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 Published: 29/11/2011


With the relative ease of using PowerPoint presentations, it is very easy to "overdo" things.  The same mistakes crop up again and again.  The following is a guide to how to set up a PowerPoint presentation that will keep your audience interested and not irritate them.


Choose an appropriate colour scheme

  • Sure, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but if in doubt try the old favourite of yellow text on a blue background.  If  you are talking about jaundice, it’s just not funny to choose a yellow background with bronze text and lime green highlights.
  • For presentations in a room which is relatively well lit, choose a light background and dark text.
  • For presentations in a relatively dark room, choose a dark background with light text.


Pick the right font style

  • Stick to the same font style (and colours) all the way through.
  • For titles, choose a sans serif font such as Arial, Tahoma, or MS Sans Serif.
    • "Serifs" are those little extra lines at the bottoms of the letters in some styles, such as Times New Roman and Courier New.  Serif fonts are easy to read as text in a journal, paper, or book, but can be harder to read on a screen or on overheads.
  • For the text, either a sans serif or serif font is fine, as long is it is large enough to be seen (see next point).


Pick the right font size

  • People - even those who choose to sit at the back of the lecture theatre - need to be able to read the slide text.  In general,
    • 40-48 pitch for titles
    • 28-36 pitch for slide text


Mixing styles and sizes is not on

  • Once you have settled on a colour scheme, a font style, and a font size, stick to it.  It's distracting if the appearance of your slides keeps changing.


Don't use animation or slide transitions

  • There are rare circumstances when animation may enhance a presentation, but they are few and far between.  And you have to be proficient with PowerPoint to pull off any sort of animation which adds to the content.
  • It is very distracting if the text “dissolves” onto the screen or if it flies in from the left (or anywhere, for that matter).  It is also irritating if each line of text slowly reveals itself to the audience. They will be thinking about what is coming next, rather than what you are talking about.
  • Avoid PowerPoint templates that involve animation such as lights running across the screen - they slow down the slide transition and they distract the audience.
  • There is a similar principle with overhead acetate sheets – don’t ever ever EVER be tempted to put the sheet down on the projector, put a piece of paper over the top, and then reveal each line to your audience.


Be careful with the use of images

  • We're pleased you came back to work from that nice week you had off in Fiji but do we really need to see pictures of you lying on a beach?
  • If you are putting in images, think about how they are going to add to what you are presenting, and what you are going to say when they are displayed.
  • Maximise the size of your images so that they are large enough to illustrate exactly what you want to show.
  • Be careful with x-rays and ultrasound images - they can be notoriously difficult to interpret in a light room, so make sure the lights are down.
  • Images also take up more memory - less of an issue these days with CD burners and memory sticks, but not everyone has removable storage devices.


6 points on a slide is enough

  • This is all that most brains can handle in one go.
  • People can read faster than you can talk, so if you cram the slide with information, no one is going to listen to you so you may as well give them a handout and leave the room.
  • PowerPoint will let you “scrunch” the lines a bit closer together to fit it on the page, but don’t be tempted to make the font smaller to get all the information onto one slide.


Be careful with tables and numerical data

  • Scanning in tables from journals and other sources can be a bit of a gamble.  Some tables scan in well (you can often copy the image from a pdf file from an electronic journal with good results), but the text is always going to be small.
    • Consider sifting out the bits that are important and put them in as a few lines of your own custom-built table.
  • Please summarise multiple results into a table or a graph, rather than a long list.


Don’t ever start a sentence with  "This is a really busy slide but…."

  • If it’s busy for you and you’ve spent days or weeks preparing the talk, then how do you think we all feel when it’s flashed up for less than 30 seconds?
  • Either take out the information that we don’t need to know, or split it into more than one slide.


Don't ever start a sentence with "You don't really need to know this ....."

  • If we don't need to know it, what's it doing on your slide?


Don’t put up a complicated flow chart or table without explaining it

  • Not all of us can remember the coagulation cascade from the last time we saw it (in fact, it has probably changed several times since we last thought about it).
  • If you go to the trouble of putting a lovely chart or table up with lots of arrows and boxes and writing, point out the bits you think we should pay more attention to.


Run a spell check

  • Putting your presentation on a big screen is quite unforgiving of spelling mistakes and grammatical errors.  We're generally not English language fanatics, but there are only so many times you can see incorrectly spelt words before it becomes your sole mission in life to enrol the presenter into a secondary school remedial spelling class against their will.
  • PowerPoint has an inbuilt spelling checker which makes squiggly red lines under the words that are not recognised - check if they need to be changed.
  • Spelling mistakes just give the impression that you did not take time preparing your talk.


Count your slides and/or time your talk

  • This all relates to preparation and knowing your talk well.
  • Keep a track of how many you have, and think carefully about how long it is going to take you to get through each one.  Some slides can be flashed up quickly, others may take a couple of minutes to talk about.

Carl Kuschel and Malcolm Battin, August 2004