Some 400 million people on the planet have access to putting together slide shows using Microsoft PowerPoint (part of its Office suite of programs). Apple also has its own presentation software, Keynote. PowerPoint's popularity has become something of a challenge for speakers, since every audience has already seen its formats, tricks, and graphics too many times.
To overcome the jaded effect this can induce and to make it support your message better, there are many things you can do.
First, for those unfamiliar with it, a very basic guided tour of how PowerPoint helps users put together a slide show.
PowerPoint's general approach to constructing presentation has not changed greatly over the years, but system requirements have. The still-popular 2000 version only requires a Pentium 75-MHz processor, Windows 95 or later operating system, 20 MB of RAM, and 142 MB of available hard-drive space. The 2007 version needs a 500 MHz processor, Windows XP with Service Pack 2 or Vista, 256 MB RAM, and 1 GB of hard drive.
How It Works
When you open PowerPoint, you are given a choice of three ways to design: using the AutoContent Wizard, a Design Template, or Blank, for an original approach (or you can open an existing presentation for revision). If you click the Wizard, you can choose from general types of presentations (sales, corporate, projects, business plan, financial overview, Carnegie Coach).
Then you select from two dozen objectives, including creating a business plan, motivating a team, selling a product or service, communicating bad news, and reporting on the status of a project. Whatever you choose will result in an outline on the left side of the screen with general points you may want to cover.
You also need to pick the type of output you will need for the presentation (on-screen, Web, black-and-white overhead, color overhead, 35mm slides). The Wizard decides on a color scheme, which you can alter.
The familiar Windows toolbars are at the top: Standard (File, Edit, View, Insert, etc.) and Common Tasks (icons for printing, clipboard, bold, etc.). At the bottom is a Drawing toolbar (line color, text box, font color, etc.).
View will allow you to look at the slides in different ways: Normal (one at a time), Slide Sorter (shows a miniature view of each one on a page and allows you to click them to make changes), Notes (to add reminders about what you want to say about each slide, which can also be printed for the handout), and Slide Show (when you want to see how the presentation will look when you switch on the graphics; or you can click Miniature to see a small copy of each slide in the corner of the screen as you work).
You can turn a slide show into a black-and-white version for using with an overhead projector and for printing noncolor handouts, using grayscale shading to indicate color differences. In a pinch, like laptop-projector incompatibility or a plug or electricity problem, you could use the handout as a reference for your speech.
The Master option allows you to set the text style for headlines and bullet points on slides, notes, and handouts.
As you move along with the slides, the Insert tool allows you to drop in clip art, photos, movie and sound clips, charts, and Web links.
Slide Show will also allow you to add “animation” effects, determine the time the slide will remain on the screen, and choose a style of transition between slides.
Improving General Design
There are a lot of criticisms of PowerPoint, both because of the options it offers and the fact that everyone has already seen its effects. Below are some problems and how to solve them.
PowerPoint's templates give the audience the impression that you are giving a cookie-cutter presentation. There are many sources of other, better designs. You can save whatever you choose as a new option on PowerPoint.
BACKGROUND AND TEXT COLOR
A problem with using slide shows in general is the habit of turning out the lights. Soon, the main sound effect is someone snoring. If you are speaking as just one part of a program, you may have no choice, so in that event, use a dark green or blue background (white is hard on the eyes) and yellow or light text.
Better, do not darken the room, and rely on the available ambient light. Then use a light pastel background (burnt sienna, light green, gray, pale yellow, and sandy are especially good) and dark text. Keep the same color scheme throughout your slide show, unless it is long, in which case you should alter slightly for the different sections. If you use too many colors in the presentation, it will look cheap.
About 6 to 10 percent of any audience will be color blind, which usually manifests itself by the inability to clearly distinguish colors in the red and green families. They may just appear to be shades of gray. Red should be avoided, green should only be used as a background.
FONT STYLE AND SIZE
Newspapers, magazines, and books (including this one) typically use what is called serif typeface — letters with little flares at the ends. It helps words to be more easily read on a small-print page, but it works just the opposite on a screen, where resolution is low. Use sans-serif letters instead (from French
sans“without”). Helvetica is the typeface that is most popular (and it has thirty different font variations), but that also means it is overexposed, so this might be a good reason to choose something else.
Use no more than two fonts in your presentation or it will look gimmicky and will be harder to read. Use upper- and lowercase letters, except for HEADLINES, which can be all caps and bold.
You want the entire audience to be able to easily read the slide, of course, so test how clearly words can be seen from as far back as the last row will be from the podium (ask the facility, if your sponsoring organization does not know the size of the room). When you project a slide on the screen, the rule of thumb is that 24-point type will be legible from eight times the height of the screen. So if the screen is three feet high, your last row should be no more than twenty-four feet away, if you are using 24-point. If the room is longer, you need to raise your minimum type size proportionally. Most PowerPoint slide-shows use 28- to 34-point type size — the bigger, the better, as long as it still looks attractive.
HOW MUCH TEXT
Slides are supposed to support your speech, not replace it. The worst sin in using any slide (or overhead) is to read it verbatim as you speak. The audience can do that faster in their heads and will think you are treating them like idiots. Just put up key words to help them to remember the main points (you can be reminded by using PowerPoint's Notes or 3 × 5 cue cards with key words or an outline of the speech).
Richard Mayer, author of Multimedia Learning, has done one of the few studies on the subject of how information is processed by an audience watching a slide presentation. His key counter-intuitive finding is that people will retain less if the same phrases are on the slide as the speaker is saying. A picture with no or minimal words on the screen accompanied by a spoken explanation works better. Irrelevant images or words on the screen distract from the message. Remember, empty space on the slide is a good thing because otherwise it looks cluttered and is hard for the audience to absorb.
Proofread carefully! Although PowerPoint has a spelling check, you need to actually read your slides carefully as you create them to avoid embarrassment. Few e-mail programs have this function and we have all gotten used to sending casually written messages full of mistakes. Especially double-check all numbers.
Typically, slides should be up for 20 to 30 seconds to allow the audience time to digest them, but adjust the default time to fit each one. If you need to talk longer, perhaps to make a spontaneous digression, it is best to hit the B key on the laptop to make the screen go black until you finish your comments, otherwise the slide could distract the audience from your message.
VISUAL AND SOUND EFFECTS
PowerPoint provides the ability to do “object builds” that gradually put lines on the screen as you discuss each point. Other “animation” techniques and sound effects can be inserted for slide transitions. All have been overused and too many make a presentation look amateurish. They also call attention to themselves. Using the option to wipe the screen from left to right is okay to use because it is fast, but do not do it for every change of slides or it will bore.
Two of the best typefaces to use together for a PowerPoint presentation are Arial and Verdana, the former for text body and the latter for headlines. They look good together and are available on other computer systems, in case you need to send your slideshow over the Net.
Upgrading Art and Photos
PowerPoint offers all kinds of tools and resources to make a slide presentation more interesting for the eyes and ears. Resist the temptation to overdo it and keep the show simple, yet sophisticated.
PowerPoint provides a library of art; however, the art is cartoonish, so if you have the time to look for something better, your lecture will stand out. The big issue with using clip art from other sources is that it has to either be explicitly stated to be in the public domain or paid for in some way (such as downloading for a fee). If something is offered free to, say, only schools, ask about commercial licensing.
There are sites that offer free clip art for use in education that is more sophisticated than PowerPoint's, like About.com Clip Art and Discovery Education. A source of art that can be used commercially for a small fee is Corbis Images.
Instead of art, put in photos of people. The photo-sharing site Flickr.com offers many of its users' pictures for free. Other free photo sources are FreeFoto.com, Pixel Perfect Digital, and Stockvault.net. For commercial and free images, check out Getty Images. A subscription-based service is Thinkstock.
MOVIE AND SOUND CLIPS
The best part of PowerPoint may be its capability to insert video and sound clips. There is no need to order a DVD player or turn on a tape recorder. But remember that you are supposed to get written permission to use copyrighted material. No one is going to arrest you for giving a talk at the noon Rotary meeting, but if you are on a paid speaking tour, you either need to get permission from the copyright holder, use public domain material (a bigger challenge with film and sound clips you may want to use), or create your own material.
Extensive free video clips are available from The Open Video Project and the Moving Image Archive. Microsoft Office, of which PowerPoint is part, offers royalty-free music downloads. Thousands of others can be found at the Internet Archive as well.
Freepath.com is a presentation program that many praise as superior to PowerPoint. It can integrate movies, audio clips, Web sites, Adobe Flash player, PowerPoint slides, even Word and Excel, and it works very well transmitted over the Internet. For schools, SuperTeaching.org offers a multimedia approach to stimulating the senses of students for maximum learning.
Charts and Graphs
As when using paper versions, PowerPoint charts and graphs need to be readily understood by the audience in a matter of seconds. The natural tendency is to use the three-dimensional effects, on the assumption they are more realistic. In fact, experts have shown that these tend to lead to visual distortions and are less readily grasped than traditional two-dimensional graphs.
The best ways to utilize PowerPoint's graphic options are:
Bar charts are good for showing comparisons over a period of time (data that might otherwise be displayed in a table, which is difficult to absorb at a glance). You might want to use vertical bars to show sales growth in recent years, for example.
Horizontal bars or pie charts are typically used to indicate the relative size of things, such as different market components of total revenue.
Line graphs are best for demonstrating trends.
Flow charts can be designed to show the parts of a process.
Organizational charts and diagrams can be easily drawn with the tools.
An incredible resource for PowerPoint users is its user-contributed FAQ, which is twenty-plus printed pages of links to tips, tutorials, and answers to every imaginable question or problem. Also helpful is About.com's Presentation Software site.
Ultimately, the type of audio-visuals you use to support your speech, if any, are a matter of comfort about your ease of use and what you feel you need to achieve your objectives.