Your slides don’t have to suck

Make PowerPoint Suck Less

I hate PowerPoint.

More accurately, I hate the materials so many people produce with PowerPoint. Most slide decks are dumping grounds for all that’s known on a subject. They’re encyclopedias of facts, figures, and far too much info.

Newsflash: A dumping ground does not inspire understanding, belief, or collaboration. And an encyclopedia is not a favored form of 21st century communication.

That’s why Jill and I keep imploring our clients to stop using PowerPoint. Or at least use it less.

Even so, I must confess:

I love creating PowerPoint slides.

It’s a Zen practice for me. Get me going on a presentation project, and I struggle to stop.

This is not because PowerPoint is uniquely satisfying to use. Other tools offer the same gratifying rush. I can achieve flow state when designing social media content in Canva, drawing in Procreate,  making reels in Instagram, customizing captions in CapCut, or animating explainer videos in Adobe Rush.

Suffice it to say, I can get immersed in a creative process—even one as mundane as crafting PowerPoint slides.

And I’ve been building slide decks for a long time.

The next three paragraphs will reveal my age. I am not sorry or shy.

PowerPoint launched in 1987, around the time I finished high school and started journalism school. This was a weird time for journalists. We had to master both old-fashioned and new-fangled ways to publish a story. I remember trotting up and down stairs between a window-lined computer lab and the journalism department’s “dungeon.”

In the lab, I sent completed assignments to a dot-matrix printer. People of a certain age remember detaching ribbons of hole-y paper from perforated edges of infinite pages. We also learned to write and design with software, including Microsoft’s brand-spanking-new PowerPoint.

In the dungeon, I learned paste-up, the pre-desktop publishing method of laying out stories for print. This was a mesmerizing process. What’s not to love about using a sharp blade to slice tidy blocks of type, gliding a soft pencil against a pica ruler, and—best of all—inhaling the (literally) intoxicating scent of rubber cement?

Ahhhhhh.

I digress.

What gets me going is the challenge of expressing a verbal message in a visual way.

When clients compel me to open PowerPoint, an app I loathe so much, it’s because they bring me a worthy and weighty objective:

  • A conference speaker wants to tell an inspiring story on stage. What images will draw and not distract the audience’s attention?
  • A business leader is preparing to offer an idea to the board. Which visuals will prompt conversation and not skepticism?
  • A business development team needs to dazzle a new customer. How can they craft slides for the pitch and the leave-behind?

I prefer to tackle such projects in “teach them to fish” fashion. Could I create slides for you? Yes. But do you really want to be beholden to me and my hourly rate every time you need a handful of slides? Of course not. So, let’s do it together.

In fact, let’s give you a head start right here.

Here are 4 ways to make your PowerPoint slides suck less:

1. Start with paper.

Step 1 in creating a presentation is NOT opening PowerPoint. First, grab pen and paper (I recommend sticky notes) and sketch out your plan.

And I do mean sketch. Imagine you’re designing a game board, where your audience will move from the “go” square to the “winner” circle. How will you move them along?

 

Some questions to consider in your sketch-plan:

  • What’s the one thing you want your audience to know or feel or do when your presentation is over?
  • What knowledge, assumptions, or questions might your audience bring into the room?
  • How will you capture their attention?
  • What points must you deliver?
  • In what order can you share those points to build the most powerful case?

Study these notes closely. You probably have a strong start on your headlines and talking points.

2. Click File > New.

Yes, NEW. Don’t open that encyclopedic PowerPoint file and click Save As. Instead, start with a blank slate and build the deck you need for this conversation with this audience in this moment.

I know what you’re thinking. Why reinvent the wheel when you have a perfectly good set of slides from that other time when you met with that other group? Efficiency, baby!

Mhm. I know.

But how much time is wasted “tweaking” slides that aren’t quite right? And how many opportunities are lost to content that isn’t relevant?

Draft a series of headline-only slides with—you guessed it—headlines only. Once you have this structure in place, you can go mine that existing content for supportive visuals. But don’t race to the recycle bin just because it’s there.

3. Forget X-by-X rules.

Somewhere along the line, you went to presentation training, and the instructor told you to abide by the 5×5 rule (or maybe 4×4 or 6×6). You know: You get no more than 5 bullet points with no more than 5 words each.

Sigh.

The advice is well-intended, to keep you from filling a slide with text. But taken literally, this rule leads to stacks of business-speak.

 

^ That’s not horrible. But this is even better:

 

4. Question SmartArt’s wisdom.

SmartArt’s allure is that it can transform a handful of bullet points into an interesting arrangement of shapes. A visualization can be a welcome departure from text-heavy slides.

But SmartArt brings risk, too. Because the mere arrangement of words says something, and possibly not what you intend.

Just this past week, I saw a 4-point list presented as a 4-square matrix—a visual that left me with more questions than clarity.

 

Turns out the 4 points were elements in a training program. They’re meant to be tackled in order. All four are recommended but not required. They’re all equally important.

This illustration doesn’t say any of that, does it? So, what does it say? One common interpretation of a matrix is that the top right corner is best. Another temptation is to plot yourself on the x and y axes.

Suffice it to say, this list might be better presented in a basic vertical or horizontal format. Just because you can turn your list of points into a pretty diagram doesn’t mean you should.


I could go on and on with additional tips like “honor your brand standards,” “line things up” and “remove all extras.”

But this post has already reached a length that tests my attention span. And I know you have presentation decks to build.

I can’t guarantee that these pointers will help you fall in love with creating PowerPoint slides. That might be my own twisted obsession. They will help your audience receive your message and appreciate the way you share it.

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