Via the TED stage I’ve seen brilliant people bore groups of avid fans to death, and individuals with seemingly little to no stage presence captivate a room. I watched more than 200 TED Talks that year.

What resulted was a clear list of the Do’s and Don’ts of a great presentation that I’ve tested with repeated success.

Note: Go ahead and bookmark this post now – you’ll want to come back to it again later.

The Basics

The elements of a great PowerPoint presentation fall into two groups:

  1. Checklist elements – The basics you need to avoid embarrassing, momentum-derailing error
  2. Execution elements – The theories and practices that pull it all together

Checklist elements are the basics you need to have a workable PowerPoint presentation.

Note: These things will not help you have a great presentation. They will, however, better your chances at avoiding a complete and total train wreck.


  • Get your title slide right – title, date, client names/logo(s, etc.
  • Use a simple background – no shapes or patterns
  • Stick with simple, clean font – nothing decorative, easy to read from a distance
  • Keep colors to a minimum – simple is always better
  • Don’t use transitions
  • Don’t use sound effects
  • Don’t use clip art
  • Keep your presentation to 30 minutes or less
  • No more than 6 bullet points on a slide
  • Make sure your video or audio files play as expected when you’re off your office or home network
  • Don’t put complex imagery on the screen – it’s hard to read from a distance
  • Never read your slides
  • Spell check
  • Spell check again
  • Check the battery in your clicker
  • Be sure to have a replacement bulb for your projector
  • Know what projector they’re providing and how to connect to it before you go

8 Steps – The formula for real success

Each of the really great presentations I’ve found or participated in shared the following attributes. More than the list above, many of these are executional elements that may require you to rethink the way you look at your use of PowerPoint presentations, the content you choose to include and/or the teams you use to present them. All of these activities will prove beneficial to you and your audience.

1. Your PowerPoint presentation isn’t a presentation – it’s a performance
First, stop thinking of your presentation as a means of sharing data. It’s a performance, with you and/or your team as the star performers. This means you’ll need to stop focusing on the information, and start focusing on the audience.

Like any performance, your presentation needs a:

• Beginning (the problem or challenge)

• Middle (recommended solution or information gathered)

• End (recommendations and anticipated success metrics moving forward)

• Hero (Namely your company or solution)

• Villain (Namely the challenge or competitor)

• Damsel in distress (The opportunity moving forward)

2. Keep the audience engaged by engaging the audience
Left to their own devices, your audience will check out the minute the room gets dark. Force them to stay engaged by asking them questions, getting them to participate in what’s happening. Tony Robbins uses this frequently. During his TED Talk (6:21 and beyond) he repeatedly asked the audience to confirm their understanding of what he was saying or share their common experience by asking them to, “Say Aye.” As a result, they remained hyper engaged, waiting for his next request to participate in the action.

3. Build momentum
More than just keeping the audience engaged, you to build anticipation in the room. Each point you’re making needs to lead to the next. Create cliffhanger content on each slide to keep the audience guessing. Steve Jobs original iPhone keynote address is a flawless example. His build in the first 3 minutes is awe-inspiring.

4. Excitement is Infectious
Want to see how excitement can bring people together on even the driest of data? Watch Hans Rosling’s amazing performance recounting his experience teaching Global Development to Swedish undergraduate students. He’s talking about the change in family size and longevity between 1962 and 2006. And somewhere between 2:15 and 4:50 he becomes an Internet presentation rock-star (10M views and climbing).

If you’re ever going to turn your back on your audience, this is the way to do it.

5. Use your slides as guideposts, not notes
The perfect PowerPoint slide has a single word, number, graph or image and nothing else. The point of the slide is to pique the audience’s curiosity, not to give them a means of reading along or worse, ahead. In cases where bullet points are necessary, build the screen one point at a time to keep your audience with you.

A PowerPoint template should not be able to tell the story without you.

Again, Apple does a fantastic job doing this. Here are a few screen shots from the iPhone introduction keynote listed above:

6. Tell a well-known story – never memorize a script
Want to see a presentation go up in flames? Memorize a script and watch what happens when an audience member asks an unexpected question. I consulted for an agency once that insisted people memorize their scripts for presentation.

One afternoon, during a new business pitch, a young creative was asked an unexpected question during her part of the presentation. The question completely threw her off. She stood there looking between the screen and the group trying desperately to remember where she’d left off. The worst part was, the rest of the team was completely unable to help her. They were all so focused on remembering their parts that none of them knew where she was either.

Instead, thoroughly learn the material and key points of your presentation material as you would a story. This way, if you get interrupted, you can pick up without issue.

7. Come out from behind the podium
Want to connect quickly and completely with the audience? Come down from the stage. Audiences don’t expect you to interact with them. Go out and join them. Make eye contact with them. Make sure they’re with you and ask or take questions along the way to keep them engaged.

8. Keep it short and finish big
Even the best presentations have a time limit – usually 30 minutes or less. People are busy and need to get on with their day. Be sure to set expectations on time at the beginning. Let your audience know how long you intend to present to help manage their expectations. Then finish early.

And when you’re near the finish line, let them know. This gives the audience time to prepare questions and applause.

Follow even a few of these key points and your presentations will be better attended, better received and better appreciated.