Last month in this space, I mentioned that we’re in the midst of “presenter season” here at Inside Self-Storage, wading in speaker proposals for our 2017 expo in Las Vegas. I provided a series of guidelines and tips for those interested in speaking at our conference or another industry event, based on my 18-plus years of experience in creating, soliciting and editing education content for the ISS brand. And I promised to return this month to specifically address the creation of a strong PowerPoint deck, as this is often the primary visual for any live or pre-recorded seminar. So let’s dive in.
First, let me say that while I have many years of practice in using the PowerPoint program and have built or edited hundreds of presentations for various ISS events and projects, I don’t consider myself an “expert.” I learn something new nearly every time I use the application, and there are no doubt people reading this blog who are better in the program than I. So if I’m mistaken in something I’ve written below or you have a suggestion or insight to share, please post in the comments section. We’re all just here to learn.
Also, what I’ve provided here is very broad-brush instruction. I won’t be walking through specific tasks or how-to’s, as there are countless technical resources within the program itself and online. What you’ve got below are several sound, general strategies as well as some etiquette, if you will, for creating an attractive presentation that will cleanly convey your message and make it easy for your audience to follow your speech.
Template. Every PowerPoint has a template, or slide master, that guides the overall design. This template will guide the format of the title slide and consecutive content slides, from font styles, sizes and colors, to indent structure, to bullet styles, to graphic placement and much more. You can build your own master or choose from hundreds of choices available from Microsoft as well as third-party vendors.
If you’re speaking at an ISS expo, you’ll be provided with a PowerPoint template that contains the appropriate branding as well as pre-set selections for fonts and colors that match the show’s overall look and feel. We do this to make things easier for our presenters, giving them a place to begin building their visual display, but also to create cleanliness and consistency among the event’s many seminars. Not only are these PowerPoints viewed on a large overhead screen during the live presentation, they’re distributed to our audience in PDF format and spliced into the seminar video recordings. In short, it’s extremely important that they be eye-catching, legible and reasonably uniform.
If you’re creating or choosing your own template for a non-ISS presentation, your best bet is to select something unpretentious and easy to read. While you may be tempted to go with an ornate design, in the end, you’ll make more work for yourself and your audience. Stick to the Navy’s KISS rule on this one (keep it simple, stupid).
Backgrounds. Again, there are many options. Pick a solid, not patterned, background. Your best choice is plain vanilla. I’ve heard some presenters argue that white is too stark, but people are accustomed to it. It’s the background they see when they read most content online and when they use Microsoft and other software programs. It’s clean, it’s simple, and it allows nearly every color to pop. It also makes things easier if you’re dropping in images that have white backgrounds. Finally, it saves ink for people who want to print out paper copies. (Yes, there are options in the printing profile to subvert the colored background; but if you’ve used white or light type, it will no longer be legible once the background disappears.)
Font styles, colors and sizes. There are thousands of fonts floating around the digital universe, and as a font junky myself, I know how very tempting it can be to choose artistic, creative options. Don’t do it. Many can be difficult to read, and you don’t want to cause your audience work or frustration. Again, keep it simple. Fonts like Arial, Calibri and Helvetica are excellent choices with high legibility and all the style options you’re likely to need (bold, italic, etc.). Also, stick to one font throughout. If you really want to use a second font for quotes or emphasis in various places, that’s fine; but more than two will look muddled.
When it comes to colors, use black or dark grey for the bulk of your copy and use color for accents like headlines or subheads. Large blocks of colored type are hard on the eyes and create a chaotic presentation overall. You can use a single accent color, or maybe two, but beyond that, you’re just creating more bedlam. Choose a bold, bright color that will be easy to read without being offensive. Forget about using light colors like yellow unless you plan to apply a shadow (and even this may not translate well on screen or paper).
There’s a lot of debate about how much content should appear on each slide and how large the type should be. You want the copy to be legible but not overbearing. Your reader should be able to absorb each slide quickly and easily without losing track of your dialog. If your slides contain tiny type, long swaths of text or elaborate graphics, you’re going to lose the viewer’s ear while he reads and deciphers. Unless you’re intending to pause and give time for absorption, this is just poor planning. You don’t want to compete with your own visuals for attention.
On the other hand, don’t insult your audience with enormous type. While you want to be sensitive to members of the audience who may appreciate or need it, strive for a happy medium. Those with vision challenges will know how to deal with them—there’s no need to cater to the lowest common denominator.
Animation. Animation in a PowerPoint is fun, right? Imagine text and images whirling in from right and left or magically materializing right before your eyes! Here’s the rule: Don’t use animation for its own sake. Ask yourself, what are you trying to accomplish? Is there something that truly requires emphasis or a great “punchline” you want to deliver? Those are suitable moments for the vibrancy animation can bring, but you don’t need swishing and swooshing on every slide. It can be distracting.
You also need to consider all the different ways your PowerPoint will be used. Animation may work fine on an overhead screen during a live event, but it doesn’t necessarily translate well to a PDF copy or video. If you do choose to animate, avoid layering, which can make it impossible to distill slides to a static format. Finally, always alert your host to the presence of animation, as it isn’t always obvious to reviewers and editors.
Here’s one last animation quick tip: If you’re flying in multiple pieces of copy—for example, items on a bulleted list—it isn’t necessary to build a separate text box for each. Just use a single text box, format your copy as usual, and then use the animation tools to number them the items in the order you want them to appear.
Charts and tables. PowerPoint contains amazing tools for building tables, charts and infographics, known in the program as SmartArt. These can give your presentation visual flair while summarizing important points in an organized, colorful way. Take advantage of these options. Just remember to keep them uncluttered and easy to read, just as you would for any other content. Size them appropriately for the slide. Finally, pay attention to text size and positioning within the various cells. SmartArt can be tricky to master, but with a little practice, you’ll find it’s a great way to add appeal and streamline.
Images. Photos are another great way to punch up a presentation, fill excessive white space or break up text. Just make sure you have the right to use any images you include—copyright laws apply. Unfortunately, PowerPoint no longer comes equipped with its own library of stock and clip art, but you can search for free images on Bing or subscribe to an image service like iStock or Shutterstock.
When it comes to images, PowerPoint is very forgiving, meaning you don’t need a high resolution for them to look nice. Even low-quality photos can be passable. That said, pay attention to how your images look. If they appear blurry, grainy or distorted, replace them. And don’t stretch images in a single direction to make them fit a space. If you need to increase or decrease the size, keep the aspect ratio in check.
Audio, video and other media. Some presenters like to incorporate media into their PowerPoints such as video or audio clips, PDF files or Web links. Before you insert any of these, confer with your event host to find out if the room where you’ll be presenting has Web access. If not, you won’t be able to do any online streaming unless you bring your own WiFi device. Even then, connection can be patchy, so it may be better to simply embed your files. In this case, you’ll load the file you want to access onto the same device as your PowerPoint and tell the program where to find it. Once embedded, the file should be accessible via a viewer, which will appear on the slide.
These are just a few general guidelines that will help you create cleaner, stronger, more effective PowerPoint presentations to accompany your self-storage and other speaking engagements. I hope you find them useful as you prepare materials for next year’s ISS Expo or any other event. Again, I invite you to share your own pointers and suggestions in the “Comments” field below.