Three Rules of PowerPoint

The sheer ubiquity of the Microsoft Office suite has created a cottage industry around the evaluation and critique of its bundled applications. Microsoft Excel, with its attendant realm of spreadmarts and shadow databases, seems to draw the most negative attention from the business world (particularly IT) but PowerPoint isn’t far behind.

At various times, the world’s leading presentation software has been banned by CEOs of some of the world’s largest companies, called an internal threat by the U.S. military, and served as the driving force behind the establishment of the Anti-Power Point Party — a Swiss political party whose only stated goal is to rid the world of boring presentations. It has even been suggested that the “chronic use of PowerPoint” at NASA helped obscure critical information that might have prevented the 2003 Columbia space shuttle disaster.

How has a little presentation program like PowerPoint earned the ire of so many people? Sure, the tool has its flaws (discussed here, here, and here) but are these shortcomings really the cause of all the world’s slide show ills? Well, yes and no.

Generalized applications like those found in the Microsoft Office suite help companies hold down costs while providing their workforce with a fairly decent toolset. However, once these programs are in place, there is rarely any business incentive to provide additional training or purchase more specialized applications for more complex tasks. This leaves users in a bind. Either they can sit around waiting for more instruction and more powerful tools or they can start experimenting with the tools they already have available.

Like its close cousin, Excel, PowerPoint suffers from the fact that most people end up using it for tasks that it was never designed to do. In the case of Excel, a simple accounting application has become the de facto database and analytics package for most businesses while, with PowerPoint, a basic slide management tool has supplanted lectures and written reports to become their sole information delivery platform.

You would think that PowerPoint would be well-suited to this role. People seem to prefer multimedia presentations over standard lectures and studies in dual-coding theory suggest that they retain more information from presentations that have both verbal and visual content. However, because most speakers don’t really emphasize the full visual capabilities of PowerPoint, their presentations become a combination of verbal and textual content … and retention of information presented in this format may be much worse.

The problem is that cognitive process of creating a presentation in PowerPoint is a lot different from the cognitive process of watching a presentation in PowerPoint. Speakers get so involved in the preparation of their slide deck that they rarely give much thought to how it will be received by the audience.

Max Atkinson sums it up:

“PowerPoint makes it so easy to put detailed written and numerical information on slides that it leads presenters into the mistaken belief that all the detail will be successfully transmitted through the air into the brains of the audience. “

This assumption fails because:

“… the audience’s attention is split between (1) trying to read what’s on the screen at the same time as (2) listening to and following what the speaker is saying and (3) looking repetitively from speaker to screen and back again.”

Simply adding a graphic element to a text slide doesn’t necessarily improve knowledge retention, either. Researchers have found that the use of unrelated pictures in a presentation (think clip art) can actually distract the audience from the main content and interfere with overall learning. This is because people end up paying too much attention to the non-essential material on the screen and not enough to the text or narration.

A more effective technique involves the use of custom-designed images that relate directly to the concepts being presented. Even very complex topics can be tackled using such a combination of pictures and text and the level of information recall is much higher. However, this approach requires a better understanding of how people absorb information and not everyone will have the time or inclination to learn the basic principles of multimedia design.

The realities of human learning would seem to suggest that a presenter error on the side of simplicity, but that approach comes with its own set of pitfalls. For example, some experts say that you only use one slide for every 2-3 minutes of speaking while others suggest that you should never use more than 2-3 sentences per slide. Doing the math, this means that the “ideal” PowerPoint presentation would deliver no more than 1 to 1.5 sentences to the audience every minute and an hour-long presentation would have a maximum of 90 sentences. Even an adult with below average reading skills can tackle that amount of text in about 10 minutes. Expecting people sit through such a glorified guided reading course is a recipe for boredom.

Some executives respond to this kind of presentation bloat by imposing an upper limit on the total number of slides … say six or so. While this directive cuts down on the overall size of the presentation it also starts to have a negative impact on the content. To meet this restriction, presenters are either going to try and cram more information on the few slides they have available (making their presentation incomprehensible) or dumb down their presentation entirely (making it irrelevant or even ridiculous).

Therein lies the dilemma. Some say that creating a meaningful presentation in PowerPoint is impossible:

“There is simply no way to express precise, detailed and well-articulated ideas or subjects through Powerpoint.”

Others say that the tool is perfectly fine and that any fault lies with the user:

“Is PowerPoint bad? No, in fact, it is quite a useful tool. Boring talks are bad. Poorly structured talks are bad. Don’t blame the problem on the tool.”

My own thoughts tilt towards the idea that the tool has been badly misused and its reputation can be redeemed through proper use. Many people have written extensively on what you should and shouldn’t do with your PowerPoint presentations (here’s one) but I have distilled my own thoughts on the subject down to three basic rules or guiding principles (with exceptions, of course):

    1. Don’t use any text – That’s right, you heard me people … none. PowerPoint is a visual medium and should only be used for visual images. You’re supposed to be telling a story, not writing a grocery list. Simply putting your speaker notes on screen is a cop out and will leave your audience squirming in their seats after the first five bullet points.  Yes, you can create an outline to help organize your thoughts, but by the time you’re done developing your presentation, these blocks of text should be gone. Exceptions: Every visual medium uses some text on occasion. Things like titles, section breaks, tables, end notes, and explanatory text on charts are all welcome in moderation … but, if you strive for a slide deck that is 100% text-free, you might actually achieve something that is 80% text-free, which is way better than 90% of PowerPoint presentations out there.
    2. Only use images or videos that you create yourself – As you struggle with the content of your presentation, it is always tempting to add a little cartoon, GIF animation, or random stock photo to spice things up. Don’t do this. Your presentation should be tailored to deliver a specific idea to a specific audience. Adding someone else’s work to your presentation – even a picture from your company’s own brand library – is just a distraction. Build your own charts, draw your own diagrams, and create your own videos. You will be rewarded with a presentation that is consistent and perfectly suited for your message.Exceptions: If you are you are truly creatively challenged, find someone else who can help you visualize your ideas. Don’t appoint a committee to the task, however, since you want to maintain a consistent visual language.
    3. Focus on your delivery, not your handouts – Using PowerPoint to display pictures and graphs that support your presentation is good … using PowerPoint as a crutch to help you get through your talk is bad. Memorize what you want to say and prepare notes that you can use for reference while you are speaking. The audience should be getting a well- delivered presentation from someone who is organized and confident, not the half-formed thoughts of someone reading from their slide handouts. Exceptions: Seth Godin recommends creating a written document that complements your PowerPoint presentation and handing it out after you’re done speaking. This document shouldn’t substitute for adequate preparation but it should support your key points and provide additional details that help your audience understand the topic.

P.S. For a PowerPoint presentation of this post, click here.


Very good, Mike. I could not agree more on your three rules. A presentation should reach a whole different part of the brain than a report. (Love the link from the “click here”.)

Thanks, Jeff. It helps me to think of PowerPoint as more of an animation program then a presentation program … to be used to tell stories rather than organize notes.

Agree with the general idea but have two concerns. Firstly, often we don’t get time to prepare fully, write a report, etc. In these cases, having a basic slide show with key points clearly listed and some appropriate clip art together with a well spoken presentation and hand outs for reference, can be more effective than just talking.
Secondly your approach is very likely to lead to ‘death by PowerPoint v2.’ Instead of the frustration being caused by boring bullet points it will be caused by very amateurishly created pictures and videos (remember the horrors when people first got access to multiple fonts and colours) and a poor structure.

Your third point is key, until prople are properly taught how to present, PowerPoint will always seem bad. And,unfortunately, lots of people who are asked to present will never have the time and/or ability to adequately develop presentation skills.

It’s interesting that presentations are such an important part of the business world but you never hear about businesses that actually give their people proper training. I think PowerPoint is a problem if it is just used to put the speaker’s thoughts down rather than convey those ideas to the viewer. I came across a great visual presentation example from RSA Animate and it breaks many of my rules: … the combination of words and supporting visuals works very well.


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