6 PowerPoint Mistakes You’re Making – And How To Fix Them

This article originally appeared in the April 2014 edition of the Marketing GPS Newsletter. This article was contributed by guest authors Jeanne Davant and Todd Dawson.

Presentations based on PowerPoint slides are standard in the business world. They’re useful for sales presentations and public speaking to demonstrate your expertise, and can augment your presentation effectively.

Unfortunately, PowerPoint decks can also be deadly boring, and thereby detract from your message. You’ve probably had to sit through one of these interminable presentations. If so, and if you don’t want to afflict your own conference audience with PowerPoint presentation mistakes, please read on. What follows are solutions to six of the most common PowerPoint errors.

Mistake No. 1: Too Much Information

A PowerPoint presentation is not the place for an encyclopedic treatment of a topic. It should give a general overview, excite your audience to a new understanding, or encourage them to take a new action.

Remember that you are the focus of the presentation, not your slides. Their purpose is to enhance your presentation and reinforce your main points. Unless you’re conducting a training session—and maybe even then—detailed information belongs in a handout that supplements the presentation.

Consider this: if you have a lot of information to convey, plan ahead and create an e-book. You can use your presentation as a way of promoting the book, or offer free copies that your audience can download.

Mistake No. 2: Building Your Presentation in PowerPoint

Preparation and organization are the keys to creating an effective presentation.

Outline your presentation before you create your first slide. If you outline first, you’ll have a clear objective and know the most salient points you need to make, and the most effective way to convey the desired emotion or call-to-action. Think of it as telling a story that has a point of view and flows logically in a clear arc from beginning to end. Think through the major points you want to make and limit them to no more than three. Think about how your slides can enhance your story, but not overwhelm it.

Many people skip this step to “save time” and try to create their presentations in PowerPoint. Do that, and you’ll very likely get bogged-down in details or rabbit trails, and generate too many slides. Take the time to do it right.

Try to summarize your main theme or idea on your first text slide following your title and information about your credentials. If you can do that in three bullet points, you’re moving in the right direction.

Mistake No. 3: Crowded Slides

The biggest mistake we see people make when designing PowerPoint presentations is cramming slides full of tiny text and complex illustrations. That’s because they try to put everything they want to say into their slides.

It may sound radical, but try this: use minimal text on each slide – encourage your audience to listen to you, rather than read your slides. While some marketers recommend the Rule of Six (no more than six words per bullet point and no more than six bullet points per slide), we think less is better—three bullet points per slide and few enough words so that they fit on one line. Use phrases rather than complete sentences, and save the details for your handout.

Everything in your PowerPoint should have a purpose and be simple and clear. Diagrams, charts and illustrations can do a great job of presenting information and enhancing text, but they should be simple enough so that the viewer can take in the images at a glance. Limit graphics to two images per slide, including any master slide images that appear throughout the presentation. Balancing text and images takes some practice; aim for a clean, pleasing look.

Mistake No. 4: Bad Design

Pick a simple template or theme for the background of your PowerPoint. Try to resist the standard, popular templates and clip art that most professionals have seen many times over the years.

If you can, hire an experienced graphic designer to create original, appropriate backgrounds and graphics for your presentation. If you can’t, be sure to keep the design, effects and transitions consistent throughout your PowerPoint. Choose a subdued, simple background and pick a contrasting color for text. Light text on a dark background can be hard to read, and black type on a white background is hard on the eyes.

Regarding text, it’s a good idea to create a written style sheet that outlines design specifications such as fonts, font size and color for slide titles, text and features like source attribution. Remember that text must be readable from a distance. Bigger is better; experienced presenters recommend 24 points as a minimum, and 30 to 40 points as the ideal text size. Microsoft recommends using text that will be at least 1 inch high on the viewing screen if your audience is 10 feet away; add an inch for every additional 10 feet of distance. Therefore, if the last row of seats is 30 feet from the screen, your text should be at least 3 inches high.

You may be tempted to use fancy fonts like the ones that resemble handwriting. Don’t do it! They can be hard to read, even when they’re huge. Sans-serif fonts such as Arial are easiest to read for body text, and clean serif fonts such as Georgia are best for titles.

PowerPoint offers a plethora of animation and special effects that are best used very sparingly, if at all. Gimmicks like fade-ins, checkerboards and slide-ins quickly become distracting or annoying. The one exception is “builds”—where a line of text appears when you click the mouse. This keeps your audience from reading-ahead in your presentation while you’re talking. It can be very effective when you’re discussing a sequence of ideas or actions. Even this technique, however, should be used only for emphasis, and probably only once or twice during a presentation.

Mistake No. 5: Bad Presentation

Unsuccessful presentations are usually the product of poor preparation, not inferior source material.

The best speakers practice in advance, preferably in front of someone who hasn’t seen the presentation. We recommend you rehearse your speech sufficiently that you don’t have to refer constantly to your computer screen or notes. Pay attention to pacing, and leave enough time at the end for questions and interacting with your audience. Ask your audience to hold questions until after the presentation, so you can maintain your pacing and train of thought.

Practicing on equipment and in a venue similar to what you’ll find at your presentation will boost your confidence and ensure that your PowerPoint is readable and images appear properly when projected on a large screen. Taking time for such practice may reveal that you’ll need to modify text or graphics for an optimum viewer experience.

Finally, be sure to set up and test your system when you arrive at the venue. (That’s especially important if you’re using someone else’s equipment for the actual presentation.) Get there early enough to assure everything’s working properly, and always bring a backup CD to use if necessary.

Mistake No. 6: Using Your Slides as a Handout

Rather than print out your slide deck – which encourages you to put too much detailed information into your slides – use your outline as the basis for your handout. Take advantage of the extra room by expanding on the points made in your presentation, and include a list of references for further information. Still, keep your handout brief—say, no more than three pages.

If you want to bless your audience with considerable detail, consider the following:

  • Make extensive use of the Notes section, and publish the deck with the Notes Pages included
  • Distribute the information in another format, such as a mini-CD
  • Provide a link to a downloadable e-book.

We recommend the latter action, which gives you the opportunity to collect audience members’ email addresses before providing the download link. This way, you can add them to your marketing list (you are building a list, aren’t you?), thank them for attending, and in subsequent messages reinforce your messaging points.

Bonus Material

If you’re interested in learning more about improving your presentations, please check out the following resources:

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