Seven secrets of power presentations

If you’ve ever watched Steve Jobs deliver a keynote address, you’ve seen a master presenter in action. However, even a sparkling delivery won’t salvage your presentation if the audience can’t read your slides or decipher your charts. Read on, and find out how to avoid common blunders, using Apple’s Keynote 3 and Microsoft’s PowerPoint 2004.

Step 1: Trim text

Your audience has only a few seconds to read each slide, so save the wordy details for handouts. One way to limit the amount of text is to use bullet points featuring short phrases instead of sentences. There’s no hard-and-fast rule on how many bullet points to use, although I limit myself to five per slide.

To create bullets in Keynote, select the text to be modified, choose Text Inspector: Bullets, and then click on Text Bullets from the Bullets & Numbering pop-up menu. In PowerPoint, select the text to be modified, select Format: Bullets And Numbering, and then choose the bullet you want to use.

An even better method is to use a single, provocative sentence, an eye-catching image, or a combination of the two that you can talk about during your presentation. That way, your audience will spend less time reading and more time listening to you.

Step 2: Improve visibility

To dress up their slides, presenters sometimes choose fancy fonts and brightly colored backgrounds. But this can make slides less readable.

So save the unusual fonts for the family newsletter. Your slides should be as legible from the back of the room as they are from the front row. Use sans serif fonts such as Helvetica, Arial, or Gill Sans, since they’re easier to read, and make sure that the characters are at least 24-point type. Keynote splits up its text-editing functions: Select font and size via the Font window (Format: Font: Show Fonts, or press Command-T), and choose font colors via the Text Inspector, under the Text tab. In PowerPoint, press Command-T to edit size, color, and other text attributes.

Text should also stand out from the background. Bright backgrounds in dimly lit lecture halls can be hard on the eyes, so in those situations use light text on a dark backdrop (yellow on blue, for example). If given a choice, I prefer to keep the lights in the room on to maintain eye contact with my audience (and hopefully prevent people from dozing off). In bright surroundings, reverse the scheme — use dark shades for the text and light colors for the background.

To change backgrounds in Keynote, go to the Slide Inspector palette, click on the Appearance tab, and choose a background type (color fill, image fill, and so on) from the Background pop-up menu. In PowerPoint, select Format: Slide Background and choose a color from the Background Fill pop-up menu.

Step 3: Simplify backgrounds

Whether you use one of Keynote’s or PowerPoint’s built-in templates or create a design from scratch, avoid intricate backgrounds, as they tend to draw the audience’s attention away from your main message. If you use a picture or drawing, choose one that doesn’t overwhelm what’s in the foreground.

If you’re representing an organization, you may have to include a company logo on every slide. To keep it from becoming a distraction, consider stashing it in the bottom right corner of each slide and making it slightly transparent. First, drag the logo to where you want it. In Keynote, select the logo and move the Opacity slider at the bottom of the Graphic Inspector to the left. In PowerPoint, double-click on the logo to open the Format Picture dialog box; move the Transparency slider under the Colors And Lines tab to the right.


To change attributes such as the background in a jiffy, use master slides. Any alteration that you make to a master automatically applies to every slide that you created from that master. In Keynote, go to View: Show Master Slides, click on a master to make it appear in the slide window, and edit it. In PowerPoint, edit the slide master by going to View: Master: Slide Master.

Step 4: Use high-quality graphics

Presenters sometimes regard white space as an invitation to add tacky artwork. (PowerPoint’s clip-art library makes this especially easy to do.) Instead of using clip art, include only high-quality drawings and photographs in your presentations by creating them yourself or getting them from other sources. Try graphics with transparent backgrounds, which let the slide background or other foreground objects show clearly.

Two places to get good, cheap art are iStockphoto, which lets you purchase high-quality stock photos for as little as US$1, and Stock.xchng, where you’ll find some free stock photos in a searchable database.

Step 5: Limit gratuitous effects

Both Keynote and PowerPoint let you add sound and motion files, as well as elaborate text and transition effects. Use these sparingly, though, as they can detract from your message.

Add sound clips and animations only when necessary — for example, when you want to demonstrate the timbre of a musical instrument or illustrate a physics experiment for a class. Likewise, letters that fly onto the screen and other glitzy text animations are fun to play with, but they become annoying after a slide or two. Instead, try less jarring effects such as making lines of text dissolve onto the screen. In Keynote, select your text, go to the Build Inspector, and under the Build In tab choose Dissolve from the Effect pop-up menu. In PowerPoint, select the text and go to Slide Show: Preset Animations: Dissolve.

Try to keep transition animations simple, too. Although effects such as Keynote’s revolving door or PowerPoint’s cube transition can enhance picture-laden slide shows, they’re out of place in text-heavy presentations. Instead, stick to subtle transitions such as Dissolve and Wipe. In Keynote, set transition effects in the Slide Inspector under the Transition tab; in PowerPoint, go to Slide Show: Slide Transition.

Step 6: Be wary of charts

Three-dimensional charts look attractive, but they can make it challenging for the audience to grasp your point, especially if you’re presenting statistics. For simple data, tables sometimes work better than charts.

Both Keynote and PowerPoint include tools that let you create and edit tables, but that isn’t much help if the audience can’t read them. When creating tables, follow the same rules as for text: make the characters large enough to read from the back of the room, and avoid low-contrast color combinations.

In Keynote, create a table by going to Insert: Table, and then open the Graphic Inspector to specify fill, grid lines, shadow, and opacity. In PowerPoint, create and edit a table by selecting View: Toolbars: Tables And Borders. If the table contains too much information, delete some data or split it across two or more slides.

Step 7: Remember last-minute details

Sometimes you spend so much time building the slide show that you ignore the little things. For one thing, remember to check spelling. Turn on automatic spell-checking (in Keynote, go to Edit: Spelling: Check Spelling As You Type; in PowerPoint, go to PowerPoint: Preferences: Spelling), and proofread for errors that spelling checkers can’t catch (“top too reasons,” for instance).

Also, make sure that you’ve properly linked pictures and movies to your presentation. In Keynote’s Save dialog box, click on the triangle next to Advanced Options and select the Copy Audio And Movies Into Document option. In PowerPoint, save your work as a PowerPoint Package (File: Save As, and choose PowerPoint Package from the Format pop-up menu). This copies any linked sounds, images, and movies into one folder, which makes it easy to move the presentation to another computer.

You’ve now done everything in your power to ensure a successful presentation. Although following this advice won’t turn you into Steve Jobs, at least you’ll have a good start.

Web help

Whether you’re a seasoned presenter or a slide-show newbie, you can find a wealth of helpful resources online.

Apple’s Keynote Support Forum,

Get answers to your Keynote questions.

Edward Tufte,

Tufte is a leading expert on data presentation, and his Web site offers a wide-ranging discussion on design.

Google Groups,

This is the place to find answers to your questions about PowerPoint.

Presentation Zen,

This blog is devoted to presentations by Garr Reynolds, former Apple manager of worldwide user group relations.

Sociable Media,

Here you’ll find tips and articles from Cliff Atkinson, author of Beyond Bullet Points (Microsoft Press, 2005).

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