Presentations: Tips for Effective PowerPoint Design

Do your PowerPoint slides help engage your audience…or just switch them off?

By David Rose, Director LACS Training Brussels


Link to LACS Training Services


I came across a really pertinent quote recently that summed up my experience of sitting through lots of presentations…

How does this connect with your experience? Have you ‘suffered’ PowerPoint presentations over the years where your attention simply started to fade after a few minutes?

Unfortunately, this isn’t a rare occurrence. But why does it happen?

As I’m sure you’re aware, there are a wide range of specific skills that contribute to consistently effective presentations.

I’ve previously published a series of articles on these key ingredients: structuring, transitions & signposts, emphasis & pausing and body language [have a look if you haven’t yet done so].

However, even with strong, conscious command of these four techniques, you’re still missing a crucial element to avoid your audiences getting that ‘long’, ‘boring’ and ‘deadening’ feeling…

appropriate and well-designed PowerPoint slides.

Question 1: Which role should PowerPoint slides take in your presentation?

Should slides be fully comprehensive ‘speaking notes’, short and simple bullet points or limited to one or two key messages only?

Worst case – they contain every word you are going to say, so you basically ‘read’ them to the audience, most likely with your back to them or standing side-on and therefore not making much eye contact… i.e. giving them every reason not to listen to you and either just read the slides themselves or switch off and read the (lengthy…) PowerPoint handout afterwards…

Best case – they summarise you main messages, with you ‘expanding’ on them orally while actively facing the audience and maintaining eye contact – so giving them a reason to listen, engaging them and keeping their attention.

Importance of Effective PowerPoint Design

Question 2: Which core guidelines should you follow in designing your slides?

There are six main steps to ensuring your PowerPoint slides provide the right platform for an effective presentation:

1) Making your main message clear through limiting content

2) Ensuring simplicity and consistency of layout

3) Choosing graphics carefully

4) Maximising graphs, charts and diagrams

5) Paying attention to colour, fonts and text size

6) Using animation selectively

So, let’s now take a look at each of them in turn:

1) Making your main message clear through limiting content

All too often, slides are simply overloaded – like in the example below. The main messages on a slide are either missing or ‘buried’ in a large amount of text composed of long, full sentences…

Example of poor PowerPoint slide design

Now, here’s exactly the same main message and key information again without the clutter:

Example of effective PowerPoint design

Example of effective PowerPoint design

Top tips

  • Make sure your main message is prominent – i.e. at the top of the slide
  • Limit your messages to the 6×6’ rule –  maximum 6 points per slide and 6 words per point

2) Ensuring simplicity and consistency of layout

These days, global layout is often dictated by an organisation’s ‘standard’ template.

However, within such a template, there are still a range of elements you have to keep in mind about layout:

Top tips

(a) Simplicity of layout

  • White space – Ensure you keep enough so-called ‘white space’ on the slide – for example a small spacing between your main message and each bullet point (see example 1 above). This ensures the slide can easily be read from anywhere in the room, and avoids the dense ‘block’ of text seen in example 2 above.

(b) Consistency of layout

  • Positioning – Place items (main messages, bullet point lists, images etc.) in the same place on each slide. Audiences respond positively to not having to work out where exactly to look as you move between each slide.
  • Bullets – Keep a consistent system for bulleting your (concise) points between slides. The convention is solid points (●) for main ideas, with hollow points for sub-lists (○).

3) Choosing graphics carefully

Accepting that PowerPoint is a visual tool, any presentation with text-only slides is guaranteed to lose your audience’s attention quickly.

You need to consider three main points about the images you use: quality, purpose and size.

Top tips

(a) Quality

  • Resolution – Aim for high-resolution images, as these will keep their definition while projected onto a large screen. Remember – even if it looks clear when you view the slide on your PC, this doesn’t always translate well onto the ‘big screen’.
  • Type – avoid clip art!

Clip art and other such carton-style images simply don’t produce a strong, professional impression (see 1st slide below).

Use photographs instead. With Google images or similar, you can easily find a huge range of appropriate and non-copyrighted material (see 2nd slide below).

How not to choose images for your PowerPoint slides

Example of poor image choices

How to choose images for PowerPoint slides

Example of effective images

(b) Purpose

  • Fit to need Images are primarily used for two purposes:
  • ‘Primary support’ for your message(s) – as in the ‘Product Benefits’ slide above, where the images take equal footing with the text to re-enforce the messages. ‘Secondary support’ – to simply illustrate/exemplify your message(s) to create a more visual feel to the presentation – as in the example below where the wind turbine simply gives a visual example of one of the points (and general theme) being introduced in words.
How to use images to illustrate PowerPoint slides

Example of an effective secondary image

(c) Size

  • Fit size to purpose the size and position) of an image is guided by its role in the slide:
  • Primary images – large and central, as in the ‘Product Benefits’ slide we saw earlier.
  • Illustrative (secondary) images – as in the ‘Climate change’ slide above, they should be positioned bottom right and of a size that doesn’t draw the audience’s main attention away from the text.

4) Maximising graphs, charts and diagrams

Question: What are the three biggest ‘issues’ with graphs, charts and diagrams in slides?

Answer: legibility and clarity of message.

Top tips

(a) Make it legible

Remember – A ‘picture’ is supposed to speak 1000 words, not need 1000 words to explain it!

  • Avoid importing directly from reports/spreadsheets – A graph, chart or diagram in a report/spreadsheet is necessarily detailed – intended to convey often large quantities of complex information where the reader has time to process it. However, in presentations, the same visuals are too small and detailed for the audience to easily follow… such as the example below:
Example of 'cluttered' graphics in a PowerPoint slide

Example of ‘cluttered’ graphics

  • Choose your chart type carefully displaying information in charts is better than pages of text and/or lists of data. However, some charts are better suited to specific purposes than others…

The main ‘offender’ when it comes to poor choices of chart is the bar chart…

  • Graph versus bar charts – As you might have already realised, the graph in the ‘Estimations of…’ slide above actually compares three trends… so why a bar graph? Surely it would be clearer as three line graphs on the same axes instead?
  • Pie charts versus bar graphs – take a look at this (very cluttered and too small to see clearly when projected) bar graph below:
How not to design bar charts and graphics in PowerPoint

Cluttered and not immediately clear

It compares three groups of data across three different time periods… but unfortunately the ‘big picture’ isn’t so clear at first glance…

Now let’s see the same rendered as pie charts:

Well-designed pie chart in a PowerPoint slide

Clearer and more informative

Now, the ‘big picture is graphically clearer (as well as being supported by the main points clearly stated in text first as I mentioned earlier).

When using pie charts – as shown on the slide above – ensure:

– Your data is clearly written on each segment for clarity

– You choose easy to differentiate but non-clashing colours

(b) Make your intended message clear

Remember – Very frequently in presentations, a graph, chart or diagram doesn’t actually clearly say to the audience what it is supposed to mean…

Take a look at this example of a slide with a graph… what exactly is it trying to tell us?

Example of how not to use graphs in PowerPoint slides

What’s the message here?

What is the author’s main message(s) here? Impossible to see…

Now let’s see the same graph again, but with the main messages clearly outlined:

Good example of how to use graphs in PowerPoint slides

Now the intended message is… clear!

So, as highlighted in this much clearer second example slide, ensure you:

  • Clearly put your main (general) message in the title of the slide
  • Clearly outline your next level of messages – These should come before the graph – either to the left or above with the graph below. If possible also quantify them, with the figures in a secondary position and smaller font size (+/- brackets).
  • Provide a link to the full set of data – Ideally, a URL or reference of the source publication. Your audience may well want to see the graph in its original context with the supporting data tables etc.

5) Paying attention to colour, fonts and text size

Having covered messaging, layout and graphics, we now turn our attention to the final design element: colour font and text size.

(a) Colour choices

Colour, and more importantly combinations of colour, has a strong impact on the look of your slides. Colour theory is a wide and highly technical area beyond the scope of this article. However, following a few basic guidelines will ensure your slides

Top tips

  • Backgrounds and text – a light (e.g. light blue)/white background with black/dark text works best in normal lighting. Note that a dark background (e.g. black/dark blue) with white text tends to lose its definition and clarity when projected (and it’s also very heavy on the toner to print!).
  • Colour variations – Avoid strong contrasts between colours. Limit your slide to three colours: background, text 1 – titles/subtitles and bullets, text 2 – main body text.

(b) Fonts

Font choices make a crucial difference to the clarity of the text on your slides when projected, as well as saying something about you.

Top tips

  • Consistency – use a consistent primary font (e.g. Helvetica) for text on slides throughout your presentation, with a secondary font (e.g. Helvetica Bold) to differentiate titles and subtitles from the main text.
  • Choose carefully – There are two main types of font: ‘Serif’ and ‘Sans-serif’:
Examples of Serif and Sans-Serif fonts

Examples of Serif and Sans-Serif fonts

Serif fonts – e.g. Times New Roman and Georgia – are ideal for text-heavy printed documents such as reports and books. They are designed to be easier to read at small text sizes, and can lose some definition when projected.

San serif fonts – e.g. Helvetica, Arial and Calibri – lack the ‘serifs’ (curly bits!) of the fonts above, and have become the default for on-screen and online publishing. They maintain their clarity and readability when projected.

>> Use san serif fonts – they are clearer and therefore easier to read when projected.

(c) Text Size

Slides need to be clearly legible for the audience, not only at the front of the room but also at the back.

Top tips

  • Consistency – use consistent text sizes for different elements (titles, sub-titles, body text, labeling for graphics) throughout your slides
  • Recommended size ranges  – the following size ranges ensure maximum clarity:
Reccommended text sizes for PowerPoint slides

Reccommended text sizes

6) Using animation selectively

PowerPoint offers a huge range of animation options for both slides and parts of slides: appears, fades, fly-ins, float-ins… the list goes on… and on…!

Animation options in PowerPoint

Temptation beckons…

The temptation to use a wide range of them is most probably why they are so overused in presentations.

Nothing is worse for your audience than slides, text, images and labels flying in from all angles and suddenly appearing in random styles. At best, it’s distracting them from the actual messages you’re trying to communicate. At worst, it’s simply an irritating switch-off, meaning you lose their attention.

So, how should you use animation in your presentation…?

Top tips

  • Use it selectively – animation is a true double-edged sword. Used selectively and strategically, it helps you vary and manage the flow of information. This helps better engage your audience and keep their attention.
  • Technique 1: ‘Reveal’ to vary the flow

Occasionally – i.e. every 3-4 slides at most – you can animate your bullet points/graphic elements to allow you to reveal and explain them one-by-one with a click. This provides a variation on the standard ‘click – next slide – talk them through each point [hoping they don’t read ahead’]’ approach.

How: select a text box and choose the ‘Animation’ menu – select the settings ‘custom animation’, ‘fly-in’, ‘left’, ‘very fast’, and ‘on click’.

·      Technique 2: Transitions between slides

Animation is an ideal way to provide a ‘bridge’ or transition between slides. Again, this provides a variation to the default ‘click – next slide – talk them through each point’ approach.

How: select your graphic/table/text box containing your body text and choose the ‘Animation’ menu – select the settings ‘custom animation’, ‘fly-in’, ‘left’, ‘very fast’, and ‘on click’.

When you click to move to the slide, only the title appears. You can then introduce the slide’s theme with the audience’s full attention before clicking to ‘reveal’ the slide’s contents.

Wrap up

In a nutshell, effective design of your PowerPoint slides gives you a:

  • Means to take and keep your audience’s attention
  • Solid basis for clearly delivering your intended messages
  • Clear, informative, read-only synopsis of your presentation for dissemination

Remember: with a clear set of guidelines, every minute you invest in producing a well-designed and coherent set of slides significantly contributes to helping you deliver a high-impact, successful presentation.


Does your organisation need training? Contact me at to benefit from my consultancy’s personalised, highly practical and cost-effective communication training services.

Visit to download a full catalogue of our training offer.

We offer made to measure training for:

● Presentations (core skills and advanced techniques)

● Public Speaking (speeches, press conferences, interviews)

● Professional Writing (reports, memos, briefings, minutes)

● Writing for Impact (web, position papers, policy papers)

● Meetings Facilitation/Chairing
© David Rose LACS Training 2012


Filed under 1 Public Speaking and Presentation Skills

2 responses to “Presentations: Tips for Effective PowerPoint Design

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