10 PowerPoint conventions ready for retirement

2015-04-17-10-PowerPoint-Conventions

What makes a professional presentation “old school”? Help me build the list…

I’ve attended a few professional conferences over the last several months and have noticed a high number of presentations that are (by my own assessment) old school. I mean they include outdated stylistic conventions, which (I believe) diminish the effectiveness and undermine the appeal of the presenter’s message.

By way of analogy: If you look back at TV shows or movies from previous decades, you’ll notice that cinematography has changed over the years. I’m not much of a TV/movie buff, but even I can see the differences in camera angle shifts, visual cuts, and editing sophistication between, say, the old 1960’s Batman and Robin TV show and the newest Gotham series. Creative adaptation, changing zeitgeists, and new technologies have encouraged the evolution of visual styles, growth of new tropes, and creation of different cinematographic metaphors. The point is simply that the “grammar” of cinematography has matured over time, and it’s important for today’s directors to, at least, recognize the contemporary grammar of cinema (whether or not they adhere to it).

What’s the point of the analogy? The “grammar” of professional presentations—at least the most successful ones—has also evolved. (Check out the best TED Talks as some good examples.) Unfortunately, it seems that most presenters at typical professional conferences, in academic classrooms, or at business meetings haven’t gotten the memo.

Style Conventions

Of course, there are plenty of sites that offer general advice about professional presentations and PowerPoint slides. However, most of these articles recommend ways to implement “old school” conventions more effectively. (This is often good advice, although not very novel.)  So, let’s create a list of stylistic recommendations for the modern day that extend beyond the conventional advice.

I hope to eventually identify a full set of usage best practices for visual and linguistic composition in modern presentations. For now, let’s start by identifying some conventions in slideshow presentations that ought to be retired. Why start with slideshows (e.g., PowerPoints)? Because slides are often the most tangible—and possibly the most frequently egregious—part of these presentations.

(In the process of developing this so-called “manual of style,” it’s important to acknowledge that these recommendations represent a general “grammar,” which may sometimes be broken for effect. But you’ve gotta learn the rules before you can break ’em effectively!)

The (Initial) List…

In no particular order, here’s the initial list of presentation style conventions that, generally speaking, ought to be retired. Keep in mind: (1) there are always exceptions to the rules, and  (2) this discussion is specifically about face-to-face presentations (not print-outs of PowerPoint slides, for example).

  1. Background graphics: What benefit does the background possibly offer? At best, it takes up screen real estate; at worst, it’s distracting and erodes the clarity of your text, images, and overall message. You can probably get away with using an appropriate  background on the first, last, and title slides. But on the internal content slides—delete it!
  2. White or light-colored backgrounds: Why blind everyone with the bright background on the projector screen? Make the background black, so it disappears. The visual elements that stand out (e.g., bright white colors), should be reserved for the main areas of conceptual focus (e.g., your key words or images). Use bright or white backgrounds for effect, but not as the standard.
  3. Logo overuse: Sticking your company logo on every slide isn’t going to garner additional business. The quality of your presentation is the best marketing. Highlight your name, company, and other branding elements on specifically relevant slides (e.g., first and last), and remove those distractions otherwise.
  4. Bulleted list overuse: Slide-after-slide of bulleted lists may not have ever been “in style,” but I think this is becoming increasingly less tolerated (and rightly so). Can decent slide presentations have some slides with bullets? Yes, although images, graphs, and multimedia are often more effective; plus, some variation between each slide is critical. Limit the number of slides made-up of bullets, and follow all of the traditional advice about limiting the amount of text on slides and using proper fonts.
  5. De facto slide numbers: Generally speaking, I think slide numbers fall into the same category as logos and background graphics: They take up space and create distractions without adding much. I suppose some special cases could benefit from slide numbers (for instance, to navigate to a particular slide during Q&A), but you can also accomplish such outcomes in other, better ways. So, generally speaking, remove the slide numbers—along with the entire distracting footer, if possible.
  6. Multi-line bullets: As said above, bullets are sometimes useful, but when you use them, try to keep each one to a single line. This helps with the visual chunking and forces you to be more succinct.
  7. Default layouts: The default layout settings on PowerPoint are an eyesore create swaths of white space around the edges of slides, on the hanging indents of bullets, and in-between lines of text. Similarly the default content containers for text and titles encourage presenters to insert ugly text, use unnecessary titles, and omit more visually effective and interesting elements. Whenever I create slides, I start by turning off the default layouts. Use text-boxes, shapes, and images to create content elements where you need them.
  8. De facto slide titles: Slide titles sometimes have a purpose, but most of the time they simply state the obvious, take up space, and create distraction. (Even worse are unnecessary slide titles that span multiple lines!)  If you actually need a title, include it, but make it short and relevant. Otherwise, why insert the unnecessary label?
  9. Introductory “agenda” slides: Your presentation is 20 minutes long… do you really need an agenda to list every single slide you’re about to present? I think this convention must come from misinterpreting the old adage “tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em, tell ’em, and then tell ’em what you told ’em.” Sure, it’s often useful to start talks by giving a one sentence summary of your thesis, then explaining the finer points of your argument, and finishing with a paraphrased summary and interpretation of your key points. However, this approach does not mean that it’s useful to include a table of contents at the beginning of your talk.
  10. False dichotomy between bad animations or blind avoidance of them: I use slide transitions and animations all the time. They’re fantastic when used purposefully. Generally, old-school presentations seem to fall into one of two categories, when it comes to motion graphics: Either they eschew all transitions and animations or they misuse/overuse them. Both are poor choices. Subtle movement can create emphasis and help show relationships between concepts; it can create visual interest and clarity. Motion effects don’t have to be an either-or decision (i.e., “use them badly or avoid them altogether”); there is a very effective middle ground where motion effects add significantly to your presentation.

What stylistic conventions do you think are old school? What do you wish people would stop doing in their professional talks?

78 Comments

  1. 22 April 2015    

    You hit on some interesting things here and I agree with most of what you write… Item 4 in the list reminds me of an old Army COL who stated “its not the slides you need to worry about, it’s the bullets that’ll kill your presentation”. I think many of the items in your list are dependent on the purpose of the presentation. For example, a short product pitch will be quite a bit different from an hour long class. In the longer presentation, especially if the presentation is projected and printed, something like slide numbers may be much more acceptable.

    The main area of disagreement relates to item 2 of your list (white or light-colored background). When I first started creating PowerPoint presentations, I preferred a dark background with a lighter text. I often received feedback that it would be a better presentation if I would move to a light background with darker text. To that end, I’ve compiled a few links over the years that discuss things like the psychology of presentations, the theory of color, and other presentation guidelines. This was mostly done a few years ago in an attempt to figure out which would be better. In the end, it probably comes down to personal preference… but nothing will trump a dynamic speaker with good content. ..

    Here are a few links:
    http://www.storytellingwithdata.com/2014/03/color-considerations-with-dark.html
    http://www.ou.edu/class/bc2813/PresentationTips/PsychologyOfPresentationVisuals.html
    https://books.google.com/books?id=N5sSYO20IG0C&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false
    http://dept.wofford.edu/psychology/pittman/Presentation_Resources/TipsPowerPoint.pdf
    http://www.writing.engr.psu.edu/ae_psychology.pdf

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