PowerPoint elegance for absolute beginners
March 18, 2012 6:58 PM   Subscribe

I have given hundreds of lectures to audiences of all sizes and compositions, but I have never given a PowerPoint lecture. Help a complete novice do a great job the first time.

I've been invited to give a big public university lecture to a general (non-technical) audience. Great! I have plenty to say. But here's the thing. In my field (mathematics) we give talks by going up to the blackboard, writing on the blackboard, and talking. For this lecture, I'm expected to project slides on the screen while I talk. What are the absolutely basic presentation dos and donts for a non-technical lecture to a university audience on a scientific topic? (I am not committed to PowerPoint, so "you should be using application XXXX, you fool!" is also an OK answer.)
posted by escabeche to Computers & Internet (35 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: It just occurred to me that one useful thing would be to link to examples of presentations you consider exemplary.
posted by escabeche at 7:02 PM on March 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

I highly recommend this.
posted by 4ster at 7:11 PM on March 18, 2012 [8 favorites]

Keep the amount of text and semi-technical information on each slide brief, and do not read the text verbatim to your audience. This is key; you should be rehearsed enough to be able to extrapolate on each slide, but not so rehearsed that it sounds like you memorized a script.

Are you familiar with the functions of PowerPoint in general? I would stay away from text animations, slide transitions, abrasive text colors, etc, and if possible, commission somebody to create a nice, streamlined custom slide template series for you so it doesn't look like you've just pulled something from the annals of Microsoft Clip Art. I would recommend Keynote because its templates are much more visually appealing and not as overused in university circles yet.

What's your set up? Will you have a computer next to you at a podium, will you be working off an iPad or iPhone, or will you be sitting down and clicking through the slides? How long will the presentation be and how dense is the material you'll be speaking about?
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 7:13 PM on March 18, 2012

You might want to have a look at Prezi. I study remotely and I'm noticing more lecturers are using it than Powerpoint now. If it is useful for you or not depends on what you are wanting to present, I guess.
posted by Trivia Newton John at 7:15 PM on March 18, 2012

I present better with a remote.
Do not read from the slides please.
Birds is correct
2nd Keynote
2nd I think transitions and animations are tacky.

I'm sure you will do well!
posted by ibakecake at 7:16 PM on March 18, 2012

You are probably going to give a better presentation than a lot of people who are PowerPoint "experts"! A lot of people who are proficient in the program assume that the PowerPoint will be the presentation. You are the presentation, the PowerPoint is just a visual aid.

Here are my basic dos and donts:
  • Don't use crazy fonts and colors. Stick to the basics - there are some good themes in the program.
  • Don't use a different transition for each slide. In general, ignore the bells and whistles.
  • Don't write everything you're going to say on the slide. In your case, you may just have diagrams and put what you plan to say in the Notes at the bottom (instead of on the screen) in case someone would like a copy. Lots of text = people ignore you and read the text.
  • Definitely practice starting and stopping your presentation. The most painful part of many presentations is the presenter fumbling to start the slideshow. I use keyboard shortcuts (but if you plan to, know if you'll be using your computer or a different OS)
Here's a funny stand-up comedy routine about bad PowerPoints which should be required viewing for PowerPoint newbies.
posted by beyond_pink at 7:17 PM on March 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

You might like these videos.

They're designed to teach people the do's and don'ts of research presentations, so not exactly the same thing as lectures to the general public, but a lot of the ideas will apply.

Among the key points are not to overdo it with Powerpoint, and to use a blackboard when that is actually a better way to communicate.
posted by philipy at 7:19 PM on March 18, 2012

You should be using Beamer, you fool!
posted by madcaptenor at 7:20 PM on March 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

- Don't cram a lot of information on one slide. It's better to have 50 slides with good, short nuggets on info vs. 20 slides with paragraphs of text. I've noticed the quicker you go through each slide, the more people pay attention.
- Don't feel like you have to get crazy with effects, different fonts, etc. Pick a fairly conservative template, and keep it simple.
- Things like calendars, complicated charts, etc. don't really work well. If the font or detail is too small, no one is going to read it.
- Pictures are worth a thousand words.
- Have a slide at the end with your contact info, people will want copies of the deck.
- Practice your presentation a couple of times, hopefully with the same equipment you'll have at the actual event. Technical difficulties suck.
- Try not to have anything on a slide you'll need to point to because...how will you actually point to it?
- Watch the contrast. Yellow on white, grays on blacks, don't project well.
- Do NOT use Comic Sans.
posted by SoulOnIce at 7:21 PM on March 18, 2012

The link I gave before opens in Mefi to one video, but it's part of a series. You can see the whole series by visiting the URL, or clicking here.
posted by philipy at 7:23 PM on March 18, 2012

Response by poster: Answers to Birds: I'm assuming I'll have my laptop with me, but I haven't discussed this with the organizers. The talk is an hour. The material has some pie charts and perhaps tables of numbers but no algebraic formulas, if that's an indication of density. A remote sounds great (I'm most comfortable walking around a lot during my talks) but I don't really understand what it means -- is this some kind of peripheral I'd have to go to the Apple Store and buy before my talk? Re slide format: I made the background kind of light blue and just have black sans serif plaintext on that, is that OK?
posted by escabeche at 7:24 PM on March 18, 2012

For mathematics: 1 equation per slide. Maximum. The danger with powerpoint is that you go too fast. When you are writing an equation on the board, it takes time, and people have a while to think about it before you even start talking. When the equation is already up there, you somehow need to give them the time to think about it anyway. That's a skill to do with how you design the talky bit of your talk.
posted by lollusc at 7:26 PM on March 18, 2012

Sorry: cross-posted with your reply, so I didn't see that you won't have formulas.
posted by lollusc at 7:27 PM on March 18, 2012

Look at the Steve Jobs product introduction videos on Youtube. The general style is
a) you discuss something leading to a point
b) slide reveals the point
c) speak to add to and expand upon point

Or in other words, don't put up a slide and discuss what is on the slide then repeat.
posted by caclwmr4 at 7:35 PM on March 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

Hunh. I am a mathematician, and I can't remember the last time that I saw someone give a lecture (except in class) without using powerpoint/keynote. (Ok, actually, I can, and it was fairly horrible.) Haven't you at least seen math talks using powerpoint? What did you like/dislike?

I don't know what your field is; one of the reasons that I use powerpoint so extensively is that I'm a geometer and I need to use lots and lots of pictures. And I'm not claiming that I'm the world's best mathematics powerpoint lecturer or anything. However: here's what I try to keep in mind.

--Use a plain font and a plain background. My usual setup is a white background with Helvetica, or Helvetica Neue or something. The only problem is that then my LaTeX font doesn't always match my word font, but I don't typically have much in the way of embedded math.

--Stick to one, reserved transition. On Keynote, I use "dissolve" between slides, set fairly quickly. I have been known to use a special transition, for one slide, once, to make a point. (Like a page flip to transition between sections. But probably that was a mistake.)

--Stick to one, low-key animation, only if necessary. For example, the overhead striptease can be achieved in powerpoint as well, but don't have each word or each bullet flashing in with lightbulbs. Save that---if you dare---for the main theorem in your talk. (I wouldn't, actually, unless you thikn you really want to...)

--Try to be boring in your slide construction. You want to excite folks with your content, not your silly powerpoint dazzle.

--Don't write too much on one slide. Seriously.

--keep things big.

--If possible, have a picture/graphic on each slide. At least, something for the eyes to lock on to.

--If you're in a hurry and want to simulate a complicated graphics animation, you can always do the "duplicate slide and add just one thing" trick; then when you transition through it looks like you're just adding stuff on.

The Apple Keynote addresses (which I think were created using Apple's Keynote program, their version of PowerPoint) are really, really slick in terms of how they're put together. it might be worth watching one to think about what choices they're making for what to put on the slides. (They go for a very minimalist approach that I don't have the discipline to do.)

I'm a mac user, and I really like Keynote. It's easier to get things to line up, and it's possible to do some fairly complicated/sophisticated animations without training. If you need formulae, there's a program called LaTeXit that lets you compile a couple lines of LaTeX and then drag and drop into the Keynote file. It can be useful.

Kensington makes a nice (but not cheap) remote that has a remote you hold and a thing that plugs into your USB port. If you're in the Apple ecosystem and using Keynote, you can use your iPhone as a Keynote remote, which works just fine too, as long as there's wireless.

***Check your slides on the projector you'll be using, if possible. Lots of times, the projector is crap at colors, so what looked beautiful on screen is unintelligible when projected. (E.g, you can't tell the difference between the dingy supposed-to-be-red line and the dingy supposed-to-be-green line, that you'd planned to discuss in a critical part of the talk!)

I can't imagine that the university is not set up for you to use your laptop. Also, some folks bring the talk on a thumb drive, but then you have to hope there's the right program. I always use my own laptop.

(FWIW, I've successfully given math talks at conferences using Keynote and my iPad; it works just fine, although you can't use some of the super-spiffy (but likely not necessary) bells and whistles of Keynote on the computer.)

I'd be happy to send you a Keynote file of a math talk, if you think it'd be helpful. Just MeMail/email. (I can export to PowerPoint, but it's not as good.)

On preview, I know everyone in the world uses Beamer, but I don't, and I've seen a lot of really bad Beamer talks. But the general ideas for how to write a computer-mediated math talk still hold.
posted by leahwrenn at 7:37 PM on March 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, and I don't suppose I need to tell you this, because you have students too, but for god's sake, don't read your slides. If you find yourself tempted, take off some text!
posted by leahwrenn at 7:38 PM on March 18, 2012

Speaking only to the remote -- I have an older MacBook Pro and an iMac that both came with a remote. The remotes both work on my newer MacBook Pro (which didn't come with a remote). So before you buy one, you may be able to borrow one. There are some spiffy ones (not necessarily Apple Brand) that have the laser pointer built in too, but I usually just keep both in one hand.
posted by Tandem Affinity at 7:41 PM on March 18, 2012

If there is any possibility that you will be presenting from a source other than your laptop, do not, for any reason, try to embed movies in your presentation if you are using PowerPoint. If I had a dollar for every time I saw a presenter freak out because their movies didn't play, I would have a lot of dollars. It doesn't matter how many computers you test the presentation on before you go...if the computer you are presenting from has any quirks with video codecs (and Murphy's law says that it will), your video won't play correctly. It's not worth the stress to try to make it work...just plan not to include movies. If you are presenting from your own laptop and you have tested ahead of time that the movie will play, though, by all means have at it.

If you absolutely must have a movie, I recommend uploading to YouTube and linking it within your presentation.
posted by wondercow at 7:45 PM on March 18, 2012

Some good points above.

As much as it makes sense to do so, use images and minimal text.

It's a visual aid. Most of my slides probably have five words or fewer.
posted by maurreen at 8:10 PM on March 18, 2012

I'd strongly recommend reading this blog by Nancy Duarte and if you have time read Resonate and Slide:ology which are also by Duarte.
posted by livinglearning at 8:15 PM on March 18, 2012

Get there early so you can test and ensure that your PPT works and practice using laser pointer and/or remote.

E-mail the PPT to yourself as an attachment so that if all else fails (i.e. flash drives), you can download the presentation to whatever computer you need to use. Keep in mind that if you do the presentation on a Mac and then display it on a PC, there may be formatting changes, so try to use fonts that are shared between both. Even better if you can test your PPT on a computer of the opposite type before you give the talk, just to be sure.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 8:16 PM on March 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

You need Conference Presentation Judo
posted by anadem at 8:21 PM on March 18, 2012

There is a lot of good advice up above. I'd recommend keynote as well, the Showroom template has a very nice feel to it (one thesis defense I saw elicited quite a few comments on the quality of the font and background), LatexIt is 100% essential.

However, no one has mentioned my pet peeve. As a red-green color blind scientist, please please please don't use red to represent one kind of object / species / line / curve / whatever and green to represent the other. Statistically, 8% of your audience will not be able to understand your model / picture / whatever. It is on occasion infuriating (although often its just frustrating, but I get to give the speaker a hard time in informal talks).

Good luck, and have fun!
posted by bessel functions seem unnecessarily complicated at 8:35 PM on March 18, 2012 [3 favorites]

Powerpoint is almost always a disaster. I'd say try and skip the visuals altogether if you can. If not, use it only for ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY visuals -- i.e., functions that people have to be able to see, because you need to be able to point and say "see this double integral here," etc.

The last time I gave a presentation using powerpoint, it was a 20-minute talk, and I had 7 slides... four of which were blank. That's a tip: blank out the screen when you're not actively showing something, otherwise people will be distracted by it.

Super-super-advanced-a-list example of good powerpoint use: Larry Lessig's recent presentations (doubtless on youtube). But he's up there with Steve Jobs in terms of ability to use visuals and speak, and no novice will get there. I've experience in practicing law, political organizing, academia, and theatre, and consequently have been in front of countless audiences, and I'm only now thinking about daring that kind of stuff...
posted by paultopia at 9:08 PM on March 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

These two previous questions might be useful or at least fun:
Help me make the worst Powerpoint presentation and
Visual cliches for a canonically bad Powerpoint presentation?
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:51 PM on March 18, 2012

What I do is for each slide: think about what I want to say, and decide what I would like the audience to see as I say it.

This may seem obvious, but it helps me to avoid text heavy outline slides.

If you use lots of images you will be fine. If you have a complex image consider building it up one piece at a time.
posted by sesquipedalian at 4:19 AM on March 19, 2012

Lots of good advice above, especially: DON'T read the slides to your audience.

I help teach instructor courses in my field and will tell you: the world is filled with lecturers convinced they won't fall into this trap. And they do. Afterwards they are convinced they didn't read the slides. They read the slides! Classes HATE this.

Turn your back on the Powerpoint. Look at your students. Be familiar enough with what you want to tell them that it sounds off-the-cuff. Then the slides can function as little more than an outline for you (and will emphasize key points for your students).

Arrive early to make sure of the projector. Have your presentation on both a flash drive and a CD in case someone's IT Dept. won't allow them to use other people's flash drives.

Consider printing out the presentation if you want to glance (briefly!) at it from time to time to remind yourself of what's on the next slide. (Select "handouts" when you print or you'll get every slide on it's own page.)

Good luck !
posted by wjm at 4:22 AM on March 19, 2012

Suslick's semnar on seminars is 80% correct, which is more than can be said for a lot of things.
posted by lalochezia at 4:56 AM on March 19, 2012

All of the above advice is great. Just to answer your question, yes Apple makes bluetooth remotes, or you could probably get a non-Apple one somewhere too. And I would never again give a presentation without one!
posted by radioamy at 7:23 AM on March 19, 2012

Three major, yet simple parts of the presentation
1. Tell the audience what you are going to tell them.
2. Tell them.
3. Tell them what you told them.

Keep PP slides to a maximum of 6 lines of text. Four is better.
Limit graphs to two per slide, unless they are very simple comparisons.
Remember to limit fonts. Plain, Bold, Italic of one font is all you should need
Use color as your co-presenter. Only change colors to emphasis important or different subjects. i.e. don't use a different color for headlines and subheads and text. That's what bold and italic are for.
remember the contrast of a projected image is different than what you see on your screen. Those two shades of blue, or blue on black may seem OK on your screen but will be illegible when projected.
posted by Gungho at 9:21 AM on March 19, 2012

I had to give a presentation to land a job. I read Beyond Bullet Points and my audience was pretty blown away by the results. I got the job.
posted by jasondigitized at 9:59 AM on March 19, 2012

I use my PowerPoint as a 'parallel channel' to my spoken text.

Spoken text: presenting the subject in a verbal, linear way. PowerPoint: presenting the subject in a visual way; I also use it to communicate things like 'how does this thing that I'm talking about right now fit into the subject as a whole'.

As far as I use text on my slides it's text that's complementary to my spoken text. I mainly use diagrams, using animation to express things like the order in which events take place or cause and effect.
posted by rjs at 10:59 AM on March 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Lots of good points here. I second the no transitions, and keep the amount of text to a bare minimum (twitter.ppt rule: no more than 140 characters per slide). Also seconding not to be afraid to throw a blank slide in there if you want the audience to be listening to you at any point.

A few others (I go over PPT carefully in my grad classes, giving feedback on style, YMMV):

- be very cautious of using anything less than 20 point. It might look fine on your laptop yet be illegible at the back of the room (bigger rooms have bigger screens, usually, & vice versa, but you cannot count on that. I've found 20 point is a safe font size.) Also some projectors are still like 640 X 480 or something crazy and smaller is too fuzzy. And, brighter rooms need more contrast than darker ones. A big professional conference shouldn't have this problem but the idea here is to make sure your presentation is bulletproof and that means working to a lowest common denominator of projector capacities, room sizes, etc.

- if you have a header and bullet points, it does work well to use different colours for those.

- sans-serif fonts are easier to read in these settings - go verdana before times roman. But, if you are on a mac then often windows will sub in arial, and when it does, your text may change layout meaning text can flow off the side of the screen.

- be very careful with contrast. Laptop screens or monitors are brighter, so yellow on grey shows up fine at your desk and illegible on the projected screen, especially very large ones. Projected, you really need contrast. Yellow or light gold on dark blue works well. But too much contrast can also be a problem -- white on black and black on bright white are both harsh, and might even be counter-productive for people with severe astigmatism for example.

- for the same reason, don't use a background image. No matter how carefully washed out or chosen, there will inevitable be places where you lose contrast or legibility.

- some projector/screen setups will lose 5% or so of your screen off the sides. So don't format the slide with stuff right up against the edges. Yes, works on your laptop, but can lead to problems at the venue.

- some people suggest using previa or keynote -- that's fine, but check with the conference organizers first. If, as usual, you'll be asked for a file on a USB or emailed first, then you have no control over whether they have the right software installed or whether or not your file will translate into PPT. Like it or not, PPT is the standard. If you're presenting off your own laptop, then use whatever you want I guess.

- if it's a small workshop or something, here is how to make handouts in PPT. Don't use the built in printo-handout function. Select Print, then "black and white" (greyscale and colour are disasters for printing unless you are doing so yourself and can control). Then "Copies and Pages" and "Layout" and choose say, six sheets per page. Choose "double hairline" border. Then "save as PDF". It's a slight hassle versus the built in, but it produces dramatically better handouts. The above is for a mac.

- Animations! OK, some people are saying don't use. That's too extreme. Sometimes you may have a picture and you want to point out key aspects in sequence. Making arrows or circles appear can be very effective. Make sure the arrows are thick and good contrast. I know this is going to be a math paper for which I have no experience but perhaps you show a formula or something. If you want to point out key aspects of this then judicious use of animations is fine.

OK, like I said, these are rules of thumb for making a conservative and bulletproof slide presentation, not a sexy one.
posted by Rumple at 11:01 AM on March 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

On remotes: when no dedicated remote is available I've just used my wireless mouse. Mine is small enough that it fits in my palm easily, and I just click the mouse button when I want to move on to a new slide.
posted by col_pogo at 3:05 PM on March 19, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks, everybody. i found the remote for my Mac, I used almost all images with few words, and I think the talk was a big hit!
posted by escabeche at 9:55 PM on March 29, 2012

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