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.