Chris Philpot TV Production & Digital Marketing

I ♥ PowerPoint

Originally published on my personal blog on the 14th of February 2013.

Every now and then, the internet's flavour of the month (or perhaps “meme of the moment”) is not a Korean man dancing or a flying Pop-Tart pussycat. Instead we netizens collectively guffaw at dubious Photoshop work, such as promotional literature and magazine adverts suffering from mutilated faces, misplaced limbs, and hands where hands should not be.

Unsurprisingly, comments on such images often tease the artists responsible for their creation. You don't find many people blaming the image-editing software that was used whilst remarking, “Wow, Adobe really dropped the ball on this one!” Yet when we endure a dull presentation, we tend to judge not the speaker, but rather their slideshow program. Invariably this is Microsoft PowerPoint, a software package with a seriously crummy reputation – one which it does not deserve at all.

Most PowerPoint presentations are raw and unrefined

Take a typical nervous public speaker, tasked with creating a killer presentation. My metaphorical speaker starts by populating a PowerPoint, and it makes sense to break their topic into subheadings and give each its own slide. These become individual notes pages, filled with detailed longhand prose. Now this should be the perfect basis for their presentation's script; just simplify the copy and paste it into the slide notes, and leave key points on the slides themselves. But no. Instead, this single bullet point and its associated wall of text is read out verbatim, word by painstaking word. (Award bonus points if the font size is 10pt or less, and/or the text is black on navy blue for minimum contrast.)

This is by far the most common PowerPoint problem that I see. The solution is to put yourself in an audience member's shoes (preferably the individual furthest from the screen) and then practice, practice, practice. Even if the example above had featured a superb slideshow, it wouldn't make up for a poor speaker – though it could of course help them out.

Showing all of that text on screen at once takes the speaker's eyeline away from the audience. This immediately reduces engagement, whilst also encouraging the audience to read ahead and lose interest in ideas raised orally. Alternatively, displaying short bullet points one-by-one as the script reaches the relevant place would instantly return focus to the live speaker. This technique ensures a logical, flowing presentation – and once these basics are mastered, that PowerPoint can be pretty as a picture, too.

PowerPoint is simple yet feature-rich – and nowadays, it looks great

Whilst working for a corporate events company in Brighton, I was supplied with a presentation to be shown on a super-sized screen at an awards ceremony and tasked with refining it and adding a little pizzazz. I quickly realised that although the presentation was sizable with over 100 different slides, its structure was largely cyclic. Each category had one slide showing the award title, and another to introduce the award giver, then a slide for each nominee, and finally one with a photo of the winner.

By breaking the presentation down into its core elements, I was able to assign each type of slide a 3D transition which instantly raised its impact. We can be fearful of animation within presentations, and it is tempting to make effects very fast to alleviate the pain! This whizz-bang approach often renders a slideshow distracting. In the context of the awards event, each slide was accompanied by at least 30 seconds of live speech – my three second transitions might've ambled in a board meeting but here they had time to breathe. Being 3D, they added significantly to the television-esque ceremonial spectacle.

My tip when building a visually impressive presentation is really get to know your slideshow. Do animations start automatically, or are they triggered by user interaction? Does one animation finishing prompt another to begin? If you're saving the slideshow to your USB drive or Dropbox to show remotely, is the hardware you'll be using on the day capable of rendering animations smoothly? (Worse still, are you designing for PowerPoint 2013 when on site you'll be using PowerPoint 2003?)

Perhaps the most important question of all is: do the animations or effects in your PowerPoint strengthen the points you are making, rather than distracting from them? If not, simplify.

Who said you can only create slideshows? Make games or even movies!

I honed my PowerPoint skills back in secondary school on numerous class projects. One in particular that sticks in my mind was in Year 10 Science with Mrs Rimmer. Keen to get us revising for our GCSEs despite the inherit tedium associated with such activities, we were tasked with creating board games based around questions from the curriculum. Being a game show geek I took this a step further and used PowerPoint to design a selection of bonus rounds from Catchphrase – remember the grid of squares with a puzzle hidden beneath? – with scientific solutions.

Sadly, I can't find a copy of that presentation (the computer it would have been made on is long gone) but a rummage through the virtual vault unearthed a contemporaneous Deal or No Deal game that entertained my long-time friend and occasional collaborator Luke.

An interactive Deal or No Deal game in a PowerPoint slide
The 66 custom animations on this slide may be impressive, but they can't make up for taking out £250,000 in your first box.

Meanwhile, YouTube user Blastoons was a finalist in the video site's 'Project:Direct' competition back in 2009 with the short film 'Joiners'. This four-and-a-half minute animated love story was one of the more unusual entrants, as it was produced entirely within PowerPoint.

OK, so obviously your next board meeting or academic presentation won't benefit from a gold lame jacket and a musical interlude, but this does show the true scope of an oft maligned software package. You could certainly employ the techniques in those examples to add emphasis to key facts or data.

In conclusion, Microsoft PowerPoint is perhaps not quite as quick to master as its brethren within the Microsoft Office family. Once you do get the swing of it you'll find limitations, annoyances and quirks – for the market leading software, it's not as all-encompassing as the big guns from the worlds of image and video editing. But it strikes a happy medium, and some of PowerPoint's idiosyncrasies are merely a motivation to think outside the box to achieve your presentational goals.