Pimp your PowerPoint

By Bob Grant Pimp your PowerPoint Start designing attention-grabbing presentations that stand out from the typical snoozers. © ADAM MCCAULEY COLLECTION In the middle of the 19th century blackboards were all the rage. According to Pennsylvania State University engineering communication professor Michael Alley, it was common for universities and research institutions to proudly advertise that they had the only slate writing board in

By | March 1, 2010

Pimp your PowerPoint

Start designing attention-grabbing presentations that stand out from the typical snoozers.


In the middle of the 19th century blackboards were all the rage. According to Pennsylvania State University engineering communication professor Michael Alley, it was common for universities and research institutions to proudly advertise that they had the only slate writing board in a 100-mile radius. Scientific lectures became more engaging than they’d ever been.

More than 150 years later, there’s still room for improvement. “People are not anywhere close to tapping the potential that a PowerPoint presentation offers,” Alley says. “We have a tool that can do an incredible amount, and people just waste it.” Who hasn’t been lulled into a somnolent state by some well-intentioned scientist presenting his research to a captive audience by reading a seemingly endless stream of bullet points?

But it’s not too late for the scientific community to start using the software to greatly enhance knowledge transfer, says documentarian Ron Galloway, who recently produced and directed, Rethinking PowerPoint, a film on building better presentations. “The old ugly hateful PowerPoint slides are sort of going by the wayside,” he says.

Communications experts and cognitive scientists agree that there are wrong ways and right ways to use presentation software like PowerPoint, or its Apple-based cousin Keynote. “Explanation graphic designer” and long-time Time magazine infographic guru Nigel Holmes says that he approaches giving talks as an actor playing a part. “It’s much more theater than anything else as far as I’m concerned,” he says. “It’s not a lecture, it’s a performance.”

Here are some tips and tricks to help you craft a presentation that will wow your next audience and may just influence those around you to make their own PowerPoint talks more theatrical and less brain numbing.


As with effective writing, keeping the audience, their expectations, and limitations in mind is key to making engaging PowerPoint presentations. Harvard University cognitive neuroscientist Stephen Kosslyn has studied hundreds of digital slideshow presentations, tracking their impact on volunteer audiences. “In general, humans have a measurable set of limitations and you have to respect those,” he says. These three cognitive principles were most commonly violated by presenters.

Go for the BIG difference
The human brain is better at perceiving large differences rather than more subtle ones. Violations of this principle typically crop up as differences in font size or color that are too slight for audience members to quickly notice. Avoid using cobalt blue, as a font or border color, as the human brain has difficulty bringing that color—which is a combination of red and blue—into focus. Likewise, using red and blue on the same slide can be distracting.

The brain likes it just right
Kosslyn calls the principle that audience members have limited capacities for the retention of information the “Goldilocks Rule.” Communication is most effective when neither too little nor too much information is presented at any one time, he says. Audience members can only typically handle four “perceptual units” (a word, phrase, or picture) at a time says Kossyln. For example, an assertion sentence (1 unit) followed by two images and one phrase (four units total) is easier for an audience to grasp and retain than a slide filled with bullet points.

Signpost changes in information
Audiences key in on perceptual differences, so when introducing a conceptual jump, signal the move with a significant shift in the accompanying imagery. Things like images appearing or arrows directing the audience’s attention to a specific part of a curve can greater emphasize the transition to a new idea. But don’t overdo it. If a visual jump, such as changing background color or font size, is made without a corresponding shift in the information, you risk confusing your audience, Kosslyn notes.

Methods Slide

Modified from K. Aspmo et al., “Atmospheric Mercury Depletion events in polar regions during arctic spring,” presentation (Oslo, Norway Univ of Oslo, 16 June 2004

Results Slide

Image and data courtesy of Genevieve Brown, The Osteobiology Research group, The Pennsylvania State University.

Unplug, think, and write
According to Galloway, using PowerPoint to make a great presentation starts with powering down the laptops and writing out an outline on index cards or a legal pad. “People have to shut off their computer and go away as they’re writing their PowerPoint presentation,” he says.

Establish your assertion
Alley says that he starts planning each slide by writing down a single sentence stating the idea he wants the audience to take away. “You have defined what it is you need to support that statement,” he says. “That’s where it starts.” Alley adds that the sentence should only take one or two lines, should consist of only 8–14 words, and should appear in 28-point font when inserted in the final PowerPoint presentation.

Assemble the visual evidence
Let the assertion sentence for each slide guide your decision as to which visuals should accompany it. Use “explanatory images”—not decorative or descriptive images—to support each assertion, says Joanna Garner, assistant professor of psychology at Pennsylvania State University. When describing the context or methods of your research, photos and movies are ideal pieces of evidence; when presenting your results, elements like graphs, tables, or charts (appropriately highlighted to emphasize key points) will do the trick.

Challenge the defaults
When you actually open up PowerPoint, forget about the program’s suggested defaults. Start with a blank slide, say Alley and Galloway. That way, you can insert your assertion sentence at the top of the slide and pull in appropriate images free from the constraints of the program’s preset inclination towards bullet points and subheadings.


The next generation of presentation software packages is here, making it easy to get input on your slides from your collaborators without sending huge files. RocketSlide, ClearSlide, Google Documents, and Prezi, are just a few of the new online tools that let you design, work on, store, and access your presentation online. Most provide the capability for multiple users to view a presentation at the same time in a Web-conference setting and offer a free trial with options to pay relatively reasonable monthly fees for continued use.


The Craft of Scientific Presentations: Critical Steps to Succeed and Critical Errors to Avoid, by Michael Alley, Springer-Verlag, Berlin, 2003. $39.95.

Presentation Zen Design: Simple Design Principles and Techniques to Enhance Your Presentations, by Garr Reynolds, New Riders Publishing, 2010. $31.49.

slide:ology, by Nancy Duarte, O’Reilly Media, Sebastopol, Calif., 2008. $34.99.

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, by Edward Tufte, Graphics Press, Cheshire, Conn., 1983. $40.00.


Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 5

March 3, 2010

This is an interesting article, but the author and some of the cited experts, do not understand the difference between the task (making a presentation) and the tool (the software). What they describe can be applied to any software used for presentations, not only PowerPoint. Along the article they present PowerPoint as the only tool, and only at the end they mention other tools, omitting Open Office, a very powerful tool that is gaining momentum. I think that this article reflects the evil genius of Bill Gates: he made us all believe that personal computer equals Windows and that presentation equals powerpoint.
Avatar of: Jean-Luc Lebrun

Jean-Luc Lebrun

Posts: 5

March 16, 2010

Michael Alley is a proponent of the Text Assertion - Visual Evidence structure described in this article (text claim followed by visual evidence). I recommend you try out the three step sequence: (text or spoken) Question - Visual Evidence - Text Assertion. It reverses Michael Alley's proposed order with the following advantages: 1) The question focuses the attention of the scientific audience on the visual and acts as a transition from the previous slide. 2) The audience is then more actively engaged into spotting and decoding the evidence alongside their guide/presenter. 3) The final text assertion that replaces the question comes as reinforcement of what has just been observed, thus keeping the traditional scientific order: hypothesis, observation, discussion. Visuals illustrating this alternative paradigm are found on scientific-presentations.com
Avatar of: Robert Teszka

Robert Teszka

Posts: 1

March 19, 2010

anonymous: They do mention Keynote in the introduction, but it's still true that most people use powerpoint - and when people -think- of powerpoint, they think of the bullet-pointed monsters that this article attempts to fix.\n\nIn any case, it seems to come down to less is more. Edward Tufte would be proud!
Avatar of: Norman Andresen

Norman Andresen

Posts: 2

March 19, 2010

The examples of before and after simply reflect good visual design. Although there is some cognitive science behind the suggested design elements nothing is surprisingly new except for color recognition by the brain. Before PowerPoint we used transparency slides (B&W and/or color). There were a number of print media that provided suggestions for excellent presentations. KODAK had a whole publication on slide design. With the advent of the personal computer every one is capable of creating a PowerPoint presentation but very few understand the basics of design well enough to create an engaging PowerPoint presentation.\n
Avatar of: J.J. Yong

J.J. Yong

Posts: 1

March 20, 2010

I like the "Challenge the default" part - where Powerpoint presentations can be done simply with just blank slides. I've a post resembles this particular method - please refer to this one: http://presentationism.com/the-art-of-making-simple-business-powerpoint-presentation-slides/
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 77

March 21, 2010

One shoe does not fit all.\n\nWhile such guides may be helpful for "generic" audiences with mixed backgrounds and interests, and the general rules of cluttered v. uncluttered and distracting color-contrasts are obvious, it all depends on what you are presenting and to whom you are presenting it. \n\nI wouldn't insult colleagues as knowledgeable as myself, to whom I was presenting the results of an experiment, with lots of pretty irrelevant pictures and white space. They know the ground and they want the facts and critical details of the methods, results and my conclusions - usually in a very tight time frame. "Entertainment" had better be minimum and "on point" or the reaction will be uniformly negative and considered a waste of their time.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

March 22, 2010

A show needs too many inputs. Right from the size of the hall to illumination to the audience - age and mentality. A well made presentation for a wrong time or hall or illumination or audience will definitely hamper the spirit of the presenter too
Avatar of: Ben Martin

Ben Martin

Posts: 1

March 22, 2010

Of course we must know our audience. As a Communications instructor I stress that. However, even the most highly skilled and trained professionals can be bored beyond belief by dull presentation aids. A good presenter must use all of the tools available (PowerPoint or otherwise) in order to convey the message clearly AND INTERESTINGLY. Nothing puts an audience to sleep faster than over-wordy tables and charts of the type that this lesson offers as "no-nos". This PowerPoint demonstration seeks to inspire all of us to use a bit of imagination. I agree with it completely.
Avatar of: Mike Waldrep

Mike Waldrep

Posts: 155

December 29, 2010



Posts: 15

December 30, 2010

OK, in today's research community I hope things have improved considerably. My first research presentation was done on overhead slides PowerPoint did not reach our lab until 6 or seven years later. When it became possible to add color to my graphic analyses' I was told "that (color) was for the business folks not the scientists". When the newer, younger groups came on board they got all the new computer stuff, we got the hand-me-downs, and the new guys as well as senior staff began with those swanky color PowerPoint presentations. Eventually Windows 95 made it necessary for all of us to get new computers and software but the peer reviewed journals were not accepting color yet so we were discouraged from using too much glitz. In 2004 when my career apparently ended everybody was using the standard formats available in PowerPoint; hence color, but still no glitz (impact). And finally it was against company rules to use a camera in the work place. So no portraits of rats, labs, etc., unless you were an outside collaborator or consultant. Are you trying to imply that the company wanted us to fall asleep during presentations?
Avatar of: Colin Purrington

Colin Purrington

Posts: 1

May 26, 2011


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