Nov 04 2008

The Golden Rule of PowerPoint Presentations

Among the many presentation guidelines and rules of thumb, there is only one Golden Rule of PowerPoint. (c)iStockphoto/Ayzek

PowerPoint users are constantly seeking ways to improve their presentations and frequently end up clinging to “rules” espoused by various PowerPoint presentation experts. These rules span many areas – from presentation design to delivery. You may have come across some of these rules before either in presentation books or in the form of secondhand advice from a co-worker or manager. Some of these following “rules” may sound familiar:

  • Never have more than “X” slides in a presentation
  • Never have more than “X” bullet points
  • Never use bullet points at all
  • Never employ more than “X” words per line
  • Always use fonts bigger than “X” points
  • Always use photos, not clip art

Many people earnestly want to produce effective business presentations and avoid death-by-PowerPoint situations. As a result, they rigidly follow a variety of rules that appear to work for them. The rigidity in which people follow these rules can become a problem. A rule that works well in certain circumstances may not perform well in others. In addition, presentation experts can contribute to the problem when they fail to carefully preface when their rules apply, or when they do not fully contemplate how a universal, absolute following of their rules may lead to less effective presentations.

At a past job, I encountered a vice president who strictly followed advice from a local presentation coach. I was forced at one point to ensure all of the bullet points were odd-numbered on each slide of a key presentation. On some slides, I had to either cut or combine valid points, or invent artificial points. There may have been some strong empirical evidence behind the original recommendation from this presentation expert, but it was probably intended as a guideline or rule of thumb – not a rigid rule.

In another example, you may have heard of Guy Kawasaki’s 10/20/30 Rule of PowerPoint. He basically promotes having only 10 slides, taking no longer than 20 minutes, and using no fonts smaller than 30 points. Many online writers and bloggers have touted this rule as a bold new standard for PowerPoint presentations. What they fail to mention is that Kawasaki primarily recommended this approach for pitch presentations to venture capitalists. As with any “rule”, there will be occasions where a rule may be very applicable, but in other cases it could be inadequate or ill-advised.

So what is the Golden Rule of PowerPoint?

The Golden Rule is that all PowerPoint presentation rules, principles, and guidelines are secondary to doing what is right for your audience. In other words, no matter what PowerPoint rules or presentation guidelines you choose to follow, you will encounter situations which demand exceptions to those rules. What worked for one audience type, topic, or set of circumstances will not work in all cases. To rephrase the original “Golden Rule” or ethic of reciprocity, it is safe to say “Present unto your audience as you would have them present unto you.”

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5 Responses to “The Golden Rule of PowerPoint Presentations”

  1. 10 reasons why Presentations are going to make it big in 2009: Blogs | Empower Your Point says:

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  2. Vincent van der Lubbe says:

    Hi ppt ninja,

    I totally agree on focusing on the audience. So would it not be prone to less misunderstanding then to say: “Present unto your audience as they would have you present unto them”?

    Often we present what we would like – and that’s often not what our audience likes :-) Like your blog!


  3. pptninja says:

    Your statement works too. It might be semantics at this point because I think we’re both on the same page. I would hope that people presenting to me would consider me and my needs as an audience member (how would I have people present to me?). I need to do the same when I present to others.

    We’re on both sides of the presentation — facing it and with our back to it. Too often I hear people complain about bad presentations delivered by other people, but when they present they don’t do any better or repeat the same mistakes. That’s my point — “Present unto your audience as you would have them present unto you” — not that I would present what I like to everybody else. Thanks for commenting though as it’s good to clarify my point.

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