November 11th, 2013

Improve Your PowerPoint Design with One Simple Rule


We’ve all heard the expressions “Death by PowerPoint” and “PowerPoint-induced coma.” I think we’d all agree that most of PowerPoints stink. Yet after sitting through presentation after presentation that bore us to tears, we turn around and subject our students and colleagues to the same torture that we find so excruciating. Why?

The good news is that 90% of the problem can be solved by following one simple rule: No bullet points.

Reread the rule again (and again, and again) to make sure that it sinks in. Bullet points are the primary source of Death by PowerPoint. Bullet points are basically ugly wallpaper thrown up behind the presenter that end up distracting and confusing the audience. The audience is getting a message in two competing channels running at different speeds, voice, and visual. It’s a bit like listening to a song being played at two speeds at once. The audience member is forced to ask themselves: Do I listen to the presenter (which is running at one speed), or read the bullet points (which I read at a different speed)?

Research (Mayer & Moreno) has demonstrated that running a competing text channel with a voice channel actually lowers retention by sending two incongruent messages to the viewer. The audience member is literally trying to focus on two different things at once, and ultimately loses the whole message. Presenters would be better off using no visuals at all and simply speaking to their audience. There’s a reason why State of the Union addresses do not include PowerPoints.

The ultimate source of the error is the belief that the purpose of PowerPoint is to project your notes. We once used 3 x 5 cards for our notes. When PowerPoint came along we assumed that we should now project those notes to our audience. But this is wrong. Your notes are for you, not others.

The Real Purpose of Visuals
The real purpose of visuals is to amplify your message with complementary imagery. For example, say you’re talking about something that often confuses students. Don’t just repeat the words coming out of your mouth on the screen. Instead, project an image of a confused student in order to focus your audience’s attention on your message with an emotional driver. The image does not compete with your audience’s attention, but rather helps draw it together by providing a visual cue to enhance thinking.

Online and Face-to-Face
Shifting to visuals will not only enhance your live presentations, but also your online content. More and more we’re seeing videos in online courses. These videos are typically recorded narration with imagery layered on top, and they are an excellent way to improve student interest and retention.

To create such a presentation, start by recording the narration (narration determines pacing) and then add the imagery to illustrate concepts. Audacity is a free download that is perfect for recording and editing audio. Make sure to use a quality headset microphone, rather than a free-standing microphone, which generally produces poor quality (unless it’s an expensive studio microphone). The imagery can then be added with Windows Live Movie Maker or iMovie.

Another option is to drop your images into a PowerPoint deck, and advance the deck while you speak, recording the screen and your voice with screencasting software like Jing. The drawback is that Jing only provides five minutes of recording time, so you will need to purchase Camtasia Studio for longer presentations. But Camtasia Studio allows for really elegant transitions that will greatly enhance your presentations, so it might be worth the purchase.

A Few More Simple Rules

  • One image per slide: The reason why TED talks are so good is that they work with the presenters to ensure that their visuals are good. You will notice no bullet points. You will also notice one image per slide.
  • No clip art or stock photos: Avoid using clip art and those contrived stock images of business people looking at the camera. Keep it real, or use retro images for a cool touch.
  • Add audience surveys: Want to really keep your audience’s attention? Include a live poll every 15 minutes or so with a tool like Poll Everywhere for face-to-face events. Video polling requires more complex software, so you might instead ask students to pause and reflect at various points in a video, and perhaps have them write down their thoughts on a worksheet as they go along.

The Experts
There is a simple secret to getting good at anything: Find someone else who is good at it and do what they do. Here are three sources that will transform your PowerPoint slides into powerful teaching devices:

Mayer, R. and Moreno, R. (2003). Nine ways to reduce cognitive load in multimedia learning. Educational Psychologist, 38(1) 43-52.

  • Dr Mansoor Ali


  • Kirsten

    I disagree on the bullet points. I have taught lectures using these and without and students prefer the bullet points because they highlight the most important points about the topic. What I do use with bullets, is animation. This way only one bullet at a time is seen. If I am showing a graph and I need to make three points about it, bullets work. Plus only the key points are shown on a slide. A mash of text on the slide does not work. The "you stink at powerpoint" is really geared towards the business user and not the academic user. Plus there is a difference between a teaching lecture and a presentation, they are not the same thing. I would say these rules apply more to a presentation than a lecture.

    • John

      A presentation and a lecture have the same point, to communicate with an audience, and so the same principles apply to both.

      If you are merely using your PowerPoints to give your students an outline, then you should hand them a written outline to make notes on. If you are giving someone something to read, then it should be in a handout.

  • LEL

    "Instead, project an image of a confused student in order to focus your audience’s attention on your message with an emotional driver."

    You cannot seriously be suggesting we clutter up the presentation with stock photography. If the visual doesn't convey information, then it is noise.

    • John

      Never use stock photography. That is almost as bad as a bullet point.

      As an example, I did a talk on how social media has revolutionized communication by turning turning the audience into the broadcasters. A bullet point about that would have been useless clutter. Instead I used an image of a crowd all with their cell phones out taking a picture of something outside of the range of the photo. Now the audience audience understands. The image has amplified the message, not competed with it.


      • Dave

        What about the issue of copyright? You can't just go out and grab an image off the web – someone owns the rights to that image, and using it without permission is violation of copyright. That's the advantage to purchasing a stock photography collection, or using clip-art images – they are royalty free.

  • I think there is some middle ground here. First, whether it is a business of academic presentation the first thing is to think about who your audience is. Some bullet points may be OK, but just bullet points isn't. If the purpose of them is to spoon feed the student the notes, or is to provide a crutch for an ill-prepared speaker, then I think they are not a good idea. People will read what's on the slide and during that time they are not paying attention to you –they can't. And they can read faster than you can talk and with the extra time the mind will wander. When I consult with presenters I always remind them that if they put everything important in the words on their slide then they don't need to be there. The slides shouldn't replace the speaker, they should compliment the speaker and supplement the user experience. That is not to suggest that it should be all pictures either. First, images must be relevant, not just aesthetic additions. But an image does make mental and emotional connections that words alone may not be able to. In the end, I think each person should use what is best for the audience they are speaking to. There are certainly different expectations and needs between business and academia, but we shouldn't use those differences to preclude re-examining the way we do things and try to use the tools we have to the best effect.

  • Pingback: Improve Your PowerPoint Design with One Simple Rule | Faculty Focus | Learning Curve()

  • From Texas

    Interesting. Not sure about the validity using the State of the Union as an example.Or, is it for fear what is written in a PPT or recorded may come back to haunt the speaker, "You can keep your insurance and your doctor?"

  • Pingback: Improve Your PowerPoint Design with One Simple Rule | Faculty Focus | Advanced Writing Resources()

  • GeraldWalton63

    I disagree on bullet points, too. My main argument, however, would be that most academics should stop using PPT altogether. If you don't have a clue how to make PPT (and the like) visually interesting, then stop abusing your audience by trying. This goes for academic conferences, too. I want to jab forks in my eyes and flee from the room! Stop the madness!

    Alternatively, learn to speak effectively in front of an audience. Whatever happened to that?

  • Pingback: Death By PowerPoint | Ian Douglas()

  • Pingback: Sunday Salon: Weekly Links | the dirigible plum()

  • Pingback: TLW 142: Tech Tools for Learning!()

  • Ami

    Unfortunately, I disagree on the bullet points as well. As long as the text is kept to a minimal, it seems to have a more organized feel. As you said, basic clip art shouldn't be a part of your presentation. You can actually put your own touch on things by making your own images.

  • Pingback: No Bullet Points? | Joni Tornwall()

  • ToeKnee

    Just a suggestion from a believer in emerging technology and futuring,

    With respect to teaching – I believe that Camtasia is the way to go – I have had success with class Flipping – and using Camtasia videos in online courses as well – Students receive your lecture concepts on video (to either study online or to replace classroom lectures) – without the use of PowerPoints alltogether – This gives the students the advantage of your expertise on video (which can be replayed) – and allows you to show them how to do whatever it is they need to learn – Then you can reinforce the concepts taught on video by engaging your students with hands-on labs in the classroom – rather than lecturing during classtime. Just saying – I've tried it – and it works well – and the evidence is found in student feedback and higher levels of engagement.

    Check it out as an alternative to PowerPoints,
    ToeKnee (o;'

  • Craig Johnson

    Nice article.

  • Pingback: Avoiding “Death by PowerPoint” | Teaching with Technology()