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Selling with PowerPoint: Taking Control of That Critical First Meeting

How to make truly horrendous PowerPoint Slides.


Ray Blake Ray is Head of Software Design at GR Business Process Solutions, a UK-based business which provides specialist services around knowledge testing and skills assessments. He develops and sells Excel, Access and Visual Basic applications, both as off-the-shelf products and as custom jobs to meet specific client needs.

The website he maintains for his company GR Business Process Solutions contains a range of articles of interest to Office developers, and a page of RAQs (‘Rarely Asked Questions’) on Excel and Access.

With three sons all under the age of 6, he gets little time for interests of his own, but seems to get dragged into each of theirs. Consequently, he has built up an impressive knowledge of young persons’ literature, mostly surrounding the adventures of rodents and other small mammals. Although not proud of the fact, he can also name each of the Wild Force Power Rangers. Repairing toys and replacing batteries are activities he has learned to undertake in his sleep.

Let me take you back to the days of my childhood in the 1970’s. In many ways, this was a more carefree time, of course. People had respect for their elders, the village bobby was always welcome for a chat at the garden gate, pop records had real tunes and you could understand the words.

Back then, there were 3 channels on the TV and the programmes for us children would run out before the 6 o’clock news. Many’s the day when the strains of the Captain Pugwash closing theme would fade out and the strident chords of the BBC News bulletin would cruelly break in long before I was sated. In desperation I’d watch the opening minute or two of the news in the hope that there might today be a special version for children with cartoon characters.

The daily disappointment was sometimes tempered when the shot cut from a talking head to something cooked up by the BBC Graphics department. It might be some bullet point text listing the key points from the budget, or some stick men, boats and fish depicting the day’s manoeuvres in the Cod War. But always I’d stare in awe at these screens, marvelling at the technology which allowed such things to be brought to us in full, black and white glory.

Nowadays, of course, this god-like power is easily available to all of us, thanks to PowerPoint and products like it. Sadly, though, this is rarely backed up by the sort of design aptitude and formal layout training that I’m sure the BBC Graphics department used to insist on for its staff. Not to put too fine a point on it, the majority of PowerPoint presentations we are all now subjected to contain some of the most heinous design crimes since the ‘Vision On’ Gallery closed its doors.

I’d like to share with you some of the most widely-perpetrated of those crimes, through examining some slides I’ve gritted my teeth to create specially for the purpose of lambasting. If, whilst looking at these slides and reading my diatribes, you spot some of your own sins, then please be reassured that there is not a single error I will highlight here that I have not at some time made myself; indeed, I am in several respects a multiple recidivist. Console yourself also with the thought that I have no formal design training either, and that this critique represents merely the opinions and prejudices of a man who has already freely admitted to an attachment to children’s television from the early 1970s.

That being said, let’s start with a truly hideous example of what is possible in PowerPoint. Have a look at Exhibit A.

Exhibit A: So much to say, so little room

So, where do we start with this one? This slide has a number of errors:

  1. I think the first point is that the sidebar and the slide title are vying for attention quite loudly. It’s a battle that either of them could win, but your text stands little chance of scoring a hit in such heavy crossfire!
  2. And speaking of that sidebar, it has stolen a good 20% of your screen space. Up on the wall, that’s a huge acreage which you can’t use for anything else.
  3. Your logo is also cramping your space. Without the contrived short bullet at the bottom, you’ve lost another third of the remaining slide space. And what is that logo doing there on every slide? Do your people really need a constant reminder of who they work for or which company is presenting to them? A logo belongs only on your welcome slide. Have this showing for 10 minutes prior to the start of the presentation, and anyone wandering into the wrong room will as a result of your logo quickly realise their mistake and be on their way.
  4. Typographically, there’s a lot going on for a single slide, including text oriented at three different angles. As a general rule, no more than two fonts should be used per slide (one for the heading, one for body text) and these ought to be consistent between slides. Any orientation other than horizontal, left to right should be used very sparingly for extreme emphasis and only once on any one slide. If you need to know which fonts ‘go’ together, do a web search for ‘ font families’.
  5. And what about the words themselves? Do they support what you will say, or do they replace it? To appropriate an old analogy, a PowerPoint slide should be used rather as a drunkard uses a lamppost: for support, rather than for illumination. If your slide says everything you are going to, just send the slides and stay in bed. The first two points could have said just, “Lead generation” and “servicing” instead of stealing the speaker’s thunder entirely.
  6. When bullet points span more than one line like this, you should really put more white space in between them to make them stand out as individual items.
  7. That last bullet point says an awful lot about the speaker, and nothing that’s good. A skilful speaker will not need this pseudo-cheerful, pseudo-jokey prompt because he will have created a fun element already. An unskilful one will find that the only humorous response this bullet provokes is ironic and at his expense.
  8. While we’re on the subject of bullet points, they should be used sparingly. Slide after slide of the damned things are dreadfully tiring, ultimately resulting in a phenomenon known as ‘death by bullet point’ in which the audience’s attention leaves the room after three slides, followed after three more by their will to live.

Selling with PowerPoint: Taking Control of That Critical First Meeting

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since November 02, 2000