Writing for Presentations


I’ve never thought of myself as a Powerpoint guru – and that “death by Powerpoint” phrase echoes loudly in my ears – but during the past few weeks I’ve been asked twice to help polish up some Powerpoints. One was for a real estate firm; one was for a publisher.

Both contained great information and made a strong case, but there were inconsistencies in the language as well as the design.

Fortunately, I was working with designers who were able to simplify, stylize and unify the visual aspect, but from a communication perspective, there was work to be done.

The rules of Powerpoint are not too different from other forms of presentation:

  • Know your audience
  • Understand the objective
  • Have a clear call to action
  • Offer logical thought progression
  • Open with an intro and close with an ask
  • Brand consistently
  • Include a content copyright
  • Use high quality images
  • Parse your words
  • Bullet the key points
  • Don’t switch pronouns mid-stream

This is not the place for a narrative or a mural. In other words, get to the point, keep it simple, make it visually clean.

With regard to audience, understanding their level of sophistication and familiarity with your product is critical. If you need to educate them from the ground level, you’ll want more material up front. If they already know who you are and just have to be sold, then you can jump right in. Although I usually advocate writing in third person, this is one place where first person works. “Welcome to our presentation. We hope you will join us…”

Next, step away from your desk and consider the topic as if you were stranger. What is this about? What do I need to know? What’s important here? What’s fluff? I’m not convinced. Can you say that again?  A diagram would really help.  I’d believe this number if you sourced it. I can’t read this tiny type so forget it!  Man, this presentation is screaming at me. This is so long, ho-hum, I wonder what’s for dinner… This is so short, they must not have much to say.

It’s very easy when we’re extremely close to a subject or passionate about it, to assume that others are, too. Nothing could be further from true.

As a viewer, it’s incredibly annoying being led down one path only to be sent in another direction by a presenter who digresses.  So map out an outline, and fill it with logical transitions.  Imagine this scenario: “So, this is what I wanted to say, but before I do, let me introduce this other thing, then get back to what I said in the beginning.” Haven’t we all been there? The joy of a presentation tool like Powerpoint is that it lets you move things around, so if you haven’t gone from A to B to C, you can re-order the elements. Good advice: keep it all moving in the same direction.

Presentations are an example where “Less is  More.” Just because a logo looks good on a page, you don’t need three of them, but by the same token, it’s smart to have a consistent repeating footer or template element that will remind viewers who you are.

Infographics can help, but please resist replicating the rainbow. An illustration that is clean, clear, and uncluttered – yes, minimal – usually works best. And while computer programs offer a wide array of interesting fonts, it’s wise not to use all of them on one screen. Ditto with background colors, bursts, and arrows. Use them discreetly… for relevance, not for show.

This is no place for iffy images. Do the legwork! Face it. You can’t enlarge a low res thumbnail or pull something off the web and expect it to hold up at wall-size. Take your own photos, secure source files, or buy a quality stock photo. (I’m a big fan of iStock, but there are numerous suppliers.) Make sure permissions are cleared when you take your own. Use a photo release.

Cut your words ruthlessly.  Sure, this is true: “Our location is the best around because it is easy to find and appeals to a wide range of affluent people in the area.” Better would be: Company Name followed by 3 bullets: * premium location, * high demographics, * travel hub.

Similarly, when talking about benefits, this would not be wrong: “We help sell your goods and services because we work hard and advertise them to groups that are interested in them, and we can reach prospects in many ways.” Better would be: Product Name followed by three bullets: * Target advertising, * Multimedia, * Proven Results.

Fine to recap your points at the end, but wrap it up fast with an easy response mechanism. Don’t unsell your audience. Leave people feeling smart and ready to buy…. or as some colleagues say, “Are you in?”

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