9 ways to make dreadful PowerPoint slides

I thought that when I left my corporate marketing job, I’d seen the last of bad PowerPoint. I was off to startup land. I thought everyone would present like Steve Jobs, and everyone’s slides would be awesome.

Erm, no. Entrepreneurs and digital gurus can be terrible presenters. Cool tech startups with awesome branding don’t always have cool and awesome PowerPoint slides. Illegible and downright scruffy presentations are as common here as in the corporate world.

Can we fix this? Yes, we can!

I’ve picked out nine common crimes against PowerPoint. I’ve seen them in traditional corporate settings, and in Tech City. They’re all easy to avoid: quick fixes for a more impressive presentation.

1. Too many words

If you’re presenting to a group, most of the words should come out of your mouth, not out of the screen.

Want your audience to stop listening to you? Put loads of text on your slides, so they can ignore you and get on with reading your presentation. Then they’ll wait patiently for you to finish rambling on, so they can read the next slide. Boring, no?

Assuming your audience can read the screen, that is. You might have shrunk your text quite a bit to fit in all those bullets points.

16 point font is the smallest you can go for on-screen text. Bigger is better, unless you want to give your audience a headache. Watch out for PowerPoint: it shrinks the text for you to fit everything in.

2. Not enough words

For some meetings, you don’t present your slides. You email them. This is common where there’s a lot of information and people want to be ready with their comments. In this case, you aren’t creating a presentation. You’re writing a report.

In this situation, you won’t be there to supply the words. Everything you need to say needs to be on the page. That’s way more words than your usual on-screen slide show. You also need to write in proper sentences, not bullet point shorthand.

Your readers will print these documents, or read them on a computer screen. That means you can go down to 12 point font. Any lower, and people will struggle to read your report on small tablets or laptops.

What you must avoid is using the same slides for a report and an onscreen presentation. You’ll end up with the worst of both situations.

3. Bullet points in the wrong place

Bullets are there to help us skim through lists. If they’re wandering about all over the page, they can’t do their job.

  • Align all your bulleted lists to the left, assuming you’re presenting to people who read left to right.
  • Remove bullets from centred and floating text. For instance, picture captions shouldn’t have a bullet.
  • Single paragraphs and non-list paragraphs don’t need bullets. I think they look better without.

PowerPoint is keen on bullet points. It may try to sneak them in when you aren’t looking. The main text area on a slide usually has bullets for every paragraph. Take a minute to consider if your slide would look better without them.

4. Not lining things up

I’ve spent a lot of time helping people with their PowerPoint slides. And I’ve realised that some folks just can’t see the difference between a thoughtfully organised slide, and a bunch of images thrown haphazardly onto the screen.

Here’s an example:

Wonky PowerPoint slides...
Properly aligned PowerPoint slides

The first slide is classic ‘plonking’: images and text all over the place. The second one is still a bit crowded for my taste, but at least everything’s aligned.

Messy slides aren’t just bad for your image. They’re actually harder for your audience to understand.

Usually, you add several things to one slide because they are in some way related. If there’s no structure to your layout, it’s difficult for people to understand those relationships.

You don’t need to guess at this. Turn on dynamic guides, if you have them in your version of PowerPoint. These appear as you drag objects around, to show you when you’ve lined things up. You can also use the Align feature to line up selected objects.

5. Lots of tiny pictures

It’s common to use images in PowerPoint to represent ideas or concepts. Some people like to use photos for this.

‘Smiling woman in headset’ = call centre. ‘Hip café with laptops’ = remote working. ‘Jumping people on sunset beach’ = high performing teams. Etc.

Trouble is, if you want four ideas on the screen, you need to fit in four pictures. And captions too. How else will people know ‘hip café with laptops’ means remote working, not tech startup?

Now your four pictures are tiny. No one can see them anyway.

If you want to use photos, use one per slide. Make sure it’s big enough so that people can understand the point you’re trying to make.

If there’s actually no point to the picture and it’s just eye candy, take it out. You don’t need to be fighting for attention with your own slides.

6. Clip art

An alternative way to present abstract ideas is through symbols or simple drawings.

At this point, it’s tempting to reach for the clip art library. Collaboration, cloud software, coffee… Whatever your concept, clip art has you covered.

Don’t go there. It just looks awful. Especially the cheery stock business people holding up cards where you can add your own text.

You can find much better icons at the Noun Project or Flaticon.

7. Too much branding on your presentation template

Every second you’re presenting, you’re fighting for attention.

Your audience has a thousand things they could be doing, other than listening to you. Planning their supper, thinking about what car to buy, chatting on WhatsApp… So don’t add extra competition via your own presentation template.

(This is why I generally don't ask designers to make PowerPoint templates.)

Your corporate brand is usually designed to grab attention. That’s fine on posters, packaging or store fronts.

The same attention-grabbing branding is a terrible thing in a slide template. No one should be looking at the template. They should be looking at you, or your slide content.

If you can’t lose all the branding, do your best to tone it down.

I also suggest you remove your logo, apart from the first page. That’s enough to establish that you’re presenting on behalf of Widgets Inc. You don’t need to remind people of the fact on every single PowerPoint slide.

8. Too much data

Graphs and other charts can be useful to support your argument. Or they can be a nasty challenge for your audience. When you throw too many numbers at them in one go, how are they to know which ones are important?

It’s even worse if you’ve included the data table along with the chart. Both chart and table will be tiny and impossible to read. It creates a wall of numbers with no hierarchy and no meaning. All it really says is, ‘look at all the numbers I crunched!’

Well done you. But the point of you crunching the numbers was so we don’t have to. Make it easier on your audience, and highlight the bit that matters.

Try arrows, circles, or contrast coloured bars. Blow up the important number in large type, or add a comment in a speech bubble pointing to the relevant bit.

9. Low contrast text

This is a personal thing for me. I have terrible eyesight, so I lose patience faster than most with illegible text. But I’m not the only person you’ll ever present to with less than 20/20 vision.

Small text is a problem. Even worse: low contrast between text and background.

Contrast is about variation in brightness. On screen, white is ‘all the brightness’. Black is the opposite: ‘no brightness at all’. Black text on white background is high contrast and easy to read.

But it’s boring, isn’t it? So we get creative: mid-grey on white, pale blue on white, white on yellow, brown on beige… Get creative, by all means. But remember that the closer the two colours are in brightness, the less readable your slides will be.

You can sometimes use lower contrast if you use larger letters. Make sure your text is legible with this Colour Contrast Check.

After all, there’s not much point in creating slides no one can read.