Wednesday, 13 January 2010

How to produce an awful PowerPoint Presentation

It’s hard to believe that little over a decade ago conference presentations were illustrated by 35mm slides and overhead transparencies, with all the incumbent problems of slides jamming in projectors, slides upside down or the wrong way round. Everything changed in the late 90s with the advent of PowerPoint, and overnight presentations became slick, professional, and, in many cases, very boring!

So how do you go about preparing an awful PowerPoint presentation? According to an article in Mining Man the best way to bore an audience is to read the text on your slide word for word.

This is the method often adopted by nervous, inexperienced presenters and I have seen some really awful examples, where slide after slide is full of text, which the presenter reads out verbatim. Don’t do this!! The problem is that we read faster than we talk, so the members of the audience are always one step ahead of the presenter who is droning on in the background. The golden rule, therefore, is to separate what you want to say from what is on your slides.

What other guidelines are there to producing a presentation which will truly irritate an audience, and hopefully bore them to tears? My particular suggestions would be:

1. Show the audience how clever you are, and how well you know the technology and features of PowerPoint. Don’t be subtle about the way you introduce text and figures into a slide. Cut them into small chunks and have them flying into the slide from various angles without warning.

2. Make use of all the colours that PowerPoint can offer. Forget the fact that black text on a yellow background stands out clearly, and is used on most airport signage. Try the nice pastel colours- pink on red looks very pretty, and don’t worry that it will be difficult for the audience to see the text clearly.

3. Make liberal use of the small fonts so that you can cram as much information as possible into tables, but always explain when presenting your slide “You probably won’t be able to see this at the back, but...”.

I would be grateful for comments on this posting, which will be used as an aid for MEI Conference speakers. I particularly welcome any further tips for producing appalling presentations!


  1. What about the Italian prof who used to use OHP's made from photocopies from his paper and a higlighter. Like a former boss, often preceded with "I know you cannot read this, but..."

  2. OHPs were a nightmare, particularly the hand-written scrawls which were totally illegible. The more eminent the speaker the worse the OHPs. I remember at the IMPC in Stockholm a very eminent American professor standing in front of the projector, with his overhead slides roughly a foot square on his shirt. The chairman never said a word!

    And, Gavin, do you remember a CSM lecturer who was always dashing to the projector and back because his 35mm slides were in the wrong order, upside down etc?

  3. Funny, but unfortunately all too often true. That phrase - "You probably won't be able to read this but..." I've heard applied to graphs, images, text and videos. If you thought I wouldn't be able to read it, why is it on there? Give it to me in a hand out instead.

    Good advice in your three points, and thanks for the link back. I too am interested in more discussion on this topic from the people that are having to sit through PowerPoint nightmares.

    To put my optimist's hat on - at least if the audience can't read anything on your slides, they will be giving you their full attention!!

  4. Awesome tips! You've expressed some very important things to stay away from when presenting. We'd love to hear more PPT tips at

    MSFT Office Outreach

  5. One of my favourites is timing. Don't forget to have at least 100 slides available for a 20 min presentation forgetting the fact that you can usually bank on about 1 min per slide. That way, you can speed throught the results and conclusions when the session chairman starts getting a bit irate and no one will notice your conclusions are probably rubbish anyway!!

  6. don't forget to include long complicated calculations and formulae derivations - guaranteed to keep the audience groaning in anticipation!!

    I had a lecturer (no names here...) who used to photocopy onto OHP slides and used all available space irrespective of angle and orientation....ahhh the good old days!

  7. I remember that Lecturer well...

    The timing issue is one that took me around 5 years from the first presentation to solve. I was that guily person - with 30 ohps for a 15 minute paper (never mind - it always got rid of the awkward 10 minutes for questions!)

    I found that the following helped;
    - practice and confidence
    - knowing the subject better than most there
    - practicing sevral times, with a stopwatch and sometimes a critical friend
    - short punchy slides
    - notes on own copy of slides (and reminders not to wander off subject)
    - deciding in advance what information I want to highlight and what message(s) I must give and sticking to the important stuff

    Given the examples we all had when we were at College and going to early conferences, I'm surprised there are any good presentations!

  8. Don't forget the delivery! Belittle the audience, get the in-jokes that only a few will get. Non-ownership of your own powerpoint content. Fill the page with bullets or text then read it out.

    A good way to check a presentation is to see if you can do it without the slides - is it a presentation or a lecture? Then add - the chart or the image, then maybe a bullet as a placeholder for your point. Start minimalist and work up so that you have something light and clean.
    And keep your voice monotone!

  9. Its been mentioned already, but use dark colors that cover the entire page making it impossible to copy in B/W and using up a full ink cartridge if you print it with an inkjet printer.

    Also use lots of pictures and a picture background to make the file so big that it fills up memory on an average PC and that it takes hours to email, if at all.

  10. The mistake I made when I prepared my very first presentation was using a computer with no speakers...Not only did I try to be clever with the appearance of my text/figures/next slide, but I found, when presenting, that these effects also had a sound associated with them. *cringe*

  11. It's 'death by bulletpoint' that has me fidgeting in my seat. Presenters - the pictures, schematics, animations and coming away from the podium and waving hands about isn't just for fun. It's because there are visual, auditory and kinaesthetic people in the audience!
    Spare a thought for us all please.

  12. Of course, you also have to impose transition hell (is that purgatory?). Unpredictable fades, fly-ins, distortions, dissolves, pixellations - and all accompanied by synthesised sounds - clicks, dings, etc. Guaranteed to divert the audience's attention from what you are actually saying.

  13. This is a slight tangent, but I do love this article on how to get your conference abstract rejected:

  14. Yes, nice one. What really annoys me, as we have around 6 conferences a year, is the abstract that arrives with no accompanying message, no indication of which conference it is intended for, and sometimes no title, or authors.

    Really puts me in a good mood for the day!

  15. A list:
    - graphics is a different location in each slide
    - headings which jump around / different fonts / bear no semblence to the topic
    - font which reveals itself as the speaker talks
    - graphics which are too big, hence cover entire slide
    - reading contents of a slide
    - slide transitions which differ with each slide (and worse still sound effects!)
    - jumping out of the programme through pressing a wrong button (use PowerPoint SHow instead)
    - PowerPoints prepared on one computer and presenter on another (missing fonts, glitches etc)



  16. I would caution against the advice to use small fonts. Guy Kawasaki has a good blog post about this - he calls it his "10/20/30" rule, meaning the whole presentation should contain no more than 10 slides, last no longer than 20 minutes and contain no font smaller than 30pt.

  17. Hi Richard

    I think you will find that my advice to use small fonts was not serious, but thanks for the very useful reference.

  18. All very good points! I would also add:

    - entire presentation written in capital letters (shout at your audience!)

    - accidentally setting the presentation to autoplay (and thus only giving yourself a few seconds per slide!)

  19. Once I showed up having copied the ppt folder to my laptop, just to find that none of the images were in the file. Somehow the genius that put the Power Point show together had kept them as images in a folder with references. When the folder was moved, all of the images were moved too. I could not fix it and the presentation was a flop.
    Keep it simple, put the images in the ppt file!


  20. Nice one Adam blaming the persone who did the presentation assembly for you!

    Actually it keeps it smaller for emailing around for review that way and is incidentally how most serious publication production software works, but hey...

  21. Presenting in a language foreign to the audience.......

    and combining this with saying in a broken translation:

    you probably cannot understand what I am saying, but don't worry you probably cannot see it either due to the micro font size.......

  22. ingenious or awful?

    I had a sales manager that claimed the offline folder synchronisation on his laptop had once again, "surprisingly" not worked meaning he had no powerpoint to give - leaving him no choice but to talk from memory.

    I am not sure who was more surprised me, him or the audience. interestingly it made us all attentive and "awake" - because the lights did not dim, the singing avatars did not dance across the blank screen and we all had to resort to engaging each other with meaningful dialogue to fill the 40 minutes. Meaning plenty of searching questions and revealing answers.

    Sometimes powerpoints simply get in the way of getting the message across and understood - and also in silencing the rapport and engagement.

  23. There ae some really good tips in this book I read recently.

    Little Green Book of Getting Your Way: How to Speak, Write, Present, Persuade, Influence, and Sell Your Point of View to Others (Hardcover)
    by Jeffrey Gitomer (Author)

    Publisher: Financial Times/ Prentice Hall (13 April 2007)
    Language English
    ISBN-10: 0131576070
    ISBN-13: 978-0131576070

    It's written for sales and marketting but my interest is high tech innovation evolvement and social networking. Behavioural economics is the latest area I'm trying to work out.

  24. forgot to add- - ALWAYS but ALWAY have a meaningless collage of at least 20 small images - to show you know how to save them from the web and spent at least an hour arranging them and aren't afraid of copyright! Roy

  25. And personally I can not wait for the rotating question mark at the end! The audiences are really studid - they need reminding when it is question time.

    And how about forgetting to start the slide show, and running through the entire presentation in "edit" mode! (Genuine - I've seen it!)

  26. This is a great post. I just had one of the ‘Doh!’ moments and ran back to correct my own site before publishing my comment. You see my own comment form did not match what I’m about to advice. I get less comment than you, so never noticed any problem. I’ve changed it now anyway so here goes.

    part time worker

  27. All great "what not to do" tips. Don't forget to save time by not worrying about all those pesky little technical issues beforehand, like power supply (esp when in a foreign country with different sockets / voltages), warming up the projector and sorting out cables etc. But my favourite is the presenters who don't set their laptop to use both screens (laptop and projector). Then you can really show your contempt for your audience by continually turning your back on them as you preach to and point to the projected image. And for the icing on the cake, mumble through the critical points while talking to the back wall, so that you are sure to frustrate even the most avid attendee !

  28. All said so far are very striking; it is not what is on the slide which is most important. Eyes can read much faster than what we can hear from the speaker. So keep the slide simple and pointed with some colours. Convey the contents on the slide(what you really want to emphasise) with confidence with a sprinkle of humour and conviction. At the end it is not what you know but how much of interesting points(message) one could convey.
    Suggest that one may read the presentations himself a number of times and also try on your colleagues before you make a formal presentation to audience with diverse interests and specialisations.

  29. It's a shame that the Governments scientific advisers did not look at this before the press conference last Saturday
    Sylvia Higginson, Castleton, UK


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