Death by PowerPoint

I'm at yet another event, and this time I decided to go see a few of the other sessions instead of just trying to find as much free food as possible between my own presentations. This experience brought to mind an old concept: "Death by PowerPoint." It is almost embarrassing how some people use PowerPoint. Steve Riley frequently refers to e-mail as "the place where knowledge goes to die." Well Steve, you have it wrong. Nothing kills knowledge as fast as putting it in PowerPoint.

Some of the most egregious ways to use PowerPoint I have seen include:

  • PowerPoint is NOT a word processor! The point of a PowerPoint slide is not to cram as much information into a single slide as possible. The idea of a slide is to have memory joggers that trigger thinking in the audience. That means you do not need to even have complete sentences (although it is a bonus if the words are spelled correctly). Simple statements work just fine
  • Most of your audience probably knows how to read – A corollary to the thinking that PowerPoint is a word processor is that far too many presenters stand on stage reading the slides. It turns out that most of the audience members probably are literate and can read the slides for themselves. The purpose of a presentation is not to do so for them. If you want to read to people, go to the reading hour at the local library. A presentation is about explaining things to people that go above and beyond what they get in the slides. If it weren't they may as well just get your slides and read them in the comfort of their own office, home, boat, or bathroom.
  • A picture is worth a thousand words, possibly more – Just because PowerPoint has bullets is no reason to use them. There is no way you can convey as much information in a slide full of bullets as you can in a slide with a single picture on it. Try this next time, put a picture in instead of the bullets and then talk about the picture. People will find it much more interesting and much more informative. As a bonus, it makes it more worthwhile to come to the presentation as opposed to just downloading the slides – making you a more important person to have at the event.
  • It's a good idea to know your presentation – statements like "oops, what is that slide doing here" or "I don't really know what this point is trying to say" are never a good thing in a presentation. Generally speaking, an audience that went through the time and effort to attend your presentation expects you to have spent at least that much time preparing for it. Taking someone else's presentation and just standing up and reading the slides as they show up is typically not going to work out too well.
  • Bullets are bad, stories are good – There is no law that says everything you say has to fit in a bullet. In fact, teaching by bullet points was never one of the more interesting in school was it? Think back to the classes that you enjoyed – most of the time they were the ones were the teacher related the material to real life, by telling a story that illustrated the points. Which would you rather hear? An sound-bite explanation of the four pieces that need to be proven in a lawsuit over negligence, or a story about how someone was negligent and got sued over it?
  • The actual content of your presentation is much more important than the slide show template you used! – I do about 80 conference presentations a year. For some reason, every single event feels that they must have a unique PowerPoint template for their slides. It takes anywhere from 15 minutes to two hours to reapply a template, depending on the presentation and what you have done in it. That is two hours that could be profitably spent doing other things, like say putting in content that the audience would care about as opposed to setting it in a template they don't care about. That is two weeks of my time a year that I can't create information and transfer knowledge, but instead spend trying to figure out why somebody decided that a red font on a blue background was a good idea.
  • The purpose of the three-pane view is not so you can see which the next slide is – PowerPoint's three-pane view is great – for building presentations. It is not there as a substitute for rehearsals so you can tell which the next slide is. Hit F5 and use PowerPoint the way it was designed. If you're already in three-pane view by the time you read this, hit shift-F5 and it will start the slideshow from the current slide.
  • Don't put your audience in pain. – OK, so the general idea is to transfer knowledge. If you make the audience's collective eyes bleed by putting up white slides with a black font, something which is just horribly painful to look at in a dark room, you are much less likely to actually convey any points since they will be trying to look away from the screen the whole time.
  • Be conscious people with disabilities – Most disabilities do not interfere with a presentation. However, some do. For instance, red text on a blue background is impossible to see for people who are color blind since it won't stop moving. Red text on black has the same effect, and red text on green simply disappears unless they are completely red and completely green, in which case the red text just jumps around a lot instead.
  • It is not a requirement to have at least one slide in each presentation that nobody can read – You do not have to have a slide that nobody can read, contrary to popular opinion. That is what handouts are for. If people can't read it, why put it on the screen? Why waste the audience's time with it?
  • 12-point font is not appropriate – 12-point font can't be read unless you are right in front of the slide, in which case you need to move your head far too much. 14 points is bare minimum. Ideally, don't go below 18.
  • There is no contest as to who can use the most fonts – You won't get dinged if you don't use 12 different fonts in a single slide. One or two is perfectly fine and actually makes the slide readable instead, an extra bonus.

Do you have a favorite story about "Death by PowerPoint?" Let me know! Post a comment or send me an e-mail if you don't want it posted.

Comments (31)
  1. Anonymous says:

    The background on the Vista OS..that I call "under the Sea" is very pretty. It’s very stylish. There

  2. Anonymous says:

    I really enjoyed meeting so many people at tonight’s TechNet event. Apologies to those who couldn’t find…

  3. Anonymous says:

    Eine meiner Hauptaufgaben in meinem Job bei MIcrosoft ist es, anständige Präsentationen für die Veranstaltungen,

  4. Anonymous says:

    Becoming a Better Presenter

    This week I went to Dr. Edward A. Tufte’s course on presenting quantitative…

  5. Anonymous says:

    Jesper, who seems to live on planes at the moment, has blogged about how to make your Powerpoint presentations…

  6. Anonymous says:

    Cosas que hacer y no hacer en una presentación. De Jesper Johansson

  7. Laura E. Hunter [MVP] says:

    Bless you Jesper, bless you! As an occasional trainer, I try really hard not to be the person who sits there reading the contents of a Powerpoint slide to a classroom. It likewise makes me crazy when people do it to me. At Tech Ed I did exactly what you described here; that is, I stopped going to the presentations and just hung around the Cabanas all day – I just got my DVD full of slide decks and will be going through them now as time permits. (I really think the only ones I sat all the way through were yours, Steve’s, and Mark Russinovich’s.)

    So glad to see that you’re blogging, can’t wait to read more!

  8. Hi Jesper,

    very funny (unfortunately) and very true. I remember a lot of slides which looked like someone copied the whitepaper in it 😉

    One topic I was smiling about: I guess the per-event-template is also used to force the speakers to overdue and maybe overthink their presentation, so it’s up to date. I don’t want to know how old certain presentations would get if they just could resubmit without changes 😉

    But anyways, was funny to read and I can’t wait for the next part "Death by the speaker".

    And Laura: admit it was very interesting in the cabanas, next time we should just put our cabana-table on a stage in one of the session rooms and we’ll have the most technical and most interesting session ever 😉

  9. dhargreaves says:

    I work with a number of colleagues who do not understand the value of the slide master and consequently am constantly faced with slides where the basic information jumps all over the place. Or half way through a badly prepared presentation the style and layout is changed all together.

    Another visual problem is where the design on the master is overcomplicated and incorporates dark conflicting colours. This may look exciting on the PC monitor but is hellishly difficult to read over a projector.

    Please please use slide masters and keep the look and feel simple.

  10. Toby Getsch says:


  11. Jonathan Merrill says:


    I hear you on all your points, except #2 (Most of your audience probably knows how to read).

    I was responsible for doing the technical training at one of my previous employers. We gave the slides out afterwards and put them up on the intranet. Would you believe the number one complaint was the slides didn’t contain enough information? They were "too brief". Good grief, damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

    PS. Number two complaint was better food. No one liked the cheese and crackers we served.


  12. mike says:

    There are two parts to a PowerPoint presentation: the slides, and the talk. Presentations definitely go better when the PowerPoint part of it follows Jesper’s advice. Unfortunately for those of use who miss the presentation, such sparse slides aren’t much good on their own. Looking back at slides from TechEd NZ (just a couple of weeks ago), I find in many cases the slides alone aren’t enough to jog my memory about what was said at talks I was paying attention to, never mind those I missed entirely.

    If your presentation is to live on after the talk, you need to provide more than a copy of your slides. For a conference presentation, add some notes to your slides, to help fill in the gaps.

    Most of use don’t present at conferences. Our presentations are summaries of larger works: project proposals, progress reports, testing results, etc. Often, these should be independent documents, which should be provided instead of PowerPoint slides.

  13. stephen says:

    Hi Jesper, I’m curious about where you got your colour disabilities information from.

    I’ve been using this site as a guide:

  14. Personal experience Stephen. I’m pretty gravely color blind.

    I really like the site you linked. It should be a requirement to read things like that for people who are NOT color deficient and who create presentations.

  15. Terry Bernstein says:

    One missing horror….

    The animated bullet points that zoom in from the side of the screen and come to a sudden halt. Often with sound effect 🙁

    Just what you need after a good lunch.

  16. Harry says:

    I could have thought of it myself, but I never did. When testing on slide of my presentation I always hit F5. Thus I had to press PgDn a lot to get to the slide I wanted to see.

    SHIFT-F5. Helpfull tip. Thanks.

  17. Jens Häupel says:

    Very true. I am color blind and once I attended a meeting where the presenter had used a red font on a dark green background. I could only guess the text since it had a shadow applied, which is usually a bad thing – especially with small fonts. But in this case the shadow had a different color that was in my visual spectrum.

    Besides I try to stick to my PPT master even if the conference owners try to provide their own (black on white) ones.

  18. Mary Lou says:

    You, and Terry B above, have covered these points quite well! I trained on presentations using the old overhead transparencies technique. These were expensive to produce and therefore, we used them as needed – only a little bit of info to jog the memory.

    Now, PP, is everywhere for everyone – I hate those animated presentations – it’s like someone found the button and said "Hey, I can make these move!" Then, they creat hideous slides just because they can! Ouch!

    Thanks for the tips – I’m sending the link to my boss right now!

  19. Gerry says:

    Power corrupts; PowerPoint corrupts absolutely!

  20. Mike Bartlett says:

    I agree with everything you say Jesper it should be mandatory reading for any presenter.

    One comment re handouts, if they are going to be created on a black and white printer use the greyscale / black and white preview option, PLEASE! You wouldn’t believe the number of handouts I have that are unreadable because the pretty colours on the screen dissappear into the background on the printer.

  21. bill says:

    I believe that you left out the word "of" in this bullet.

    Be conscious people with disabilities

    Should it read:

    Be conscious[of]people with disabilities

  22. Barbara Conn says:

    In developing a presentation, it’s often useful (when you can make the time) to create a PowerPoint master file that’s adaptable for everything from 10-minute overviews to 45-minute talks to 3-hour seminars to a printed

    conference proceedings book—then you’re ready for any opportunity that arises. The audience looks at a picture slide but listens to the speaker, who easily skips the next several slides (the ones with the explanatory text) included in the master file for intranet, Web, and/or print publication.

    Very useful article, Jesper. Thanks. I’m linking to it from the Speaker Info page on our Capital PC User Group Entrepreneurs and Consultants SIG Web pages.

    <i>Question:</i> About "Don’t put your audience in pain," what colors would you recommend for words (foreground) and background? Colors that will work both when projected and printed? Thanks again.

  23. Fredrik Elmqvist says:

    How true! I’ve seen presentations breaking all those rules. Heck, I’ve even made a few presentations of my own which probably would send me to jail for offending the basic design rules.

    You put the finger on some intresting spots.

  24. thom says:

    I’ve seen a presentation at a shareholder meeting that was so beautiful to look at, that no paid any attention to the speakers. At the end when the mike was handed out to the audience, someone even stood up and asked how it was done!!!. Lesson? Imagery and pictures might be beautiful, but keep it understated.

    It was a fantasic pres though!

  25. David M. McFall says:

    I am a retired executive who still doesn’t know as much as I should about PowerPoint, but have sat through numerous presentations that included some or all of your "don’ts."

    Thanks, and thanks for your sense in instructive humor.

  26. IroeN says:

    thx, i just added your blog to my Favorites Center 🙂

  27. George Edwards says:

    Excellent Posting.

    One more. With a hundred squillion images on the intenet, why do people still pepper their slides with those evil and sinister little stick men?

    Anyone who wants a copy of my report "Thanks, I enjoyed that ! – an A to Zizz of Presenttions" for some more tips, it’s a free PDF download from

    Help yourselves.

  28. Joey says:

    sh!t ar

  29. Dewi Morgan says:

    "Be conscious people with disabilities"

    I don’t think there’s a missing word here, just missing punctuation.

    "Be conscious, people with disabilities"

    This is a very good point. If you are narcoleptic, please ensure that you have an assistant armed with a stick. Falling asleep is the prerogative of the audience, not the speaker.

  30. Robert Reinman says:

    I really enjoyed your advice and tips BUT there is one MAJOR improvement that could be made to PowerPoint. The basic concept is to allow more functionality of control for objects on the slide. I am sure you are familiar with MS PictureIt program and how objects appear in a "film strip" on a side panel and the ease with which they can be sequenced, grouped, cut, etc. especially if "layered". So lets say such a "feature" could be added to PowerPoint what frustration and time saved, especially if one is trying to manipulate graphics/objects that are "buried" in a lower "layer".

  31. Robert Reinman says:

    Currently, PowerPoint will recognize a PictureIt! png file as as a "grouped" object. What would be nice is to have a choice in PictureIt! for a PowerPoint size dimension format that could be "imported" into PowerPoint AND have PowerPoint recognize the imported file as to being "grouped"  or as "individual objects" contained within a single imported file. How nice that would be!

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