“Death by PowerPoint”
This is perhaps the quote most regularly associated with Microsoft PowerPoint, but I prefer the quote:
“A bad worker always blames their tools’
Or to put it more bluntly – the dislike of PowerPoint usually stems from the fact that:
- You are bad at using it.
- The person/people using it to present to you – are bad at using it.
- You were made to sit through decks that were not relevant to you.
- Some combination of the above.
I am not professing my absolute mastery of PowerPoint, nor am I saying that it’s the right communication tool for all situations, but a large percentage of my most significant professional successes have a strong connection to pitches that occurred in PowerPoint. Learning how to leverage it effectively has provided real payback over the years.
Hate it, fight it all you want, but just like email – it’s not going away anytime soon.
The biggest fundamental benefit to PowerPoint from my perspective is that it forces you to really think about what you’re trying to say. You need to leverage your expertise and all that data and information you have around your subject and put it into a clear, concise story that enables you to achieve your desired outcome.
In this article I am talking about my approach to building am impactful slide deck in a corporate setting. That is usually quite different from the style of deck that would work in an external event, so just keep this in mind.
What ingredients make up a successful slide deck?
Mostly, it’s about how good you are at telling a story
A story usually has a beginning, a middle, and an end – so too does a good quality slide deck. Before you even open PowerPoint, you need to know the story you’re trying to tell, which also requires you to understand your audience. At a high level, it’s usually:
- What is their level of knowledge on the subject I will present?
- How much context do I need to provide the audience for maximum results?
- What style of story do I need to present to this audience to elicit the desired outcome?
For example, let us say you were presenting on search engine optimisation [SEO] to a C-Suite audience. The purpose of the deck is to get them to provide additional resources and budget, and in return you’re going to incrementally increase revenue from that channel.
This audience will usually not know much about SEO, but they don’t really need to. The story would roughly follow this structure:
- Slide 1 – summary of the points made in the slides that will follow the opening. Sometimes you might not even get off this slide if you’d sent the deck as a ‘pre-read’ a few days before.
- Slide 2 – show them the huge search opportunity that relates to what the organisation does/sells.
- Slide 3 – Demonstrate how much the organisation currently sucks at ranking on those areas of opportunity [you may also showcase how much better the core competitors are in the same space].
- Slide 4 – Provide the anticipated financial benefit to the organisation of investing in this area [cost savings from paid media reductions perhaps, and incremental uplift from improved rankings].
- Slide 5 – Close with what you need from today’s discussion to move things forward.
This story is touching the relevant points that a C-Suite audience would care about, and it’s not actually going into any detail that seeks to educate them on the process of SEO. They might of course end up asking lots of questions, but that would perhaps be a good sign of them appreciating the opportunity and wishing to learn more.
Leverage relevant data points where possible
Surprisingly, one of the least visible skill sets I continue to see in organisations is the ability to leverage data in any meaningful way to support their ‘opinions’. To tell a great, watertight story, it’s best if you have data to back-up your point of view.
For example, presenting a story that says ‘give me more headcount and budget for SEO’ without explicitly showing data that highlights why you need it and what you’ll give back in return is just plain lazy.
Without the data element your views will lack credibility. It’ll open the door for people to question whether your views are indeed correct. On the flip side, if you clearly show data points that highlight the real search opportunity across relevant keywords, and you also show how little your organisation ranks on those keywords, nobody can debate that reality – it becomes fact.
So wherever possible – use factual data to back up your story.
Keep your slide style consistent
Some people might find it a touch OCD, but consistent styling and formatting of slides make a big difference. This includes very simple things, such as:
- Ensuring your slide titles are all in the same position. You should be able to flick through your entire slide deck and the positioning of that opening title should never move.
- Consistent usage of the same fonts through the deck.
- Consistent usage of colours for different elements such as graphs, tables, shapes, highlighted words, etc.
Below is a super basic example of maintaining consistency.
Invest some time and effort in selecting or creating good imagery
PowerPoint is ultimately a visual aid, and whilst text, graphs, and tables can often be enough, there might be occasions where you can introduce images to liven things up a little. I wrote a separate post that covers easy ways to create nice imagery on a budget that might be helpful here.
If you’re going to introduce images, then make sure they are high quality, and relevant. Anything else is just a pointless distraction.
In certain situations, I would even take the time to have a custom graphic created, such as the example below. For this one, the slide is communicating a very simple message, but doing it in such a way that it’s likely to get a laugh or at least a smirk from the audience. It also increases the odds that the message sinks in.
I had this graphic created via a designer on Upwork, probably cost me around $30-$50 and I’ve leveraged the same asset in many different decks. Other good sources for high-res imagery are:
https://www.freepik.com/ <- lots of free images
https://unsplash.com/images <- lots of free images
Push back if someone says ‘1 or 2 slides max’
A common line you may hear within a corporate setting is ‘just do 1 or 2 slides max’. Unless the request is to fill-up a pre-existing, common template for a wider update deck, the number of slides you use to communicate your story is largely irrelevant providing it remains clear, concise, and within a specified time limit.
There are many times when I might use 10 slides but communicate a story more effectively than if I was forced to use 1-2 slides rammed full of text, graphs, and tables.
If your story is good and it flows properly, then it really doesn’t matter how many slides you use. One slight caveat per the next point.
Assume your slides will be sent around on email
In a corporate setting in particular, always assume your presentation will be sent around on email – before and after your actual presentation.
A good slide deck will ensure someone can open it, read it, and understand exactly what it’s saying, without you needing to present it.
Imagine for a minute the alternative. You open an email with a presentation from a colleague you’ve never really met, its 7pm, you’ve been working all day, and you’re worn out. The slide deck is text-heavy, small fonts, data tables everywhere, heavy graphs – you basically need a PhD to decode it.
This ^^ is the sad reality of most corporate slide decks in my experience. You open it, you get confused, so you close it and discount it – which effectively wasted your time, and that of the person who created it. You need to also consider the reputational risk to yourself of consistently sending sub-par, confusing slide decks to your colleagues.
*Another important tip*
You can also consider creating a PDF version of the same deck for sending out on email. It will reduce the file size, increase the quality on mobile devices, and reduce the chances of other people stealing your slides and trying to claim them as their own [which happens a lot by the way!].
I won’t go into detail in this article, but there are some simple steps you can use within PowerPoint to crop and compress images quickly, which also helps to reduce the PPT deck size.
Remove as much complexity as possible
This is a simple tip that is often overlooked, but easy to implement. Its especially relevant to assets such as graphs, where some simple formatting can make a big difference in communicating your message.
In the example below, there are two graphs based on the same data points [which I just made up]. On the left is a default output using a clustered column type. On the right I have made the following adjustments:
- I changed the chart type to a stacked column.
- I removed grid-lines.
- I added data labels.
- I rounded the data labels for easier consumption on the numbers [there could be situations where you need the absolute numbers, but in most cases I prefer to round up or down].
- I altered the styling of the chart, including font sizes and colours. Usually I try to maintain the same colour scheme through the whole deck, and will modify it to leverage a specific brand colour palette where relevant.
The result is a much cleaner, easier to consume graph, which also looks visually more appealing.
Love it or loathe it, Microsoft PowerPoint is here to stay, especially in the corporate world. Learning how to leverage it in conjunction with effective storytelling is something that can set you apart from your competition. There are times where I might spend weeks building and tweaking a specific slide deck, just to perfect the flow and messaging. To some people this may seem extreme but imagine on certain topics where you might only get 1 shot at driving the desired outcome. You want to maximise your odds by nailing it.