10 simple tips for creating better-looking presentations

During a conference a few months ago, I decided to note down the most common mistakes in people’s presentations. The resulting list of tricks and quick fixes is far from comprehensive, but it may help you improve the effectiveness of your slides without much additional cost (apart from the final one).

1. Make images BIG

If possible, show images full screen and try to add little or no text to the slide. This is an incredibly simple way to make your presentation more effective, because:

  • People sitting in the back might not be able to see small images as well as you did, when made your slides sitting in front of your computer.
  • Full screen images can break a stream of text slides and create some variation, helping the audience to stay attentive.
  • People are better at listening to your words when they are looking at non-verbal content (see also point four).
  • It just looks good, with zero design effort.

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2. Align text in only one way

Many Powerpoint and Keynote templates center the heading, but that doesn’t look too nice combined with left-aligned body text. Better stick to one kind of alignment, and if you are not sure which, use left alignment. Yes, it might look a bit boring, but it is also easy for the eye to scan and looks solid. If you really want to play with left and centre alignment, do it for a reason and in a way that matches the content (see image).

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3. Don’t put content on the bottom part of the slide

Why waste good screen space? Because your audience might not be able to see it (see image). Try not to put any important content on the bottom third, and keep essential content on the top half. If you feel you need the bottom part of your slide, you probably have too much content on your slide anyway (see next point).

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4. Use as little text as needed to support your story

If you put lots of text on the slide, many people try to read it all (and not listen to you). Or worse, they may ignore the slide and read nothing at all. Stick to the most important message, leave the rest for you to talk about. If you really have to put a lot of content into one slide, consider making the chunks of info appear as you talk about them, so the audience isn’t reading ahead of you.

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5. Reduce bullet points where possible

Ah yes, bullet points: the most ubiquitous feature of many a presentation. We can probably do with a few less of them, if only to make the slides feel a little less heavy. So why not remove them: some strategic spacing can do the trick as well. And remember: if you have a single point on your slide, NEVER use a bullet point (a list of one isn’t really a list, is it?).

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6. Don’t use more than one font

Combining the wrong fonts is a sure way to make your presentation look messy. If you find it hard to mix and match, simply don’t use more than one font. Instead, vary with font weight, size and shade (maybe occasionally italics). Don’t use multiple colours unless you have a good reason and know how to mix colours well. There is really no need for it, most of the time.

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7. Try white text and graphics on a black background

This is a smart trick I have seen some designers use when they need to put together a presentation quickly. White text on a black background feels quite stylish, especially when used with a clean font like Helvetica. It works especially well when projected, because it will hide the edge of the projection, making it look like only the text is projected. Without the edge, composition of content within your slide also becomes less sensitive. Simply align all content to the left for a classic, clean look.

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8. Don’t even think about using…

… Clip Art, Comic Sans or Word Art. This is not the 90s anymore, no matter how badly you wish it was. If you want to communicate some concepts visually, have a look at the free (when attributed) icons at thenounproject.com. For text, it’s safe to stick with pre-installed classics like Arial/Helvetica, Palatino and Lucida Sans. If you want something different, have a look at the (mostly) free goods at a quality font site like fontsquirrel.com.

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9. In doubt, stick to a template

Afraid that you will make a mistake in font size, maintaining sufficient contrast or alignment? Just stick to a program template. They aren’t the prettiest, but they at least provide a good basic structure. Best stay away from the “Ancient Roman” and “funky” themes, and just stick with the black on white or white on black (see point seven).

10. Need something really good? Get a designer.

This is the one tip in the list that will cost you money, but seriously: consider it. If you have a small or medium-sized business, chances are your presentation is the first visual representation of your company people see. If you get a designer to create your website and business card, why not your presentation? Get a designer who knows how to build templates for PowerPoint or Keynote, and you will be able to use it over and over again. Don’t forget to ask them for some tips as well!

Let’s extend the list!

Do you have any tricks you use to make your presentations prettier and more effective? Share your tips below in the comments.