Writing PowerPoint Slides

Writing PowerPoint Slides

May 06, 2013
Nobody likes giving presentation (or at least, not very many people). It's nerve-wracking to get up in front of a classroom or conference audience and talk about your ideas. To combat this nervousness, many students rely on visual aids like PowerPoint slides to engage the audience and make their talks more memorable. But just as with other writing assignments, there's an art to writing slides for presentations. Done right, a slide will inform your audience and improve your talk, but when they're done wrong PowerPoint slides can actually do more harm than good.

When to Use Slides

First things first: not every presentation needs to have slides. While they're great for showing pictures or graphs that enhance your talk or for helping the audience keep track of complicated information, they're not always necessary. If the only thing you're going to be using that projector for is putting up an outline of your speech, then you may want to think about skipping the technology and just giving the speech on your own.

Writing Text on Slides

When used correctly, text on slides can improve a presentation, but it's important to make sure that your slides are informative and easy to read.

Write your speech first

Before you start writing slides, first you need to actually write your speech. After all, you can't use visual aids to enhance your ideas if you don't know exactly what those ideas will be. So, if you have a presentation to give, start by sitting down and drawing up an outline or a speech you'll give word-for-word. Remember, the slides should be secondary to your oral presentation, which means they should be in the background, not dictating the content or pace of your presentation.

Keep the text to a minimum

Putting up a slide that's crammed with nothing but text is just going to overwhelm and confuse your audience. They likely won't bother reading the whole thing, and if they do it means they won't be paying attention to what you're talking about. So, when you're doing slides, try to keep the text to a minimum. Distill that whole paragraph down to a few key words, then use your speech to elaborate on those terms. A good rule of thumb is to have less than four lines per slide and fewer than eight words per line, but you can usually make do with even less than that.

Use the three Rs

If you find yourself with too much text on your slides, use the three Rs-rank, reduce, and rephrase-to cut the clutter. For example, if you have a slide with ten bullet points, you're going to need to shorten that list. Start by ranking each point from most to least important, then reduce the number by removing the lower-ranked points. Finally, rephrase any points that have more than 8 - 10 words to remove even more of the clutter.

Tailor your text to the timing of your talk

At any given point during your talk, what's up on your slide should be related to what you're talking about. Keeping your talk and your slides in sync will help you audience stay focused, and they'll likely remember more of your talk.
In order to match the text on your slides with your talk, you should design each slide to go with a particular part of your speech. This means you shouldn't leave up slides that cover material you've already moved past, and you also shouldn't but up a slide that covers material you haven't talked about yet. For example, if you include a summary slide that goes over the next three points you plan to address, your audience will already several steps ahead of you when you start talking about the first point. Instead, you can make a slide that addresses each point individually or reveal the points one-by-one as you go.

Proofread your slides

As with any other writing assignment, spelling and grammar mistakes will hurt your work and your grade. Even worse, instead of being stuck on the page, those mistakes will be blown up and projected on the wall behind you for everyone to see. Those mistakes will distract your audience and will also likely throw you off your game, since you'll have to either acknowledge them or risk looking unprofessional for not noticing them.

Dos and Don'ts

Don't use your slides as a crutch

Your slides should not double as your notes for a speech. Their purpose should be to provide graphics and summaries to your audience, not to remind you what you need to say. Those slides full of text that just repeat what you're saying will bore the audience and distract from the content of your speech.

Do keep the audience focused on you

Anytime you put up slides you're going to be taking the audience's attention away from you and pulling it toward the screen. While this is helpful if you want to make sure the audience understands a graph or picture, it's also important that you're able to bring their attention back to you once that slide has served its purpose. You don't want your audience just staring at text on a slide-you want them listening to what you have to say.
A good method for recapturing the audience's attention is to include blank slides in your presentation when you want to audience to be focusing solely on you. There's no need to have text or pictures behind you at all times, so when you're directly referring to the slides, just put up a blank one.

Do pay attention to font and colors

The content of your slides won't matter if nobody can read them, so you need to be careful when designing your presentation. Use a sans serif font that's easy to read, and pick colors that contrast enough to make the text visible without being too bright or distracting. Also stay away from fancy animation that will distract from the content of your presentation.
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