How to make an effective PowerPoint presentation

Hi there, if you’ve reached this page by searching on Google for “How to make an effective PowerPoint presentation” you’ll also be interested in my Guide How to make an Effective PowerPoint Presentation.

I asked a number of experts for their tips on how to make an effective PowerPoint presentation. Follow these tips and you’ll be able to create simple and clear PowerPoint slides.

1. Plan your content first

Many experts warned about the dangers of planning your presentation in PowerPoint:

Ellen Finkelstein: Many people start the process of creating a presentation in PowerPoint, by entering text on the slides. Bad idea. The content should drive the design.

Bert Decker: The end result is totally PowerPoint driven, and we have information without influence and data without emotion.

So the most important recommendation is to plan your content first. This recommendation came up time and time again. In some cases, it was the only recommendation that contributors made:

Joey Asher: Here’s what I’d like to see going forward. Let’s start creating presentations by taking out a blank sheet of paper and writing down what we want to accomplish and what our audience cares about.

Geetesh Bajaj: Always start your presentation on paper — draw your ideas, link relationships between concepts, and create a storyboard.

George Torok: The first thing that presenters need to do is to ask these important questions before creating their presentation. What’s the purpose of your presentation? What do you want you audience to do because of your presentation? What message do you want to deliver that will help you achieve that purpose?

2. Use a plain background and remove any unecessary detail

Delete that powerpoint template. Powerpoint templates come from the mindset that PowerPoint slides are like documents and so should be branded. Templates add clutter and distract from the visual impact of a slide. Here are just 3 suggestions representative of those made:

M J Plebon: Let the majority of people start creating with a clean white canvas.

Jeromy Timmer: All of the standard Microsoft PowerPoint templates stink. Horribly. The ones that aren’t completely awful are so overused that they’ve become a cliche. Don’t use any of them.

Christophe Harrer: When it comes to slide design, you shouldn’t think of decoration, but of communication. Everything you add to your slides should have a positive impact on the message you are communicating. This is why I always use a very simple design theme for my slides.

The research

There is no direct research on the use of templates in PowerPoint. However, there is research that shows that any material (pictures, sounds or information ) which is not conceptually relevant to the topic harms learning.

Cliff Atkinson: The fundamental research results remain as true in 2009 as in 2008 – removing extraneous information from a screen actually increases learning.

Jennifer Kammeyer: PowerPoint with irrelevant pictures can be detrimental to learning (Bartsch, R.A. & Cobern, K.M. (2003). Effectiveness of PowerPoint presentations in lectures. Computers & Education, 41, 77-86.)

What about corporate templates?

Just about every organisation has a template that you’re supposed to use when you create a PowerPoint presentation. The idea behind this is well-intentioned. Artistically-challenged staff can get into a horrible design mess with no guidance. But corporate templates tend to include a lot of distracting extraneous detail. Check out this example from Skype (thanks to Jan Schultink for highlighting this one).


If you can get away with it, simply use a plain background based on your corporate colours. Jeromy Timmer suggests:

You can still incorporate your brand into your presentation material. Create a color palette based on your logo or on a photo representative of your industry. My favorite tool for this is Kuler.

You can allow yourself a small understated logo in a corner – such as in this background from Duarte.


3. One idea per slide

So now you have your plain background instead of a cluttered and distracting PowerPoint template. Use each slide to express one idea:

Ellen Finkelstein

Presenters can completely transform their presentations from boring bullets to high-impact visuals by putting one point on a slide.

Robert Lane

Presenters must assure that slides follow good cognitive design principles. Something as simple as having only one main idea per slide makes a huge difference.

The research

Michael Alley is the lead researcher in this area. His research suggests that the idea  should be expressed as a full sentence. Jennifer Kammeyer says:

Alley (et. al.) found that students were better able to recall the main assertion of slides when presented with a full-sentence headline written as an assertion compared to a word or phrase headline. Alley, M., Schreiber, M., Ramsdell, K., & Muffo, J. (2006). How the Design of Headlines in Presentation Slides Affects Audience Retention. Technical Communication, 53, 225-234.

Michael Alley reiterates this in his contribution to this project:

Fewer words on each slide (ideally one sentence headline, no more than two lines, that states the assertion of the slide).

4. Support the headline with graphic evidence

Instead of bullets, support your points with graphic evidence. This can include photos, images, charts and diagrams.

Christophe Harrer: Say the words and put the visuals on your slides.

Lisa Braithwaite: Support your points with creative and relevant images.

Michael Alley: Use graphics rather than bullet lists to support the headline.

The research

Richard Mayer calls this the Multimedia Principle: Use words and graphics rather than words alone. This is backed up by research on e-learning. In his book co-authored with Ruth Clarke “E-Learning and the Science of Instruction”, Richard Mayer looks at the results of ten different studies comparing the performance of students who learned from words plus graphics, or words alone:

In all ten comparisons, students who received a multimedia lesson consisting of words and pictures performed better on a subsequent transfer test than students who received the same information only in words.


These studies concern e-learning, not PowerPoint. However Richard Mayer does consider that these studies are relevant to PowerPoint. In his contribution to this project, he says:

For the past 20 years, my colleagues and I at the University of California, Santa Barbara have been conducting scientifically rigorous experiments aimed at determining what works with multimedia presentations. My hope for the future is that the results of this research can be used to improve the effectiveness of PowerPoint messages.

5. You don’t always need a slide

Not every point in your presentation needs a slide:

Andrew Lightheart: You only need a visual aid in a presentation if you would need one in conversation.

Michael Alley: Slides should be projected only when they serve the presentation.

What do you do when you’re not showing a slide? You insert a plain black slide into your slideshow.

Bert Decker: This is a simple concept, and yet it is profound when you use it all the time. It’s a game changer!

Or maybe, PowerPoint is not the most appropriate tool at that time in your presentation.

Lisa Braithwaite: Just like no one person can meet all of your relationship needs, no one tool can meet all of your presentation needs. I like to use flip charts with or without PowerPoint; flip charts used to sketch out an idea, get input from the audience or provide a group activity keep a presentation lively. There’s movement, there’s interaction, there’s problem solving, and the activity is spontaneous, created on the spot.

6. Put detail in the handouts

This was the item that was recommended the most times! If you want to follow best practice, simply printing out your PowerPoint slides to create a handout is no longer an option. Here are some of the views:

Mike Pulsifer: Well-designed slides are terrible handouts since they lack the on-slide text necessary to form an informative narrative. [Create] handouts that are distributed after the presentation.

Cliff Atkinson: Your handouts [are] the repository for detailed information.

Simon Raybould: [Have] well-written hand-outs to leave behind after the presentation for those who want to know the whys and where-fores. These will have to be different from the slides of course!

The research

I’m not aware of any research specifically on this point. But given that research indicates taking detailed text off the slides, creating handouts for detailed information makes sense.


This post is part of a group writing project I ran in 2009. Here are all the contributions:

  1. A list of all the blogposts  with a one or two sentence summary of each post.
  2. A list of all the blogposts with quotes from each post.
  3. The e-mail contributions that I received quoted in full. These are from Cliff Atkinson, Guy Kawasaki, Julie Terberg, Michael Alley, Nancy Duarte, Richard Mayer and Seth Godin.

And here are the other posts:

  1. PowerPoint Slide Design: Does Design Matter?
  2. Simplicity versus detail in powerpoint slide design.
  3. The most promising slide technology for 2009.
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