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PowerPoint Presentations

Engaging PowerPoint Presentations: Creating PowerPoint presentations and other visual displays of information that are well–designed and engaging…

When it comes to the design and presentation of information, there are well–researched standards and best practices like those below that can help you make your next presentation more engaging.

Working on a PowerPoint? Refer to the PowerPoint Design Checklist (PDF iconDownload the PowerPoint Design Checklist) the next time you’re working on a presentation to be certain that your design choices, whether conscious or unconscious, will not detract from your message.

Design for your Audience

The first thing to keep in mind when designing a presentation is that you are communicating with an audience, and your presentation cannot be considered successful unless your audience learns something new, is inspired to action, or changes their perspective based on your communication.

PowerPoint has become one of the most disliked of productivity technologies, and for good reason. While a PowerPoint file is one of several good presentation tools, like handouts or whiteboards and markers, that can be leveraged to support audience understanding, unfortunately, it is often either created at the last minute and thus not given the attention it deserves considering its place at the front of the room, or, it is often used as something similar to a teleprompter, with the listener hearing exactly what they are reading on the slides.

As a presenter, you have a responsibility to your audience. You are responsible for considering your audience — their incoming level of knowledge, language and communication styles, and goals as participants — and crafting your message with that audience in mind. You should also design to engage your audience, respecting the normal human attention span of 7–10 minutes and planning for interaction. This doesn’t mean you need to "entertain" your audience. As long as you give a clear, organized presentation that follows best practices for good visual design, your audience has a responsibility to attend to the speaker.

Design for Understanding

  • Get organized. Before you begin inserting content, make a high–level outline of your presentation. You can use the outline early in your PowerPoint, after the Learning Objectives, as a table of contents to let your audience know what to expect and guide them throughout the presentation. 
  • Show them; don't tell them. Images tend to be "stickier" than words, especially if they’re vivid and distinct. Sticky messages are those that are easy to remember, and, just as mnemonic devices are used for memorization but are not the knowledge themselves, your visuals only need to reinforce a concept, not represent it exactly.
  • Minimize distractions. A well–designed presentation has no need for the majority of sounds and animations possible in PowerPoint. The use of transitions to reveal one point at a time or simply placing one point per slide will keep your audience focused on the topic at hand.

Design for Readability

Many of your design choices will determine whether your audience will be able to easily read the text and see the images on your slides, and those in the back of the room should be able to see your content as clearly as those in the front. The factors impacting readability are below. For specific directions and guidelines, refer to the Power Design Checklist. (PDF iconDownload the PowerPoint Design Checklist)

  • When it comes to text size, bigger is always better. Viewed on your monitor, it will probably appear too big to you, but that means it’s probably just the right size.
  • Use the most contrast possible between text color and background color.
  • Forget any guidelines you've heard about the "right" number of slides. A larger number of slides only leads to a longer presentation if there is a lot of content covered on each slide. Less content per slide means text and graphics can be larger, and you will move through slides more quickly
  • Clean, simple fonts are easier to read than more artistic ones. Select a sans-serif font, like the "S" below, instead of a serif one, like the "G" below, and use it consistently. At most, select one additional font to differentiate headings and provide emphasis. Avoid italics and underlined text, and, instead, use bold for additional emphasis.

Design for Engagement

How else can you keep your audience engaged during a presentation?

Don't read from your slides.

A person viewing your PowerPoint file should not be able to understand the content of your presentation from the slides alone.

Not using a PowerPoint is better than using a bad PowerPoint.

When giving a presentation that is longer than 20 minutes, be sure to interact with your audience in some way. Shorter presentations may only need a poll of or question posed to your audience, which can easily be accomplished with questions that leverage Audience Response (ARS) technology inserted in your PowerPoint. Longer presentations should include opportunities to collaborate and share with a neighbor, practice the concepts, or discuss with the class

Use large, clear, high–quality images. You may be tempted to download images from websites, particularly by searching Google Images, to include in your presentation, but unless the images are described as "Fair Use," "Creative Commons," or unlicensed, it is not legal to use them. Good resources for free and free–to–use images include MorgueFile and Flickr, using an Advanced Search with Creative Commons content selected. 

Technology for Engaging Presentations


Additional Support

Contact etg-web@med.cornell.edu.



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