The Ultimate Guide to Amazing PowerPoint Presentations

We’ve all seen one of these great PowerPoint presentations – the lights go down, the screen lights up with a high resolution picture of an elephant in the middle of a river spraying water on its back and the speaker weaves a story around it, teaching you important lessons and inspiring the bejeezus out of you.  You leave the presentation energized, feeling like you have unlocked the secrets of the universe.  You immediately rush back to your office and decide to do the same thing at your next meeting.

Then you realize that there aren’t a lot of stock photographs that help you tell an inspirational story about the fiscal 2016 budget request process – or whatever it is you’re working on – and defeated, you turn to the default PowerPoint template and trudge on, bullet points and blue swooshes galore.

But wait, all is not lost!  Here’s my own personal guide to making your next presentation a meaningful one:

First, chances are you shouldn’t be using PowerPoint at all.  

Powerpoint does NOT work well for presenting topics that involve dense data or wordy discussions.  PowerPoint is best for telling stories (and a lot of our work can be presented as a story when you think about it).  Paper handouts (memos, charts, tables) are a better tool for delivering loads of information, and in addition they provide a good take away.

But, if you decide you should be using power point, keep these tips in mind:

1. Your slides should support your talking points, not literally make them.  Ideally, the slides shouldn’t stand on their own; they should need YOU to give them life (otherwise, why are you there?!).

2. Images/thoughts/ideas that connect with people on an emotional level have the greatest impact and will be the most memorable.  This will require you to really think about what you’re presenting and distill it into meaningful points.  Once you do that, it is easy (and fun!) to find images or quotes that help you make your point.

3. Get creative – think abstractly about the ideas you just distilled.  You might find a use for that elephant photo in your budget talk after all!  Fair warning: know your audience, your buttoned-up boss might not appreciate something too abstract, in which case you should probably be using the handout discussed above!

4. Keep things simple – watch a video of the latest Apple product launch, no one does clean and elegant like those folks.

5. Make sure you use high resolution images and that text is presented in high contrast so it is easily read from far away.

6. Don’t use words unless you really have to, or if you choose to use them go back to point 1 and make sure they aren’t the same words you’re saying.

7. Don’t use bullet points.  The bullet point is the first sign that you’re using too many words and you should go back up to the top of this post and start writing a handout.

My ideas in action:

I was recently asked to give a brown bag lunch discussion of a big project I have been working on.  I looked back at slides that others had created and realized that they were literally bullet point reductions of a several hundred page Report and Order my agency had released on the matter.  They were mind numbing.

I decided to start fresh, grabbed a blank pad and started jotting down key ideas.  You don’t need to know the substance (I’m happy to send you the document if you want), but I boiled down the major policy objectives of our project to: giving, sharing, packing and moving.  I then created a slide with 4 pictures:

someone handing someone else a gift,

two kids sharing an ice cream soda,

a stack of moving boxes,

and a picture of the Beverly Hillbillies in their truck.

If anyone saw those four pictures alone they would be confused (and perhaps question my sanity) but during my talk I used them to illustrate the concepts that were embodied in that huge, dense document my agency released.  The pictures kept my audience interested and were visual cues for me to use to keep me on track.  I told a story, distilled a big project into discrete concepts, tied my concepts to meaningful images and made people laugh in the process.  I promise if you ask any of my colleagues about this project they will be able to tell you something about it (even if they start to hum the Beverly Hillbillies theme song).

So go forth and inspire people with your talks – and remember that PowerPoint can be an amazing tool when used well!  

helpful resources:

Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds

Slide:ology by Nancy Duarte

Brett Tarnutzer is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

powerpoint images

Your PowerPoints are best when you use images that tell a story.

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Matthew Garlipp

Great tips, Brett! I definitely agree: the simpler, the better. However, we may have to agree to disagree about bullet points. 100 bullets reciting a report is one thing. But I think having a few bullet points laying out your main points for a slide help guide your thoughts as a presenter and help the audience follow, as well. Just a thought!

Bill Long

One of the best presentations I ever gave (if I say so myself) was done using a ppt of nothing but Clint Eastwood movie posters. [:-{)

Doug Bear

You make a salient point with “Your slides should support your talking points, not literally make them. Ideally, the slides shouldn’t stand on their own; they should need YOU to give them life (otherwise, why are you there?!).” Too many presenters design their presentation for themselves, as speaking points, rather than their audience. It is a visual medium, use it that way. Make pictures fill the screen rather than being obscure add-ons to your speaker notes. I cringe when I go to a presentation where they provide a copy of the slides and the presenter simply paraphrases the slides. Great article!

Sandra Yeaman

I attended a presentation (using PowerPoint) on how to create awesome PowerPoints where the presenter included slides to illustrate her statement that “everything else is just CRAP” by which she meant “Color, Repetition, Alignment, and Proportion.” Unify your slides by using the same color somewhere on each one, Repeat some element from slide to slide to reinforce their connectedness, Align the elements on each slide to take advantage of the way we have trained our eyes to scan a page, and use different sizes of objects on the slide Proportionally to represent importance.

At another presentation at the same the speaker advocated using a headline and an image – nothing else – on each slide. The headline is effective for the left half of the brain to remember and the image, the right half.

I have used these techniques for both standard presentations as well as in the “Ignite” format with 20 slides, each advancing automatically after 15 seconds to complete the presentation in 5 minutes.

Deborah Button

Preparing for a presentation can be a little overwhelming but I now look forward to using some of these suggestions. I liked the image of your 4 photos for giving, sharing, packing and moving.


Great ideas!
Been in many meetings that put me to sleep with intensive written points overloading the brain.
KISS is a good key here. (keep it simple s……)
Images to drive a verbal point home works.
Humor always helps as noted but do watch for the PC Police.
Thank you!

Jo Hart

Absolutely wonderful information. I subscribe to a communications newsletter that will have little vignettes on different subjects. One of the most poignant for me concerned PP presentations. It stated that never put more on a PP slide than what you can read as if riding in a car and passing a billboard sign.

Lisa Roepe

Really great tips. I love how you boiled down the objectives of your project to four active verbs. I don’t know about anyone else but, when I am sitting through a PPT presentation with bullet points, I tend to read the bullet points and not really listen to the speaker.