A guide to building a modern presentation deck
New technology, combined with shifting habits in content consumption, have changed the game for PowerPoint decks. To build a powerful presentation, companies need to abide by a new set of rules. Here are three of them.
Rule 1: Size your layout for widescreen, not standard aspect ratio.
When building a PowerPoint deck, many companies make the mistake of using the old standard aspect ratio (4:3) instead of a widescreen format (16:9). It’s easy to fall into this trap, because some older versions of PowerPoint still default to the standard size.
However, to align with modern technology, decks must be built for widescreen. Virtually every projector screen, television and computer on today’s market uses a 16:9 display. In addition, widescreen layouts simply look better.
When making the transition to 16:9, consider these tips:
Don’t try to copy-and-paste slides from a 4:3 deck to a 16:9 deck. Your copy and images will end up looking stretched and strange. You may, however, copy text and images from an old deck and paste them into a new deck.
To encourage company-wide adoption of the 16:9 format, update your organization’s templates to reflect the new sizing.
Build a library of key slides in 16:9 and make them available for company-wide use. The convenience of those slides will push people to use the new format.
There is one exception to this rule: It is acceptable to use the 4:3 format if your deck will never be shared in an in-person meeting and only used for printouts. This is rare, however.
Rule 2: Err on the side of simplicity.
A lot of companies become overzealous when filling their PowerPoint decks with content; they try to cram their slides with as much copy and images as possible.
Sometimes this is motivated by a fear of forgetting important details during a presentation. Other times it’s motivated by a desire to visually demonstrate the depth of their insights or knowledge.
Either way, the outcome of this approach is almost always the same: The audience finds the presentation hard to read, hard to follow or hard to engage with.
Following these tips will help you avoid the same fate:
Strive for clarity and brevity. Make sure your deck clearly communicates your key messages while using as few words as possible. Avoid using full sentences and edit your copy ruthlessly.
Pace your content. Don’t try to jam too much information into any given slide. Break up your content across multiple slides, just as you’d divide text across pages in a print brochure. You might also want to consider using color as a pacing device to organize your content.
Use icons instead of words. Some pictures are worth a thousand words. To save space, consider whether it makes sense to use icons or images—rather than copy—to represent an idea.
Pop key message points. Highlight key points to make it easy for your audience to spot and understand them. If, for example, you want to make a point about operating costs, pull out that specific figure instead of displaying your entire P&L sheet.
Rule 3: Use system fonts rather than brand-specific fonts (most of the time).
Brand-specific fonts—that is, those two or three fonts that are unique to your company—are great for creating visual consistency in most marketing materials. However, they’re not always a good choice for PowerPoint presentations, especially if you’re working at a large organization.
Often, large organizations are better off using standard fonts (i.e., those that are pre-installed in most Macs and PCs) when creating a deck. That’s for two reasons: One, if your deck is shared with someone outside of your organization, it will appear different (and potentially sloppy) on their screen if they don’t have your fonts installed on their computer. Two, it’s inconvenient to install fonts on every computer in your company, and will become increasingly complicated as your company grows and acquires new equipment.
If you’re concerned that standard fonts won’t look stylish enough, remember that a savvy designer can figure out how to overcome this hurdle. By applying their typography skills and tweaking font sizes, a designer can even make Arial, Calibri and Georgia look good.
In small companies, however, it's usually okay to use brand-specific fonts in a deck—as long as you can ensure that everyone in the company saves their deck as a PDF before sharing it with someone outside the company.
One other exception to this rule: If you’re delivering, say, a high-profile pitch or speech, it’s okay to use brand-specific fonts to ensure alignment and consistency with your brand—or your client’s brand—just as long as you don’t share the digital version of your presentation with anyone.