PowerPoint Primer – the only 3 slides you’ll ever need

Updated to Speaking on May 3, 2023.

I don’t know if I was more scared or excited.

I’d been invited to speak to over 1,000 Rotarians – my biggest speech yet (by an order of 100).

I had just under a month to prepare.

Every evening I hammered away at a script—adding, deleting, moving notes around until I felt I had 60 minutes of content. All of my speaking experience had been delivering workshops, so I was woefully unprepared to patch together a full hour of just me talking.

With 24 hours to go, I started on my slides. In my workshops, slides were merely a teaching aid. So, I threw together some pictures, a few bullet lists, and called it done.

Big mistake.

If you’ve ever had the extreme misfortune to suffer through a bad Powerpoint slide presentation you know how miserably painful it can be.

Don’t let a bad slide deck murder your chances of killing it on stage.

Before we get to the solutions…let’s start with the most important question…is PowerPoint dead?

PowerPoint is not dead

Yes, you’ll see TED Talk speakers go slide-naked, but PowerPoint (or Keynote for fellow MAC users) is not dead. Far from it.

To begin with, your slides are a learning aid and, used effectively, can drive home a point, make an audience laugh, and can even help anchor a key lesson in your audience’s mind (more on that later.)

Plus, some of us learn visually.

If the only tools you used were your words, and maybe some audience interaction, you’re leaving out the third of your audience who learn visually.

With few exceptions, your seminar, speech or sales presentation will be better with slides. And if you are mapping out an online course or webinar, slides are essential.

But they have to be good.

We’ve all suffered through horrible slide shows with long lists of unreadable bullets, pixelated clip art delivered by a speaker who constantly turns away from the audience to read from the screen.

Bad PowerPoint will make your audience regret their second serving at the buffet.

Well, I have good news!

Designing an awesome slide deck doesn’t require hours of watching YouTube videos or becoming a PhotoShop ninja.

In fact, often fewer, simpler slides are the best. If you know what to do…

Note: these techniques work just as well on Mac or PC (although the Mac is more fun.)

Build Your Slides Last

WARNING: Do not use slides to outline your speech – that’s ass-backwards.

It would be like designing the cover for your book before you start writing.

“Do not start in PowerPoint.” warns Nancy Duarte (designer of the Oscar winning An Inconvenient Truth) “Presentation tools force you to think through information linearly, and you really need to start by thinking of the whole instead of the individual lines.”

Remember: your slides are there to ADD to a well-designed speech, not to replace it.

The process I have lived by for every new speech design in the last 18 years is:

  1. Research – collect stories, facts, quotes, research, theories, and anecdotes from my inventory in Evernote and Mr. Google.
  2. Template – use my writing template to get my content in order and see what’s missing
  3. First draft – write the speech out in as much detail as needed
  4. Step back – revisit the client’s notes or my notes of objectives
  5. Fill in gaps – find missing content
  6. Final draft – after a break, revisit the speech and hammer out final notes
  7. Create slides – build slide deck, starting with rough slide deck outline
  8. Delivery – distill long-form speech notes onto 4X6 index cards, final edit of slides

While it can be a much-needed distraction to start searching for the perfect sunset picture, or funny video about listening skills – you need to know where you’re headed before you pack your bags.

Now let’s look at the only 3 types of slides you’ll ever need.

1. Anchor a Key Lesson

Just like every classic movie, you should create anchor moments for key lessons.

Think about classic movie scenes like Indiana Jones pulling out his pistol to take down the knife-wielding Bedouin, or Julie Andrews twirling on the alpine meadow while singing “The hills are alive”, or when the Wizard of Oz is about to be discovered by a curious Toto and hopelessly calls out “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”

Those are anchor moments – you might not remember much from the rest of the movie, but those moments are burned indelibly into your neural pathways. Months – even years – later something will trigger that memory and you will recall the scene as accurately as if you are seeing for the first time.

“Stories are the emotional glue, says Duarte, “that connects your audience to your message.”

That’s what a good slide can do.

To anchor a key lesson, start with the emotional context of the lesson – what emotion do you want your audience to experience?

When in doubt, humour works like a charm.

One tip I learned was to simply add a picture for the punch line of a good story or joke. For example, when I’m introducing my lesson on Hero Habits I want to make the point that walking my dog, Riley, was a better (long-term) exercise habit than training for Ironman competitions. Daily medium intensity versus occasional high-intensity.

I start by asking the audience who owns a dog. Lots of hands go up. That throw-away question gets the audience’s attention.

Then, I show a (very cute) picture of my youngest daughter, Claire, cuddling Riley when he was an 8 week old puppy.

“As you know,” I say, with dramatic pause, “that’s the size they come in.”

Click. Up comes a picture of Claire kneeling beside an 80lb (36kg), 4 year old Riley.

“This is Riley today,” I continue, “and Riley needs a lot of exercise.”

When in doubt, show a picture of a cute kid and a puppy.

Of course, I could have just told the audience I have a dog who needs a lot of exercise. But I wanted to anchor the point that the best hero habits are daily and don’t require extreme measures (like Ironman competitions).

QUICK FIX: Run through your speech and identify 3-4 key lessons you want to drive home. Design your delivery to have a punch line and choose a slide image that pounds the lesson home.

Now let’s move onto the the much-maligned bullet list.

2.  Present a List

Nothing sucks the wind out of a conference room faster than a bullet list. So, how do you present important, related points?

Before you start choosing between check marks and dashes, let’s revisit what that list is for.

In most presentations, there are related points you have to present. It could be leadership solutions, customer service strategies, listening skills, or how to skin a muskrat (illegal in 14 states, just saying.)

You need a list.

When you present a list in an article, or book you don’t have lots of options, but in a speech, you are there – big difference. So keep the list brief – as a learning aid – not a replacement of you.

My most successful slide decks follow my 2/4/8 rule:

  • a new slide about every 2 minutes (about 30 slides for a 60 minute speech),
  • no more than 4 bullets per slide, and
  • no more than 8 words per bullet.

3 slides: deadly, decent and dynamite.

Just like any recipe, the 2/4/8 rule is a guide – mess around with the ingredients as needed. For example, if I’m supplying handouts, I don’t need to copy the full bullet point on the screen, I can just display a single word as a reference point. If my bullets are instructions for an audience exercise, I’ll spell out the full instructions in the bullet.

QUICK FIX: Take every bullet list longer than 4 bullets and break it into separate lists or remove the least valuable bullets. Throw up a long list and your audience will want to… (well, you know.)

Next, reduce it to the absolute minimum amount of words. You’ll be surprised to see how you can take “take a deep breath and prepare to listen” and turn it into “breathe”.

3.  Create a Transition

We now know most audiences have an attention span of about 20 minutes (ever wonder why TED Talks are about 20 minutes?). Savvy speakers (that’s so much fun to say) design transitions at about every 18-20 minute point to break up their speech and haul wandering dendrites back into the room.

I’m not above using slides to get a laugh, drive a point home or launch a quick audience interaction. It could be a (very) short video (in this post I show you how to properly insert a video), picture that makes the punch line to my joke, or provocative question.

But, this is thin ice and you have to tread carefully.

When overdone it becomes manipulative. Choose overused video clips and you look like an amateur. Fumble the technology and you look, well, not good.

Here are bomber transitions that have never failed me:

** summary review – want to make sure your audience is tracking? Instruct them to turn to their neighbour and share the most important take-away from what you just taught (90 seconds).

** segue story – audiences are suckers for a good story – make your story a segue for the next lesson and you’ll have them drinking from your punch line.

** meta comment – pause and reflect on your experience in this moment (very existential) – what are you feeling (maybe compared to what you expected to be feeling), what is your feeling of where the audience is at? This can be a great segue to having them turn to their neighbour and sharing their experience of the event.

** reflection exercise – most of us are pretty lazy when it comes to tapping into our own reflections, so make them do it! A dynamite reflection exercise sounds like this (one of my favourites): “On a scale from 1 to 5, where 5 is consistently effective, how are you doing when it comes to [leadership, listening, goal setting, macrame]. Then have the turn to their neighbour and explain why those chose that rating.

** stand and stretch – don’t underestimate the value of a 90-second stand and stretch. Lead them through 3-4 simple movements (please no back massages) – they’ll be more awake and you get a quick break.

Bottom line – every time you hit that clicker your audience turns away from you.

So make it count.

Good slides drive your message home and make you look like a pro (this post has 10 more PowerPoint tips). And when it comes to building your next slide deck, the good news is that less is best.

So, when in doubt, delete. Your audience will never miss what isn’t there.