How to repair a broken PowerPoint presentation

I was at a tech conference last week. There were some fantastic speakers - but also some really, really bad slides.

Too much text, wonky diagrams, random colour choices, and that conference staple: the my-brand/your-brand mash-up. You know, where you slam a bunch of corporate slides into someone else's template, and nothing matches?

These slide issues were mostly self-inflicted, I think. But some of the speakers will have inherited their design disasters from someone else.

Because it happens. You agree to speak at some event because the nice person in PR says it will be fine. No work at all. There's already a slide deck you can use. Then you finally get your hands on the PowerPoint and realise you're about to present the Worst Slides Ever.

Or maybe it's your boss who's presenting, and they've thrown you a set of slides to 'just tidy up a bit'. Or your own professional pride says there is no way they're representing your company with Those Slides.

So what can you do about it?

Delete as much as you can

The single quickest thing you can do to fix up bad slides. Even if you have time for nothing else, at least make sure the slides are clean, clear and easy to read.

I start with the title slide: speaker's name, conference name, date, page numbers, copyright notices etc. All of this can go. Most audiences know what day of the week it is and what conference they're at. And if they don't, it doesn't really matter.

You need to keep a title, and you might want to add the speaker's Twitter account and a suitable hashtag, but that's about it.

Moving on to the rest of the slides, I like to clear out as much text as I can. Copy it on to the notes page (for your speaker notes), and then delete it from the slide.

You might not want to delete every single word. Some bullet points are worth keeping, but lose any sub-bullets, and try and simplify what's left.

I mostly leave pictures and diagrams alone at this stage, but there might be some obviously redundant ones you can ditch.

And finally, there might be some entire slides that need deleting. If you've been given a 30-minute presentation for a 20-minute speaking gig, you need to cut some slides. You may as well cut them now, rather than waste time beautifying them.

Sort out the template

Choose a template and stick to it. If you're speaking at a conference and they want you to use their template, just go with it. Don't try and blend in your own branding on top.

If your presentation has been created by multiple authors or stitched together from several sources with different templates, it might already look messy. The best way to fix this is via the Slide Master.

Fixing the Slide Master does take a little bit of time. Initially, it can make things look really bad (depending on how messed up the slides were by previous authors). If you're up against a deadline, skip this step, and do what you can with manual fixes on each slide.

If you do have time to spare, go into the Slide Master (View > Master > Slide Master ) and delete the layouts you no longer want. If there are multiple templates at work, there will be multiple groups of layouts, one from each template.

Keep deleting until there's one overall master layout, one title slide, one title and content, one title only etc. Then edit the remaining layouts so the fonts, colours and placeholders are how and where you want them.

Close the master and go back to your presentation. Slide by slide, reapply the appropriate layout. This will put all the elements of the slide back in the right place and reset the fonts to the template default.

It may, on some slides, result in a dreadful mess. So let's fix that.

Fix the fonts

The slides you inherited probably had too much text on the screen. As a result, the font sizes may be too small. You want everything to be 16 points or larger. Preferably larger.

If you've deleted lots of text and reapplied the layouts in the previous step, you may find the fonts now look fine. But if you need to boost anything by hand, do it now.

You also need to check for mismatched fonts. If everything is supposed to be Helvetica, check there's no Arial mixed in. They might look pretty similar on a small screen, but on a big conference projector, the difference will be obvious.

Again, this is something that the Master Slide fix will deal with, but if you don't have time for all that or some diagrams escaped the re-mastering, select everything on each slide and manually apply the correct font.

Line everything up

When you reapplied the Master layouts, you may have got all the titles and main content blocks to line up, but there will be other things that need fixing. Extra text boxes, tables and diagrams all need to be lined up with the main items on the slide and with each other.

Turn on the guides to help you with this. View > Guides > Dynamic Guides and Static Guides.

  • The static guides are the thin blue lines that overlay a slide when you're editing it. Click and drag to move a guide, Alt+click and drag to duplicate it.
  • I like to have a vertical one on the left in line with the title and main content, and a horizontal one in line with the top of the main content.
  • The dynamic guides appear when you move objects around and show you when things are lined up. Great for dragging things quickly into place.
  • The Align buttons (top, left, middle, etc) let you line up multiple things at once.
  • The Distribute buttons let you space several objects out at equal distances.

Even if you don't have time to fix the colours, everything will look better once it's straight.

Clean up the colours

If the colours are truly awful in your presentation (rainbow gradients, vile pastels, etc) you might make this a higher priority. I'm more bothered by alignment than colour, but it depends on what state the slides were in when you got them.

Hopefully, the Master Slide Layout fix has sorted out most of the problems, so now we just need to deal with exceptions.

If you have a set palette to work with, like your corporate brand, then match everything to that. But even in that case, I tend to use shades of grey plus one accent colour - especially if I'm in a hurry.

Now is also a good time to get rid of weird gradients, excess drop shadows and any other special effects that may have caught the fancy of the original author.

The main thing here is consistency. If you don't have time to get rid of the gradients because they're on every slide but one, then bite the bullet and make that one slide match the others. Use Copy Formatting (the paintbrush button) to pick up the formatting you want to reproduce and paste it onto the mismatched objects.

Improve the images

We're into 'nice if we've got time' territory now. You may find that your inherited slides have clichéd stock photography, bad clip art, or diagrams pasted in as blurry pictures. If you have the time you can fix that too.

  • Find better photos at LibreStock.
  • Use icons instead of bad clip art. You can find a huge selection at the Noun Project.
  • If pictures of diagrams are blurry, I like to redraw the whole thing. I always check the built-in SmartArt library to see if there's a suitable stencil I can use. You can also try Duarte Diagrammer, a free library of over 4,000 PowerPoint diagrams.

That's what I do to fix up a bad set of slides. What are your tips?

I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned.