PowerPoint, Part II

Okay, I guess I should start off by saying I realize there are other types of presentation software. But, I use PowerPoint. This is about design elements, so it applies to all of them. 

You have to make a presentation.  I could be for a group project, thesis defense, academic conference, or anything else.  People who are pursuing higher education are eventually going to have to stand in front of a group of people and talk about something. In my last post, I talked about using contrasting text and background, easy to read fonts, and effective use of white space. Now, it’s time to get a little deeper into those themes, and to expand into color selection, timing, and transitions. 

Easy to read fonts… It seems so easy doesn’t it? In truth, this is a bigger problem than you can ever realize.  Now, blogger only has a limited number of fonts, so I took one of my lecture presentations, and will use one of the slides (saved as an image) as an example. Now, can you read this slide? If you can, you’re better than I am. If it was full size on my screen right in front of me, maybe. On a projection screen across a room? There is no way. Do not use the fancy fonts. While most people may consider them boring in desktop publishing, you need Times New Roman, Arial, or Helvetica for a presentation. See how much better this looks?

Okay, font is settled. Now, there is something else you must consider, the color design of the slide.  Most of the time, you will use a white background if it is being projected, black if it is being shown in a laptop screen. Since most presentations are talking to groups of people, typically white backgrounds are the way to go. If you are working a convention center type setting with a slideshow running on a laptop somewhere in the booth, black background is fine. 
There are a multitude of color combinations which will work for a presentation. You just want to make sure there is a good contrast. If you are starting from scratch, you can use a design color matching tool. Or, since you are more than likely making this presentation either in a school, or as a representative of a school, you have another option. This actually the route I typically take, and it makes life very simple. Use your school colors.  
Most schools have a set color pallet. While you can not use logos or trademarked items, there will typically be no problems using colors. You also tie into your campus ethos and create a subconscious bond with your audience, especially if it is a class presentation. This is what my slide actually looks like: 
If I was teaching back at my alma mater, my slide would look like this:
Both are clean designs, both have a good contrast and can be easily read from across the room. One thing this example slide violates though is the amount of text on it.  Typically, you need to follow the what was taught to me as the Rule of 7s, but sometimes varies to 6 or 8. You only want about 7 lines of text, and 7 words in each line. Yes, the example slide does have 10 lines. But, that is a very rare occurrence. 
Traditionally, you needed to conserve slides because it cost money to print the transparencies. This is no longer the case. Add another slide and preserve the white space.  It will make the presentation a lot easier to read in the long run. 
Just a few other points. Do NOT put everything you are going to say on the slide. I, and most other faculty I have ever dealt with, can see the points vanish into the air as you read your slides word for word. It is supposed to be a basic outline, and the blanks can be filled in as you go. One exception to this is when there is a quote that they need to remember word for word.  I will go ahead and write that out in the slide, but memorize the quote so you can look at the audience as you recite it. It improves the presentation immensely. 
Know your time limits when making a presentation. In some environments, it is acceptable for you to be a few minutes long or short of your target time. Most, however, want you to be fairly close to the target time. I’ve seen classes where points were deducted for being more than 10 seconds off the target. This is something that only comes through practice.  Know what you want to say, and say it. If it is too long, talk faster or adjust your speech. 
Finally, technology fails.  PowerPoint and the associated projectors are technology. Ergo, even though you prepare a wonderful presentation, you may not be able to use it. Always have a backup for major presentations. It could be transparencies, handouts, or chalk and blackboard.  Just be certain you have a backup plan. 
Your first speech will be terrifying. There is no way to get around it. My first time speaking in public I found out I was having to run a 5:30 meeting at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. I paced fr
om 3:00 until people started showing up at 5:00. I was terrified. There were only 8 people there.  I have since lectured classes of 80 and spoken to assemblies of 200 or more. You do get used to it; it does get better. In the meantime, it helps a lot to have a well prepared, readable, professional set of presentation slides backing you up. 

Your Friend, PowerPoint

I went to a presentation over the weekend. There were probably 80 people there, with a well known, internationally published photographer. As you might guess, the photographer’s presentation center around his photographs. No problem there, right? WRONG!
You see, this guy was great with a camera.  He had traveled the world taking amazing photographs. He understood the science of making light do wonderful things on his camera’s sensor. Yet somehow, he had never mastered the art of making a presentation. Once he got to the slides with pictures, he was fine (except for the fact there was WAY too much light in the room, but he couldn’t help that). But with his title and information slides, he used a multicolored script font on a black background. In other words, broke every rule in the book.

Yes, I realize he is an artist and must express himself creatively.  But expression doesn’t mean anything if no one can see it. And information is useless unless it can be effectively shared. I was taught by a bunch of seriously old school professors.  They wanted my slides to look basically like an old transparency. White background, black text. No shading whatsoever. Or, as my thesis advisor told me, “None of that cutesy crap.”

I’m not quite that bad. But there are some ways to make a presentation more readable. If you are on a projection screen, use a light background with dark lettering. If there is stray light in the room, it will not have as much of an effect. Now, if you are showing your presentation on a laptop screen or will be hooked up to a large LCD screen, dark background does look better.

Make your text large enough to be viewed from the back of the room. The screen should be appropriately sized, but you don’t want to get too small. Your fonts needs to be sans serif in capitol case. In other words, DO NOT SCREAM AT THE AUDIENCE.  It is more difficult to read.

You also do not want to crowd too much text on the screen at once. If you have to break a table across two slides, do it. I didn’t one time, in a *cough* rather important presentation and got burned for it.  I mean, this is perfectly readable, right?

I had thought far enough ahead to have my charts also in hard copy, so I was able to hand them out so my thesis committee could actually see the numbers. I got lucky that time. I never want that to be faced with that again.

Well, that’s the basics. Use easy to read fonts which are large enough to see and form a good contrast on the screen which may be in a bright room. Do not cram too much information on one slide.  I read recently that most academics don’t realize that PowerPoint slides are not transparencies; the slides are free. Use as many as necessary. In that spirit, I will continue this discussion in another post, later this week.