7 steps to building a compelling PowerPoint presentation

7 min read — by Amos Wong

How many times have you sat through a PowerPoint presentation that raised more questions than it answered? For instance, just look at the image shown above. Or how often have you seen slides so packed with information that you can’t even read them before the presenter has moved onto the next slide? If you have been in such situations, this blog is for you.

Avoiding these problems isn’t as simple as it seems when you’re creating a presentation from scratch and have a lot of information to present. The trick is to break it down into manageable pieces, starting with the broad overview and then circling in on the details. To help you do it, this article examines a 7-step process for building a compelling PowerPoint presentation, including how to structure it, lay out slides and create charts that support your message.

1. Determine your presentation type

The first step in building your PowerPoint presentation is determining which type of presentation you’re giving. This helps clarify your overarching goal, while also influencing how you structure your slides.

Presentations typically fall under one or more of the following categories representing a continuum from light to heavy content:

  1. Key message presentations: This type of presentation is usually lighter in content and tells a persuasive story, such as a TED talk or pitch deck.
  2. Recurring reports: Recurring reports include more repetitive presentations like monthly reports or slide decks for team meetings. They often include more detail to document results, trends or activities.
  3. Insights and research outcomes: Presentations such as survey data or market trend reports distill information from large datasets into high-level conclusions.
  4. Documentation: This type of presentation provides detailed summaries of findings, typically with many charts and limited commentary depending on the audience.

2. Build your story

Your next step is to ask what message or story you want the audience to walk away with. With your top-level message in hand, you can then begin to structure your slide deck around it.

This is the essence of the Pyramid Principle, a strategy for creating effective business communications ubiquitous in the consulting world. With the Pyramid Principle, you lead with your most important idea, followed by supporting ideas and facts. If your conclusion is that Acme Company should enter a new market, say it up front. Then go through each supporting argument in order of relative strength.

An important corollary to the above is the MECE Principle, which stands for mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive.

MECE principle: Mutually Exclusive, Collectively Exhaustive.

Compared with presenting a laundry list of ideas, MECE is a way to group them in a way that covers all relevant points without overlap. Using MECE to organize and group your ideas ensures a logically sound argument, while making the information easier for your audience to absorb.

3. Write your action titles

Once you have a defined structure for your PowerPoint presentation, you can get down to creating your slides. One of the most important things to remember as you do this is that each slide should present exactly one idea summarized in a single action title. All information presented on the slide must support the action title, including any charts. It is also important to avoid including any visual or textual elements that may convey or imply a different or conflicting message apart from the one in the action title.

One common strategy is to first write action titles for each slide to ensure they tell a complete story on their own. From there, you can go back to each slide and add details such as bullet points and charts.

4. Use a clean layout and formatting

When creating slides, it is crucial to avoid overcrowding them with excessive information or elements that can create visual confusion. One way to approach this is to visualize your slide as a table, laying out elements in columns and rows. Commonly used slide layouts consist of either two to three or four quadrants, depending on the nature of the content and the desired visual representation. You’ll also want to consider:

  • The rule of thirds: Placing elements at one-third or two-thirds from the edge of the slide, and particularly where these gridlines intersect, is a universal rule for building a visually appealing slide.
  • White space: Resist the temptation to pack too much into your slides. Leaving sufficient white space is essential for readability and helping the audience take in each slide’s main point.
  • Presentation type: Key message presentations will have less content on each slide, compared with documentation presentations that include more detail.
  • Fonts: Use the same font color and size for titles and body text throughout your slide deck, ideally in a sans serif font like Arial. Titles should be 20 to 24 point size, with body text 12 to 18 point based on the amount of content on the slides.

5. Organize your bullet points

A long list of bullet points is confusing and hard for audiences to digest. Instead, stick to three or five bullets, with a maximum of seven. Again, avoid packing in too much information, and all text should support the action title.

To improve clarity, write bullet points using parallel structure. In other words, if one bullet is a sentence, all of them should be in sentence form. The same goes for using sentence fragments or individual words. Each bullet should start with the same part of speech (e.g., noun, verb, adjective).

6. Choose the right chart

All chart data should be relevant to the slide’s action title. Say It with charts by Gene Zelazny offers a useful approach to choosing your chart in three steps:

  1. Identify which aspect of the data your chart will highlight
  2. Determine what you’re comparing, whether it’s components, change over time or correlation
  3. Select your chart according to the comparison you’re trying to make
Chart type vs data comparison cheat sheet.

7. Format your chart

Once you create a basic chart, you’ll want to format and annotate it in a way that conveys your message without confusion. This means:

  • Including a chart title that summarizes the data and aligns with the slide’s action title
  • Labeling both the x-axis and the y-axis with measurement units
  • Using color sparingly to highlight the chart’s conclusion, for example using muted tones with one key vertical bar highlighted in a bolder color
  • Adding trendlines to charts that can visually indicate patterns or trends in the data, for example, CAGRs
  • Displaying legends to help viewers understand the meaning of different colors, symbols, or patterns used in the chart

A PowerPoint add-in like think-cell can help you create better slide decks and charts faster. Dynamic charts, process flows, annotations and text boxes all help organize complex information into visually sophisticated presentations, so you can spend less time struggling with formatting and more time on building a compelling story.

Building a PowerPoint presentation from scratch can seem like a tall order. By breaking it down into manageable steps, however, you can streamline the process while ensuring your audience leaves with a clear understanding of your message.

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