What to do and What to avoid with
PowerPoint Presentations

Microsoft PowerPoint has now become a ubiquituous tool for making presentations. PowerPoint presents a number of advantages over conventional methods for presentation.

While most people appreciate these and other advantages, often PowerPoint presentations are unsatisfactory. Below, I have chronicled a number of DOs and DON'Ts for such presentation.

  1. DO show up early for your talk. Check whether your equipment works properly. A PowerPoint presentation involves more complex equipment than a 100-watt bulb on which you slap plastic. The equipment is not complicated, but requires you to ensure that connections are firm and that they interface properly.
  2. DO check whether the projector's resolution is the same as your laptop's. If they aren't, then your slides may be cropped, may jump or may lose scan lines. Match the resolutions.
  3. DON'T leave Standby Power Management on your laptop on. Go to Control Panel -> Power and make sure your laptop does not turn off if you're inactive for a while during your talk. Usually, coming out of Standby takes a while, and may even necessitate a reboot.
  4. DON'T leave your ScreenSaver on. In my experience, every speaker who has had the ScreenSaver come on has had to apologise for it. Why go on the defensive unnecessarily?
  5. DON'T require frequent mouse or keyboard interaction on a slide. One click per slide is necessary, of course. Think hard about each click you add to slide. Do you really need it? It's ugly to put up a slide that has just the title on it and then bring something on with every click. It forces the reader to be in sync with you even though they may not want to. It requires you to do more on a slide instead of concentrating on getting your point across. It's much more elegant to put everything you want to say on slide, then anchor your talk to parts of the slide when you need to by pointing.
  6. DON'T use the mouse as a pointer. Moving a mouse on a slide show will cause a pointer to appear. It's usually hard to point to exactly what you want with that pointer. Moreover, some mice are confusing (touchpads, joysticks) and may may require you to hunch over your keyboard or look down at the mouse while the pointer moves disembodiedly behind you. It's faster, more accurate and more natural to just point with your finger.
  7. DON'T use the edges of the slide. Some projectors crop slides. Besides, using the edges is an indicator that you probably have too much on the slide anyway.
  8. DO use large fonts. Small fonts are hard to read and may be projected poorly by a low-resolution projector. A rule-of-thumb with plastic slides used to be that if you drop the slide on the floor and can read them easily while standing, you're in good shape. In PowerPoint, that translates to about 24pt (Times-Roman), no smaller.
  9. DON'T use dark fonts on dark backgrounds or light fonts on light backgrounds. Incredibly obvious as this injunction may seem, people do violate it often.
  10. DON'T use dark backgrounds in a poorly-lit room or light backgrounds in a well-lit room. It's hard to read off such backgrounds.
  11. DON'T use annoying/animated/busy backgrounds. These detract from the talk, and can make slides hard to read.
  12. DON'T use silly/gratuitous animations/clip-art, especially in a technical talk. For every animation you put in, ask yourself whether you really need it, and whether the slide can be explained without it. In my experience, the only good use for animation is to show a progression of events. In other words, if you want to say "Initially, the doodad is red, but when a full moon appears, the doodad turns green." then animation may be a good way to present it. Animation is attractive, but often unnecessary for presenting steps of a process or algorithm. It's completely unnecessary for backgrounds, individual bullets, comments, the first thing to appear on a slide, and so on.
  13. DON'T assume your presentation will work on another person's laptop. Disk failures, software version mismatches, lack of disk space, low memory, and many other factors can invalidate your assumption. If your host has a laptop on which you will be expected to make your presentation, at the very least ensure that that laptop has adequate disk space (so you don't have to present off your slow floppy), adequate memory, no screen saver or standby turned on, and the appropriate versions of software that you need, including PowerPoint.
Good luck!
Anand Natrajan, anand@anandnatrajan•com