On February 1, 2003, the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated over Texas and Louisiana on re-entry, killing all seven crew members. Edward Tufte, the foremost theorist of information presentation, published a booklet titled The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint, in which he argued that bad design of their slides prevented NASA engineers from communicating to NASA management that the Columbia crew faced a life-and-death situation. This may represent the single most critical need for presentation tips ever recorded.

Many people took Tufte’s booklet to be an attack on PowerPoint, but I think it was more an attack on ineffective use of PowerPoint. PowerPoint is like any tool. You can use it well or you can use it badly. The trick is to know the difference. At Communispond, we have reviewed thousands of presentations with an eye toward communication effectiveness, and we have learned some rules of thumb for creating slides that communicate. I can’t turn you into Edward Tufte, but I can give you seven presentation tips on how to design slides so they convey rather than obscure your message.

Presentation Tip: Use Upper and Lower Case. Study after study of legibility has shown that people read upper and lower case text more readily than they read capitalized text. And for titles, you should use initial capital letters. It’s a widely accepted convention, and it’s also more readable than either all uppercase or all lowercase.

Presentation Tip: Use Two to Four Colors for Text. Using the same color of text throughout can be boring, and boredom lowers alertness levels. But using too many colors can overwhelm the audience. Two colors per screen is very effective. If you need a third and fourth color for headers, headlines, or special emphasis, that’s fine.

Presentation Tip: the Rule of Four Bullets. Never use more than four bullet points per screen and never more than four words per bullet. Anything more can dramatically reduce the audience’s comprehension and increase the strain of trying to understand the points. The one exception is the technique of “building” the bullets. When you have a single screen that adds the bullets as you present them, you can use more than four, because people are never trying to take in more than one at a time.

Presentation Tip: Use Pictures. Photos, clip art, or cartoons can make points that would take forever to get across with words, and they can do it more dramatically.

Presentation Tip: One Graph Per Slide. Graphs can be a great way to show trends, relationships, and proportions. But putting more than one on a slide increases the effort required by your audience to interpret. 

Presentation Tip: Minimize Special Effects. Animations and fancy transitions can be effective when they are used sparingly. But more than one special effect per presentation may be too many. In addition, special effects take the focus away from you. 

Presentation Tip: Save Details for Handouts. One way to provide the audience with some of that mountain of information you have assembled is to put it in handouts to distribute after your remarks. They can study the details later.

If you care about making effective presentations, keep your edge by subscribing to Communispond’s free weekly e-newsletter, The Echo. Every issue provides a helpful tip for improving your presentation and communication skills.


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