Make Your PowerPoints Pop!

If you’re like me, you prepare a lot of PowerPoint presentations. I’ve been creating slide presentations for nearly 20 years. In that time I’ve learned a few things about how to make presentation slides useful and stimulating.

I won’t say my slides are works of art — I know they’re not. And for the first decade of my business career they were pretty boring. They were almost all text!   But over the years I’ve learned a few things about how to keep them functional, simple, yet visually stimulating.  Here are a few things I’ve learned:

Use an image at least every-other slide — Nothing is more boring than a slide presentation consisting of an unrelenting sea of text!   Images “open up” your slides and draw the viewer in.  Images stimulate our right brain (intuitive / creative side) while words stimulate our left brain (analytical side).  Thus, you give your slides more sensory appeal by including an image (or chart) on every slide — or at the very least, on every other slide.

Keep background images muted — I prefer plain backgrounds on my slides because they are easier to read — either white or another light color.  As a matter of personal preference, some people prefer a background image on slides, with text superimposed on top.  But a background that is too distracting will compete  for attention with the text over top it.  Then the slide simply becomes annoying. For example, imagine trying to read text superimposed over top of the following image:

I deliberately left in the Veer watermark so that you can see exactly how difficult reading text can be over top of a detailed image.  With all the detail and contrast — the word is difficult to spot, isn’t it?  Imagine trying to read bullet point after bullet point on top of a background like that.

Contrast that with starting with a muted image, perhaps a swirl or texture without a lot of contrast. Then make the image transparent so that it competes even less with the text. The following is an example of a muted texture image you might use for a background, that would not be nearly as distracting to read text over, as the nuts and bolts image above:

Use an image to balance a block of text next to it — A simple way to add images is to insert a relevant image either to the left or right side of a short block of bullet points.  The general size of the text should be balanced by the image.  This technique is easy for business people to do, because it doesn’t require advanced skills with graphics, yet it adds visual interest quickly to slides.  It works really well using stock photographs.  Awesome Presentations has a simple example of an image used to balance a block of text.

Bold, uncluttered images are best — A presentation slide is usually viewed at a distance and quickly.  Therefore, it is not the place for “busy” images or images with fine detailing.  Keep your images simple and recognizable at a glance.

Use relevant images — Now this should be obvious:  if you use a photograph or vector image, you’re going to want it to be relevant to whatever the slide is about.  However, I frequently see images on slides that seem to have little relationship to the topic.  When choosing images, look for a stock image site that has good keyword search, and lets you refine your search in many ways.  Today, there really is no excuse for not pinpointing a high-quality image relevant to the slide’s topic.

Use a single image and few/no words for impact — If you really want to drive home your point, try using a single image taking up the entire slide, with few or no words.  In other words, you convey your point visually, instead of using text and bullets.  This can make a point powerfully.  It’s especially powerful when such a slide is mixed in with other slides that have bullet points on them — it’s a nice break.  For an image to cover the entire slide, go for a medium or large size image, and make sure it’s a horizontal image (not a vertical image).

Of course, I didn’t learn all of this on my own.  Here are tips on presentations from two other resources, that you may find helpful, that I’ve learned from:

The 10/20/30 Rule – Guy Kawasaki says PowerPoint presentations should have 10 slides, last for 20 minutes and be in 30-point font. His tips are meant for entrepreneurs seeking investment from venture capitalists. And while I do have many PowerPoint presentations that are more than 10 slides and last longer than 20 minutes, I find his simple rule easy to remember and a good general guide. If you interpret his rule to mean (1) keep the number of slides limited;  (2) allow 2 minutes talking per slide; and (3) keep the font large — you’ll be doing your audience a favor.

1-Minute Billboard Test — Vivek Singh of All About Presentations has an interesting test, where he asks you to think about  slides as being like billboards.  He has a self-test on his site, where he asks you to imagine you are glancing at a billboard while driving and you have exactly 4 seconds for the image to make an impression — what stands out after 4 seconds?  While there is no right or wrong answer, by taking his self-test you realize the importance of de-cluttering your slides.  So, when choosing and presenting images and text on a slide, keep it simple. “Busy” slides need not apply.


Anita Campbell Anita Campbell is the Founder, CEO and Publisher of Small Business Trends and has been following trends in small businesses since 2003. She is the owner of BizSugar, a social media site for small businesses.

15 Reactions
  1. More pictures. Amen!

    Not only does it make your presentation more appealing to the eye, but it also helps you avoid the read-right-off-my-slides presentations that put everyone to sleep.

  2. We all suffer from “death by powerpoint”, so what a wonderful topic Anita. I just started reading a book by Carmine Gallo regarding the presentation skill and techniques used by Steve Jobs.

    Gallo has refined the approach into 10 easy to understand (and implement tips). While his book is a great read, you can get the key 10 tips from his Forbes posting:

    Here’s to improved and more effective presentations! We all have lots to learn.

  3. Anita,

    Very interesting topic for me as a lecturer on social media. On my links page I have listed the following people under the Public Speaking category:

    Public Words
    “Helping people tell their stories”

    Scott Berkun
    “Confessions of a Public Speaker”

    Have you read Nick Morgan’s and Scott Berkun’s books?

    Talking about presentations, I look forward to test out SlideRocket in the near future. I learned about Prezi sometime ago and I liked the idea of a new way of doing presentations, but I am afraid that you could get “dizzy” starring on the moving canvas.

  4. Hi Anita, this is a great post with awesome experiences. But how about using animation? I bet it’s important too. Can you tell us more about this?

  5. @Robert – so true! Of course, some people go in the opposite direction and do mostly ALL pictures. For business presentations, I find those just as annoying, however. Because if you’re trying to take notes, you don’t have any words to quickly refer to. And a copy of the slides usually doesn’t help you, either, because you’ll never remember what was said verbally for each slide. BUT– a combination of images and words, now that is the best of both worlds, in my opinion.

  6. @ Grant, I think the Steve Jobs presentations are awesome for what he uses them for: big keynotes or product introductions or sales presentations. That piece you pointed to is great. You are right – we have a lot to learn.

    However, for a typical business “educational” presentation, such as in a webinar or at a conference, they wouldn’t have enough words for me! 🙂 As an audience member I’d need more text for the subject matter to sink in, and images alone wouldn’t do it for me. And getting the slides afterward wouldn’t be helpful, either, without some words on the slides.

    – Anita

  7. @Martin, yes, SlideRocket is a very interesting alternative to PowerPoint presentations. No, I haven’t read those books — maybe I should check them out, huh?

    – Anita

  8. Anita,

    I have a few bullet points and try to include an illustration too in my educational presentations. I will add links and other stuff after the presentation and the course event, depending on comments, questions and feedback from the participants. I then send out the presentation to the participants so they have a valuable compendium from the event.

    As I said in an earlier comment, I look forward to test out SlideRocket in order to see how I could enrich my presentations in the future. Have you created any presentations with it yet? I sounds great that you could embed the presentation on your blog and that you could get viewer statistics.

    Yes, I recommend you to check out Trust Me: Four Steps to Authenticity and Charisma by Nick Morgan and Confessions of a Public Speaker by Scott Berkun.

  9. @Cindy, in moderation I like animation. For example, a gentle fade-in transition from one slide to the next can be elegant. Also, on some slides you can emphasize your bullet points better by having each bullet appear one by one with the click of the mouse, as you talk about it, instead of all appearing at once. But I would only do this for some slides, not all, because after a while anticipating each new bullet to appear can feel like waiting for grass to grow.

    Also, I’d suggest not going overboard with animation. Some of it is distracting, such as fast whirling transitions from slide to slide, or having a new bullet slide in with a “screeching brakes” sound every time you click the mouse. Too much of a good thing is not good!

    Finally, another point to consider with animation is how you will be using the presentation. For instance, if you are using it in a webinar, you may find that some webinar software either does not recognize animation or sometimes cuts off the slide at the first animation, and so you have to go through and strip out all the animation anyway.

    – Anita

  10. Actually we all know that it is images that make our presentation slides attractive, but maybe we are not sure that how to handle the images well. Thank you, Anita, this article is a good lesson to me.

  11. Great tips. Two more:

    Never wordwrap- if you can’t say it in one line, you haven’t refined the message.

    Never have more three bullet points per page- refine the message again (and using more than one page is cheating)

  12. @Jerry – Glad you found it helpful

    @Stewart – Thanks for sharing your additional tips

  13. This is a nice article, Anita. I like the point raised about the background image selection that should not be too overwhelming. Learning about the sensory connection to how we process images and text is really insightful. I know I’ve seen a lot of data heavy presentations that could’ve used that idea! 🙂