It happens to everyone, eventually. Even the most shut-in engineer has to show his work to a large group. Even the most technically inclined student has to talk about his research. Most managers, co-workers and peers are attracted to shiny things, and will recommend the use of Microsoft PowerPoint.

I will try to keep this write-up free of Microsoft bashing, since PowerPoint is not being critiqued as an application. No rants about the Office Assistant or "Micro$oft bloatware" will be included. That said, on with the guide.

Do You Need PowerPoint?

Although PowerPoint is quickly becoming the de facto standard in offices and educational institutions, it is not always necessary. Talk to who's requesting the presentation. Should it be less than 10 minutes in length? Is the format that of a lecture, or a discussion? Discussions tend to be more free-ranging, and cannot be captured with just a few slides. If you expect people to take notes, or want people to notice a set of core topics, PowerPoint might be better suited for the task.

Obviously, Microsoft PowerPoint isn't the only thing that you can use; these tips generally apply to other programs like Corel Presentations as well.

Information: Less Is More

PowerPoint slides are not cue cards. Remember that the audience should listen to you, not read the screen. If you find yourself writing entire sentences as bullet points, stop. Resist the temptation to write excessively long points. Write just enough to remind yourself of what you should say.

Remember that PowerPoint allows you to annotate your slides. When printed, these notes appear below your slide on the printed page. Write any topics that you should cover or avoid on these notes. Your notes are not a script: your audience will become detached if you stare at a paper the entire time.

Quotations should be used sparingly. It can be difficult to read several lines of text on a projector screen, especially in a large sans serif font. If you absolutely need to use a quote, write it in your notes and read it out loud. People read printed text at different speeds, but they will pay more attention to you if you're giving the information directly.

Eschew Multimedia

Limit your use of clip art. Avoid using the images supplied with PowerPoint; most people in your audience have seen them already. The Microsoft Clip Gallery Live web site has some new content that might be more relevant to your presentation. It is recommended that you use images that might be more directly related to your presentation, such as logos.

Be careful with screen shots. Even though your audience will be able to see the screen clearly, computer applications are generally not made to be viewed from such long distances. Additionally, screen shots are bitmap images. When you view them in full-screen mode, they will look different. When expanded, they will look blocky. A screen shot is a good way to give users the general layout of your application's UI, but don't expect them to be able to read any text or widgets therein.

Don't include external media. PowerPoint allows you to embed many types of files in a presentation, including MP3 audio and QuickTime video. Please don't. Even if you're making the presentation from your own laptop, expect something to go wrong. First of all, PowerPoint displays a warning message when it is about to launch an external application (this is to prevent presentations from launching trojan horses). Once you click OK to approve the application being launched, there will be a five to ten second delay. If you can talk through this, fine. Extra dialogs will often launch. Winamp will remind you to download the latest version unless explicitly told not to. QuickTime Player ever since version 4 displays a registration nag screen most of the time. Windows Media Player 7 and RealPlayer have absolutely beastly interfaces. All of this distracts the audience, and may draw some derisive snickers. If there are any Windows haters or Apple haters in the house, expect them to pipe up. Unless your presentation is explicitly about a multimedia project, any sort of audio or video is unnecessary.

Addendum, courtesy danila: Here is a good way to use Winamp without problems: Start it prior to PowerPoint and minimise it. Then launch PowerPoint. Make the MP3 start when you click some object (you can make the background image a large clickable object). In this case the app is running already and the music will start immediately. It is wise (if any sounds are used) to check the volume beforehand. Laptop speakers should be set to max volume. The movies should actually be embedded in the presentation (AVIs or MPEGs). Then there should be no problem with external apps (this applies only if you use your own laptop).

Get Off the Internet

While you are presenting, there is no need to have a network connection of any kind unless you wish to show a web site or other network-based content. Remove wireless networking cards, unplug Ethernet cables, and hang up the modem. During the presentation, you don't want your computer spontaneously downloading software updates, receiving instant messages, or alerting you to the fact that you have new mail. Imagine how shocked I was when I saw Kevin Mitnick give a presentation only to be bothered by ZoneAlarm alerts about SQL Server outbound connection attempts. At least he didn't leave AIM running, as I've seen at least one person do during a presentation.

Hold It Right There

PowerPoint allows for a variety of slide transitions and animation features. It is almost never appropriate to use them. If the audience has never seen a PowerPoint presentation before, they will ooh and aah at the little graphical effects. If the audience has seen one before, they will groan at your attempt to look cool.

If you don't want your audience to read your points ahead of time, use the "Appear" animation effect. This allows each point to appear after a certain amount of time, or when you click the mouse. This is the only animation that should ever be used with text. cordelia makes a good point about using animations to introduce graphics.

Be wary of using such animation too often, especially if you will not necessarily be standing by the computer the entire time. The audience will grow tired of your constant clicking, and you run the risk of talking ahead of your points. Rapid clicking to catch up is simply distracting.

If you ever use the "Random transition" or "Random animation" options, I will strike you dead.

Do not use sound effects to accompany animations. They might break the ice by showing your playful side, but they get old very fast. As your twelfth bullet point zooms, screeches, or zaps into view, your audience will want to throttle you. Besides, expect to have audio problems. It's entirely too easy to forget to plug the sound in, or to set the volume incorrectly, or to have the wrong audio source selected. Your audience hates to be deafened by cheesy sound effects.

Be Quick-Fingered

PowerPoint provides a wide array of navigation shortcuts for use during presentations. To see them, right-click in Slide Show view and click "Help." Memorize the most useful ones, or write them down on an index card for quick reference. Here are a few that I use a lot:

  • Up, Page Up, Mouse Wheel Up - Previous Slide
  • Down, Page Down, Mouse Wheel Down, Left-Click - Next Slide
  • Type number and press ENTER - go to a specific slide. There is no visual feedback as you enter the number.
  • B - Blank screen. Displays a black screen. Useful if you want the audience to stop reading.
  • W - White screen. Displays a white screen. Similar to 'B', but less jarring if your presentation has a white background.1
  • A - Hide pointer. Makes the on-screen arrow cursor go away. The cursor will normally disappear if not moved for a few seconds.1
  • CTRL-P - Pen mode. Lets you write on your presentation like John Madden would. Not recommended for many laptop pointing devices.
  • E - Erase pen marks.
  • Esc - Terminate slide show.
  • F5 - Start slide show.

1 Thanks to TallRoo for adding these.

Are You Ready?


I cannot stress this enough. Rehearse your presentation at least twice all the way through, in the company of at least one other person. If possible, rehearse on the same projector that you will use for the actual presentation. If text is hard to read, tweak the fonts and color scheme. If your voice echoes through the room, speak slowly. Practice your timings: if you feel like you're spending too much time on a slide, consider breaking it up into different slides. Enunciate. Speaking to a large room is not the same as speaking face-to-face. Don't ramble. Your slides are there to guide you. Remember that you have a time limit, and you want to allow time for Q&A. Remember to introduce yourself if your audience doesn't know you personally, and to thank them for their time at the end. These are simple formalities, but are considered polite.

What if the projector breaks? What if your laptop crashes? Can you pick up where you left off? While it's not always feasible to simulate these situations, be prepared for them. Have paper handy; transparencies may be useful if you can set up an overhead projector in less than one minute. (That's one minute from the moment the laptop projector stops working.)

Relax! Don't be too uptight; your audience is your friend, not your target. Be prepared to field questions at any time, even before you ask "Any questions?" If you have a Palm, grab a copy of BigClock and use the stopwatch feature to time yourself. If you are asked to do a 20-minute presentation, ask "Any questions?" and shut up when your stopwatch hits 15:00. If the presentation is scheduled for 30 minutes, take 20. Your audience should be allowed to ask questions without fear of being cut off. If you are giving a presentation as part of a long string, it is important not to drag. If you go over, everyone else does, too.

In Conclusion

PowerPoint is a very useful tool for presentations, but the potential for abuse is very real. Do not use it to insult your audience's intelligence, or undermine your own. If you use it effectively, you will impress your co-workers or superiors. If you don't, they will fall asleep.

Thank you.

An excellent writeup above

Except for the section entitled Hold it right there. There are some very useful features in the animations that you'll want to use. Here's some things you might want to show, and how to use PowerPoint to get your point across effectively..

Demonstrating a sequence of events
Here, you'll want to use the "xx:xx seconds after last animation." These are very useful, for example, when showing the effects of a denial of service attack, by having floods of packets continuously appearing on your screen. Rehearse this. There's nothing worse than finishing your spiel and having ten seconds of delay while animations flash across your screen.
Showing workflow
You may want to group some objects together (arrows & text boxes come to mind),, and set them to animate in via the wipe method - in the direction of the arrow, of course. If you have a workflow with multiple flows across the same space, have the groups Dim on next mouse click.
You'll want to have an ending slide. Later versions of Powerpoint automatically append a black slide entitled "End of slide show" when in slide show mode, but having your own (on your normal background!} That says Questions? or Comments or Summary looks a tad more professional.

In a perfect world, you have either a wireless mouse, or someone who has rehearsed with you to advance your slides. If you have an assistant, the worst thing to do is say, "Next slide." Rehearse with them. Use eye contact, or a gesture, to signal slide advances.

Note: Both above writeups completely RAWK.

I feel compelled to chime in here, not to argue, but to add a couple of points and some emphasis. I have given and received presentations for the world's premier Powerpoint organization in terms of number and dollars - the U.S. Military. That said, there are (as noted) all kinds of things that you can do wrong, and only a few that you must do right.

Simplify, Simplify, Simplify

As generic-man notes, "less is more." There all indeed all sorts of cool toys that let you produce graphically rich slides, with tons of information; these are meant to build the handouts that you distribute after the presentation, if you absolutely must. In other words, if you are distributing a nice set of reference information for the audience to use later, sure, more information is good - they'll only be looking at it when they're trying to find something, and compact, easy to skim info-rich pages can be good.

Do not ever overload your presentation slides. Remember this: the slides are there to anchor what you're saying. They are there to remind your audience of the context of your speech. They are there to provide a static structure to what may become a discussion. The slides do not impart the information, you do. If you think slides must absolutely impart complete information, see the note above regarding handouts.

Save the Trees

There are mixed views on offering handouts of your presentation beforehand. I personally find it most distracting to have an audience riffling through decks of copy paper, and find myself annoyed at every head turned down to look into their lap. It means that there will always be someone who looks up to ask a question or make a comment who, if they had been listening, would realize that in fact that answer or comment had just gone over their ducked head.

I do find one situation where handouts can be useful. If you are going to be presenting a large quantity of information that your audience will want to take down, or if the presentation is intended to provoke discussion over your points, then it can be quite helpful (especially at conventions or meetings where folks forgot to bring a yellow pad) to offer simply a deck of paper with the slide titles at the top and perhaps two or three bullet points from that slide just beneath it. Think about distributing pens, as well. This will allow folks to easily take down notes or structure their ideas before talking, as well as make it easier for them to decipher their notes of the discussion later if the pages are marked with your core topics and presentation flow.

You're not a Graphic Artist

Really. You're not. If you were, and you were presenting, you wouldn't be using PowerPoint. Think about it. Realizing this is a good thing. There may, in fact, be graphic artists in the audience; and there are many, many more critics of design than good designers. In case you hadn't gotten it yet, this is an entreaty to (as my predecessors above plead as well) leave well enough alone, and avoid (like the plague) PowerPoint's tempting easy candycoating of clip art, drawing tools, color blends, backgrounds, and the like. Try the following: Whenever you find yourself putting something on a slide that isn't text, ask yourself does this offer the audience any additional information? If so, does it do it in a dramatically more efficient manner than if I just told them?

One of the best arguments for plain, black on white text is simply that the average presentation hardware cannot realistically come anywhere close to matching the clarity, contrast and resolution of the CRT on which you're composing the thing. It will be dark, hard to read, distracting, badly off tint, or some such, and you're out of luck. Also remember the following: LCD projectors, especially passive-matrix ones, suffer from 'ghosting' along the lines extending from displayed object's edges. A white dialog box or text box in the midst of a dark background will likely leave ghost lines extending from corners, etc. etc. Think about whether you'll be using transparencies or computer projection; if the former, you'll have to be careful with dark colors since they'll just show up as opaque, and lighter ones may not transfer well at all.

Are there places to use graphics? Sure. The most effective (in my opinion) is in the highlighting. If you have a corporate logo, or project logo, put it in a corner somewhere in a footer (never header). If possible, use nice-looking dividing lines - if you're on live hardware (projectors), a nice single-tone color faded dividing line goes a great distance to making your presentation colorful and fun - without distracting. Try cribbing elements from corporate electronic stationery's borders, or if need be, scan in a piece of stationery that has a nice line element on it.

There are mixed schools of thought on background images. I tend to use them only on section title slides, where there is no real information overlaying them; your style and mileage may vary. If you do use them, be sure to look at them on your final presentation media during rehearsal to be sure that they aren't too light or too dark!

James Bond? Maybe, but only if you have Q, too!

Remember this above all else: gadgets or gizmos are only good if they make the presentation more seamless. If your audience sees you using them, they're distracting. Always try to get RF remote mice or slide controllers over IR; you have to brandish the latter at the receiver's line of sight, and will end up looking like Captain Kirk wondering why his Phaser-I won't stop a Horta. An RF remote can be manipulated behind the lectern, in a pocket, or just discreetly down at ones' side without grabbing attention.

Laser pointers should only be used for their intended purpose: quickly pointing things out on screens too large for you to do so manually. They are bright and will wobble around, swiftly attracting eyes to your intended point; but if they remain on for to long, it becomes almost impossible to study the slide with that eye-grabbing red dot doing the samba across the screen. If you're within reach, a telescoping pointer is a good tool, especially if you need something to fidget with below the lectern. :-)

If your venue has all sorts of handy toys, by all means use them if they'll help; however, also make sure that there is someone within easy reach who knows all about how they work. Even if you have a backup, having to say "Oh, well, let's skip the video for now," or "Hmm, maybe I"ll use transparencies" or even "I guess I can use my wired mouse to click" is like a presentation death sentence. Even if they're there, please, rehearse, and make sure that the gadgets and a support person are there for the rehearsal so that you can familiarize yourself with their limits (gadgets and personnel both) before trying it live. If you must give a presentation cold in a complex environment, try to avoid using as many of the gizmos as possible; the fewer you try, the fewer chances to look stupid you give yourself.

Whew. I'm a pedantic bugger, and I'm losing the Keep It Simple, Stupid! game myself. One thing I always tell myself before the presentation: They're here to listen to you, not read the slides or get a demo of Powerpoint. They could do either of those from the comfort of their cube.

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