PowerPoint Designs that Executives Love (But Shouldn’t)

PowerPoint Designs that Executives Love (But Shouldn’t)


It would be easy (and fun!) to discuss PowerPoint (PPT) culture in general: how it ruins meetings, wastes time, confuses audiences, and is a general haven for bad design and writing. But instead, we will use this opportunity to discuss something useful. We will review design techniques that generally meet with approval and praise. We will also review why these techniques are actually quite bad and what you can do to fix them.

Note: The ideas discussed below may only be relevant if you have the freedom to design your PowerPoint slides. If your company has an official template, then this article may help you to understand why the template looks the way it does, and perhaps what you can do about it.

1. Huge Headers

Create a header across the top of the slide that is roughly 1.5 inches tall (FYI: the slide is 7.5 inches tall). Fill the header with a company brand color, or a shade of blue (everyone defaults to blue). Set the header text to 36 points, which will just barely allow two rows of large text for those very long slide titles.

1Header

Why They Like It

Executives tend to review their draft slides on paper or on their computer, but not in a meeting room with the slides projected on the wall. Thus, they worry that no one will be able to read the title unless it is as large as physically possible, forgetting that (1) normal printed text is readable at 12 pt and (2) projected text can be up to 8 inches tall and legible from the far end of the room.

Why They Shouldn’t Like It

Your 1.5 inch header is consuming 20% of your slide real estate, and all it conveys are uninformative terms like “Agenda” and “Background.” This space could be better used to convey the actual slide content.

Suggestions

Review draft slides with executives in the meeting room with a projector so they can see how big their “big” words really are.

2. Large Logos

Insert the company logo in the upper left corner of the slide, and make it as tall as the header area (1.5 inches or so). If the logo is available in full-color, use it. If the logo has a version that also includes the company’s full name, use it!

2_logo

Why They Like It

Marketing folks believe that repetition is the key to success. The more exposure your company name and logo gets, the better chance you have of being remembered and closing that deal. Including a large company logo (and name) on every slide is a “subtle” form of this repetition.

Why They Shouldn’t Like It

First, to echo Item 1, this is a waste of slide real estate that could be better spent actually explaining your ideas or products. Second, repetition is not a solid strategy. Memorable TV commercials or print advertisements have strong, clear visuals that effectively illustrate the product in some way. And most companies are in the business of selling products, not themselves.

Suggestion

Obtain slides from a rival company (possibly from their Web site or from a presentation at a conference) and show your executives how your competitors use their logos. Ahem, use slides that illustrate improvements, not the status quo.

3. Fancy Footers

Insert a footer across the bottom of the slide that is roughly 0.5 inches tall. Employ gradients (or better yet, Photoshop) to create an artistically dynamic look with swooshes and arcs, or high-tech boxes and lines.

3_footer

Why They Like It

A pretty footer keeps your slide from looking stale and drab, especially down at the bottom where your boring page numbers and legal disclaimers tend to hang out.

Why They Shouldn’t Like It

Just like the header, this is a waste of space. While you definitely need those disclaimers and numbers and dates, inserting unnecessary graphics in your template will just make your file bigger and subtract from your content area.

Suggestion

Casually mention to your executives that many of your company’s “boilerplate” slides and standard graphics are very large and will overlap or collide with the footer. (This suggestion also works on those big headers.)

4. Washed Out Watermarks

Insert a very large version of your company logo in the center of the slide and fade it to a subtle shade of gray to use as a watermark on all slides.

4_watermark

Why They Like It

Just like that logo in the corner, your marketing team is hoping the power of subliminal suggestion will convince your customers that you’re the only game in town.

Why They Shouldn’t Like It

Just like that fancy footer, this is an unnecessary graphic that will make your PPT file bigger than it needs to be. Also, it is almost guaranteed that the watermark will make some slides hard to read both on screen and on paper as it travels to different screens or printers.

Suggestion

Show the watermarked slides to the executive on different monitors, projectors, and print-outs to demonstrate how the watermark conflicts with the content.

5. Too Much Text

As you create your slides, be sure to write out your bullet points using complete phrases (but not complete sentences!) and use sub-bullets liberally to list examples. Lots of them. Especially if they sound impressive, like names of experts, chemicals, hardware designations, or contract partners.

5_text

Why They Like It

Executives demonstrate a general concern that the people at their meetings will not understand the slide content unless it is mostly spelled out for them. This is particularly true of speakers who are not confident leading a meeting, or who have low expectations of their audience.

Why They Shouldn’t Like It

Modern audiences live in a “screen” culture and will instantly start reading ahead of the speaker (because we can read faster than they can talk). Also, weak presenters tend to fall into the habit of simply reading the text on the slide, which is particularly bad when the text is not in complete sentences and the speaker starts rambling to fill in the blanks.

Suggestion

When possible, turn those phrases into clear sentences. If asked why you did that, say that this will make the slide a better “take away” so the audience members can better read the material by themselves after the meeting (because you will probably be printing them out, or emailing them to the group).

6. Annoying Art and Animations

After you have written your slides, go back through and add a piece of clip art or animation to each slide. If possible, make the art relevant to the text (a rocket ship can symbolize zooming sales!), but if not, just insert something generic, such as pictures of “office people” who seem to be “working.”

6_art

Why They Like It

Similar to the fancy footer, art and animations turn a boring slide into an exciting piece of presentation “content.” They also give the presenter something to point to and make amusing remarks about.

Why They Shouldn’t Like It

Similar to the fancy footer, art and animation make your PPT file much larger (read: harder to email or print). Also, these dancing distractions do not add content to the presentation, nor are they helpful or explanatory illustrations. And sometimes, they don’t work properly as they travel to different computers.

Suggestion

Find better illustrations! Use actual photographs of your staff or product. Take screenshots of your software. Create charts and graphs to illustrate company growth over time. It will take a little more time and effort, but these “content-heavy” graphics will be used more than once because they are (surprise!) actually useful. And if that isn’t possible, point out to your executive that the file is getting too large to email to the client/partner/director on vacation in France.

The Final Product

By giving executives what they want, we end up with a final product like this:

7_final

Look familiar? Now just ask yourself: Does this slide really help the audience to understand the speaker’s point?

Conclusion

Hopefully, this overview of PowerPoint design has given you some insight into why things are done the way they are done, and what you can do to manage presentation design weaknesses and help your company to produce better presentations in the future. Remember, PowerPoint is just a tool. Whether it makes your working life better or worse is simply a matter of how you use it.

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Joseph Lewis is a writer and editor who has worked in the public and private sectors, including military, health care, and technology firms. Visit Joe's site
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Discussion

  1. xun on the 14th September

    haha. you’re right!

  2. dedenf on the 14th September

    ah! de javu

  3. Complimedia Online on the 14th September

    Really informative post. I have not set up a professional powerpoint presentation yet but I am sure I will soon. But I will likely use keynote and stick to content heavy graphics and conversational writing.

    Thanks.

    • Joseph Lewis on the 14th September

      Actually, I recommend that you just focus on those meaningful visuals and save your writing for a report. Divide and conquer! Put your great graphics in your slides and your great words in a technical paper. Then use the paper as the “take away”, and maybe post it to your Web site, and maybe email it to people who missed the meeting, and maybe… Well, you get the idea!

  4. David Turnbull on the 14th September

    Seems to me that executives just don’t trust the speakers enough to give the presentation so they like it when the PowerPoint does all the work. Shame that audience likes the reverse.

    • Joseph Lewis on the 14th September

      You’re absolutely right. In fact, even if you are comfortable giving a content-focused presentation, your supervisors may want to “fix” your slides to fit their notion of what a briefing should look like!

  5. Ishtiaque Zico on the 14th September

    Last year I made an “Excellent Boring Presentation”:
    http://www.slideshare.net/rupantor/an-excellent-boring-presentation-presentation

    Storytelling is important in content design.
    And the old rule still works: “Show, don’t tell.”

    Thanks Joseph Lewis for showing the presentation design weakness in witty way.

    • Joni Geels on the 15th September

      Nice!

  6. IOSIS on the 14th September

    This looks VERY familiar. Oh how I have tried to get these points through to my executives. But to no avail their presentations look exactly like your example, ugh!

    • Joseph Lewis on the 14th September

      It can be very difficult to motivate organizational change, even on something as simple as PowerPoint design and style. You really need support from a senior individual to change any aspect of your organizational culture.

  7. Patrik on the 14th September

    This is so true, great article :) More of these

  8. O_Sánchez on the 15th September

    Creo que oido a PowerPoint…personalmente uso Keynote y estoy completamente enamorado de sus prestaciones. =D

    • Kena on the 18th September

      PowerPoint tampoco es muy de mi agrado… aunque creo que el punto de este artículo no es tanto las limitaciones del programa sino las estrategias que se usan para transmitir el mensaje. Por otra parte, ¡que viva el keynote!

  9. andrew on the 15th September

    And unfortuneately you are often required to display all the information for legal purposes. if you are really daring and a great speaker (and you don’t have much data to show) you can use the Pecha Kucha method, real lively stuff and the audience stay involved and awake!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9NZOt6BkhUg

    ps. the website layout is cool but I am getting aweful padding and overlapping issues. additionally the phone image’s left edge needs some tidying up and the coffee mug’s handle is not centered, love all the rest though!

  10. @brandscaping on the 15th September

    If you have to use powerpoint – use a single, powerful image that will act as a tool to help the audience remember what the presentation was about.
    Minimal words, powerful imagery, and a prepared speaker go a long way.

    Another option – try something different than PPT
    http://prezi.com/9vbrdzvi9-sz/ is still new enough that it is impressive to many audiences.

    If you cant change the powerpoint slides – change the powerpoint program!

    @brandscaping

  11. LanceSnider on the 15th September

    This should be required reading at my old job. There’s nothing like bad ppt techniques to destroy an already bad presentation. :D

  12. Joni Geels on the 15th September

    Joseph,

    Can you make a post of presentations you should let your designer make that we can “accidentally” leave on the printer our boss uses? This was a great post…now I just need to get to work! Thanks for the info!!!

    • Joseph Lewis on the 15th September

      Thanks, Joni! Keep watching the site for more articles on PowerPoint. Now that I’ve reviewed some less-than-stellar designs, I want to discuss some elements of “good” presentation design, from backgrounds to graphics to text.

  13. Chris Thompson on the 15th September

    Great article! Sometimes its worth looking at the bad design patterns as well as the good. I wish a few execs at my work would take a look at this. We have tried masterpages / templates but they still manage to stretch images and employ every bell and whistle that microsoft crammed into powerpoint. Peeeeooowww

  14. Ahmed El.Hussaini on the 15th September

    A Really informative article, and unfortunatly all managers and executives around the world prefer those annoying habits in creating PPT presentations.

  15. Bob Bessette on the 16th September

    Hi,
    I remember years ago when the CEO of a former company I worked for always added some silly cartoons or animations at the end. Back then it was considered clever. I agree that it is great to use some polished photographs that you can get at iStockPhoto or other sites. Also, chances are there have been some high resolution photos already done of your portfolio of products for marketing material.
    This is really good information. Powerpoint is used everywhere, especially at my workplace. Any good information on how better to use the application can certainly go a long way to more creative presentations. This is great info..

    Best,
    Bob

  16. Dinu on the 16th September

    Does anyone here (geek or non-geek) use any of the HTML slideshow scripts? So far I’ve only seen a couple of geeks use them in presentations.

  17. Charlilottelise on the 17th September

    The post is great but one thing was wrong. You should NEVER use sentences in a presentation. It distracts the audiance from what you are saying and it makes the slide to full. Otherwise you can just send the presentation to the presented and not bother inviting them. But the rest sounds great and I really hope that people will learn how to use powerpoint better. Thanks.

    • Joseph Lewis on the 18th September

      You’re generally right. I’m not advocating more text, just smarter text. For example, replace “Software out of date” with “Our software is out of date.” By adding two little words, you transform a vague phrase into a statement with accountability and urgency.

  18. Joann Sondy on the 18th September

    In general is totally agree with the points in your article and thoroughly enjoy the most recent trends for presentation. However, consider:

    Using full frame images + speech works best for in-person delivery. Since many of the presentations I design are used primarily for re-play and/or desktop delivery, unless the voice is included the message is lost.

    Many are using Powerpoint as a document layout tool and having header/footers is actually a good thing.

    Too much text… well, I completely agree with this one.
    Goofy clip — agree!

    Review some of the presentation on Slideshare — they’re great. But frankly, many times I miss the point because the presenter is missing.

    • Joseph Lewis on the 18th September

      Joann, you’re absolutely right, you need to use the right document at the right time for the right reasons.

      The document you’re describing sounds similar to a business e-book. They can be great for delivering short messages in an attractive format, but heavy information transfer should call for a heavy document, like a traditional report.

  19. Joann Sondy on the 18th September

    Business e-books… well, that’s something I know a lot about. Producing investor/shareholder materials for publicly-traded companies for 15+ years; I sure have seen a full spectrum from award-winning annual reports to junk produced in Publisher.

    Last week, I was asked to assist with some “tweaking” on a presentation a CEO of a NYSE hi-tech company was to give at an investor conference — aka “why invest in this company”.

    I had designed a very nice template: high-tech look, easy to read, corporate branded, etc. Well, the file I received was NOT mine; but rather something done by someone who knows NOTHING about presentations and/or design.

    I told the account executive that I believed the presentation was an embarrassment! And, something the CEO of a global company should NOT be associated.

    With sites like this one — which I was glad to discover this week — I hope that the message of how design/creativity can be an ASSET to a company.

  20. PP on the 14th January

    Thanks. Good article and approach to improve PowerPoint presentations.
    I agree with Joann that sometimes we get files from top executives who want us to re-design. And top executives may not have an idea about how to design a PowerPoint presentation. As a professional we should advice and tell them why that is not good for a presentation, even if we are under the risk to lose the account.

  21. Nash on the 22nd March

    Very true! When I just started making my first presentations I did many mistakes you mentioned in the article. And to tell the true my audience was not very happy. But this is how we learn. It takes time to gain experience and master any skill:)

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