A Comprehensive Guide to Diagnosing and Fixing the 15 Worst Slide Problems

Last time we checked, there were 13.3 million Google search results for “Death by PowerPoint.

     13.3 MILLION.

And more likely than not you’ve experienced it — that sinking feeling when someone says “Let me just fire up my slides,” you see a hodgepodge of bullets and clip art framed in an overbranded corporate template, and you know instantly you’re not going to get the next hour of your life back.

Death by Powerpoint example

Death by Powerpoint Exhibit A, via Boing Boing

It’s worth noting that we have nothing against PowerPoint itself — in fact, PowerPoint can be used to create some incredibly awesome presentations, if you have strong design skills or you know someone who does.

But let’s face it — as a culture, we’ve developed some pretty bad, and pervasive, habits in the PowerPoint department, and the truly excellent ones feel like the exception rather than the rule.

In our mission to fill the world with beautiful stories and ideas, we feel the time has come for a field guide to diagnose, and fix, the most egregious slide situations that — singlehandedly or in combination — can result in Death by PowerPoint.

We invite you to be part of the solution by spotting these common offenses and trying the recommended techniques to transform presentations from something we dread into something we enjoy.

15 Fixable “Death by PowerPoint” Issues

1. Pea Soup (#peasoup)

The problem: Dense paragraphs of text that fill the slide. (Even worse: The presenter who insists on reading all that text to you, word for word.)

Death by PowerPoint: #peasoup example

#Peasoup example, via ComputerWorldUK

Why it’s a problem: Your audience can either listen to you, or read your text, but not both. And if you start reading the text to them, it’s a guaranteed tune-out moment.

The solution: Trim your text down to one key point per slide and move any excess information (or your script) to the Notes.

2. Templamental (#templamental)

The problem: The overbearing corporate template that burdens every single slide with logos, abstract frames in “the brand colors,” copyright strings, and the like.

Death by PowerPoint: #templemental example

#Templemental example, via fastcodesign.com

Why it’s a problem: You might be making a cohesive brand statement, but it comes at the expense of your actual content. Trust me on this one–nobody cares about your corporate template except your corporation.

Nobody cares about your corporate template except your corporation.

The solution: Consider putting your logo and branding on the first and last slides instead of every slide. Another good technique is to evoke brand colors through thoughtful image selection and palettes throughout your slides — you don’t always have to be literal. In Haiku Deck, try searching for “blue abstract,” “blue and green,” etc.

3. Chart Attack (#chartattack)

The problem: So much data is packed into your chart or table that it’s utterly incomprehensible to everybody except you.

Death by PowerPoint: #chartattack

#Chartattack example, via Paperstone.co.uk

Why it’s a problem: When we’re dealing with data, it’s tempting to think that more is more. But when your audience is trying to grasp your point quickly, it can be overwhelming, especially if you are showing a sequence of detailed charts.

The solution: Try focusing on one or two key points, even if that means breaking a detailed chart into a series of simpler ones. Look for different ways to tell the story of the number or trend that matters most — which could be a powerful image, a crisp sentence, or a single statistic. Read more about creating simple, stunning Haiku Deck charts and graphs.

4. The Jitterbug (#jitterbug)

The problem: Too many animations and transitions, flying bullets, etc. (Related: The Prezi effect.)

Death by PowerPoint: #jitterbug example

#Jitterbug example, via shaysl-sloganthoughts.blogspot.com

Why it’s a problem: These bells and whistles take the focus off your content — and, over time, become tedious.

The solution: Simplify and skip the whiz-bang effects. On the iPad, you can use Haiku Deck for smooth transitions and elegant chart builds that are subtle, not jarring. (Bonus: They’re also automatic, so you can spend more time being creative and less time fiddling with builds.)

5. The Squinter (#squinter)

The problem: Slide text is too small to read from the back of the room, or on a mobile device.

Death by PowerPoint: #squinter example

#Squinter example, via CIO.com

Why it’s a problem: If you’ve ever tried to review a presentation on your iPhone, or had a less-than-ideal seat at a conference, you know the answer to this.

The solution: Use big bold fonts and minimize text. Put extra text in the Notes, where it belongs.

6. Stockpile (#stockpile)

The problem: Generic-feeling stock photography that’s obviously posed. (See 13 Hilarious Examples of Truly Awful Stock Photography.)

Death by PowerPoint: #stockpile example

#Stockpile example, via designshack.net

Why it’s a problem: Images do have the power to truly engage the emotions and add richness of meaning, but you won’t achieve this with cheesy stock photography.

The solution: Give yourself time to explore interesting creative directions, and look for images that feel authentic, not staged or posed. Try thinking metaphorically instead of literally — what feeling is at the root of what you’re trying to convey, and what might evoke that feeling? Read more power tips for selecting images effectively here.

7. Ugly Duckling (#uglyduckling)

The problem: Clashing color palettes, mismatched images, and general sloppiness.

Death by PowerPoint: #uglyduckling example

#Uglyduckling exampke, via indezine.com

Why it’s a problem: Even the most compelling and worthy ideas can be diminished when they’re presented in an unappealing way.

Even the most compelling and worthy ideas can be diminished when they’re presented in an unappealing way.

The solution: Choose a simple color palette for images and graphics, and stick to it throughout. Haiku Deck makes this easy with its one-touch themes.

8. Comic Relief (#comicrelief)

The problem: Overused fonts such as Comic Sans can make your slides look generic — or, worse, amateurish. (We’re looking at you, too, Papyrus.)

Death by PowerPoint: #comicrelief example

#Comicrelief example, via sapdesignguild.org

Why it’s a problem: Using these fonts in a professional context can make it hard for people to take your hard work seriously.

The solution: There are plenty of fonts that are both friendly and polished. If you’re using Haiku Deck, try Origami or Zissou.

9. Fire Away (#fireaway)

The problem: Too many bullets and sub-bullets, with multiple levels of

  • bullets
  • bullets
  • and more bullets.
Death by PowerPoint #fireaway example

#Fireaway example, via mathbabe

Why it’s a problem: There’s a time and a place for concise lists, but bullets can be a cue for your audience to tune out — especially most of your presentation follows the same header-and-bullets format. Unless you’re using them very creatively, bullets = boring.

Unless you’re using them very creatively, bullets = boring.

The solution: Try breaking bulleted lists into multiple slides so you’re truly focusing on one key point per slide. If a bullet doesn’t feel like it deserves its own slide, cut it or move it to the Notes. Yes, your presentation will have more slides this way, but you can go through them more quickly — and you’ll be more like to hold your audience’s attention along the way.

10. Clip Clutter  (#clipclutter)

The problem: Predictable, lame, or even childish clip art selections cluttering up your slides. (Dancing pizza, anyone?)

Death by PowerPoint: #clipclutter

#ClipClutter Example via Geek Law Blog

Why it’s a problem: See #8.

The solution: Skip the clips, or try a beautiful high-impact image instead.

11. Mishmash (#mishmash)

The problem: Excess cutting and pasting = too much going on in one slide — a hodgepodge of fonts, styles, images, and clip art.

Death by PowerPoint: #mishmash example

#Mishmash example, via rikomatic

Why it’s a problem: All that extra stuff detracts from what matters: your message.

The solution: Simplify, then simplify again. Strip out anything that doesn’t directly support your message.

Strip out anything that doesn’t directly support your message.

12. Bad Credit (#badcredit)

The problem: Photos obviously pirated from Google Image Search, or worse (visible watermarks are one telltale sign).

Why it’s a problem: Using photos without permission, or proper attribution, is poor digital citizenship and may have karmic ramifications.

The solution: For free, beautiful images, stick to Creative Commons — learn more about Haiku Deck’s integrated Creative Commons keyword image search (which pulls in image credits automagically) here. Other solutions are to use your own images, or use properly licensed stock photography (for example, Getty Images available via Haiku Deck for iPad).

13. Rambler (#rambler)

The problem: The presentation drones on and on without a clear takeaway or overarching point. Can be caused by endlessly tweaking and adapting a presentation over and over again.

Death by PowerPoint: #droner example

#Rambler example, via heatherchristenaschmidt.files.wordpress.com

Why it’s a problem: Even if your audience stays with you slide by slide, will they remember anything you said later?

The solution: Allow sufficient planning time up front to zero in on the one most important takeaway. A good method is to build out your big idea with three supporting points or examples. Trim out any content that doesn’t clearly support your big idea and save it for another time.

14. Alphabet Soup (#alphabetsoup)

The problem: You spent hours making your slides look perfect with a custom font, saved your hard work to a thumb drive or Dropbox, and when you go to present from a different machine? The fonts default to something else altogether, and the alignment is a mess.

Death by PowerPoint: #alphabetsoup example

#Alphabetsoup example, via presentation-process.com

Why it’s a problem:  Funky line breaks, spacing problems, and possibly unreadable text (not to mention wasted time).

The solution: Save your work as a PDF instead — or, better yet, use Haiku Deck, which displays your fonts perfectly no matter where you’re viewing or presenting.

15. The Slideument (#slideument)

The problem: Trying to make your slides do double-duty as a handout, a leave-behind, or a stand-in for you actually presenting them. (Credit where credit is due to the great Garr Reynolds, who coined this term.)

Death by PowerPoint: #slideument example

#Slideument example, via batteriesmayberequired.blogspot.com

Why it’s a problem: Taking this approach encourages too much text on slides (see #1, #5, and #9) and detracts attention away from what you’re saying.

The solution: Keep your slides minimal and include supplemental information on a separate handout. Haiku Deck this makes this process incredibly easy with PDF handouts.

More Resources for Avoiding Death by PowerPoint

Your Turn

What awful slide types did we forget? Which one bugs you the most? What are your tips for curing Death by PowerPoint? Let us know in the comments!