Presentation Design: Seven Mistakes to Avoid

November 29, 2017 Koffi Alain Sessi

At some point in your professional life, you’ll have to present a pitch, a report, or something that will put you in front of a group of your peers or colleagues. Regardless of the specifics of your topic, PowerPoint presentations are a fact of professional life. They are unavoidable. Unfortunately, how to design an effective presentation is not a subject of interest in our universities. So most of us had to learn after college. Regardless of your circumstances, here are seven mistakes you should avoid when designing your next slide deck:

1. Too much text in your slide

The most important fact to remember is that your presentation is not a document. The purpose of your slide deck is not to tell the story for you. It is to help you tell the story. Too much text and you’ll lose your audience. Let me explain. As humans, we are only able to do one thing very well at-a-time (Well, according to researchers, there is a small number of people who can effectively multi-task. The rest of us are only fooling ourselves). By transferring your text document onto the slide, you are forcing your audience to make a choice between listening to you and reading your slide. Anytime you offer this choice; you’ll inevitably lose. It is a scientific fact that our brains are wired to save energy. Because of this, the natural choice (easier choice) is always going to come out ahead. By reducing the text content of your slide to the bare minimum, you are asking your audience to listen to you.

2. Wrong/Inappropriate images

An image carries more information than just words. Whoever said that a picture is a thousand word, could not have been more accurate. However, when used inappropriately, an image can become a thousand word of distraction. The biggest distraction occurs when the image is the wrong size or contains inappropriate content. For example, an image which only covers a small portion of the screen leaves the audience wondering if there is any hidden meaning. When a speaker mentions something contrary to the symbolic content of the image on the slide, the audience is once again left to wonder if it missed some crucial element. A temporary disconnect occurs between the audience and the presenter anytime the audience wonders about the sync between the visuals and the narration. Recovering from such a disconnect is much harder that one would assume.

3. Small font size

While font size can prove useful as a way to emphasize particular words and clarify meaning, using small font sizes is bad. In the best case scenario, the audience will strain its eye trying to read the slides. Every minute an audience member is making efforts to decipher the words is a minute he or she is not listening to you. In the worst case scenario, audience members will just give up and tune out. This point goes back to the idea that a slide deck is not a document. Moreover, when you make the font size bigger, you are less likely to put a lot of text on the screen.

4. Gratuitous Design elements

Every element on your slide should serve a purpose. That purpose is to help you tell your story. Any item on your slide that does not contribute to creating a better story is unnecessary. You can think of these elements as noise that just pollute the visual experience of your audience. You must develop some empathy for the audience and hold yourself to a high standard. Even if you think an item would look cool on your slide, you want to avoid it precisely because it has no purpose other than sitting on your slide looking cool. Never forget that your definition of cool is not the same as that of your audience.

5. Busy opening slide

I have seen this often on conference slides. The opening slide does not have to look like a poorly prepared bowl of spaghetti. One of the gravest offenses (in my book) is adding too many colors to your opening slide. The other type of offense that I also see regularly relates to text. A wordy opening slide is off-putting. Even though traditional wisdom seemed to have convinced us that we should not be judging a book by its cover, most of us still do. So a visually cluttered opening slide may prove fatal to the success of your presentation. The number of people who will engage with you will fall sharply with an off-putting opening slide.

6. Bad text placement

Text alignment or placement is not something you can leave to chance. Just like any element on your slide, the placement of text on your slide should follow the utility rule. Does the text placement provide any value to your story? The answer should always be yes.  I recommend you use the old television production rule: avoid placing the text at the edge of the slide because it’s hard for the audience to read. While you can virtually place text anywhere on your slide, you must be purposeful and strategic with the position of your text.

7. Awkward relationships between text and image

When a full-screen image is the backdrop of your text, you must account for the elements in the picture. Most often, presenters just place the text wherever they want, thus creating an awkward relationship between the text and the image. The best way to do this is to build a symbiotic relationship between your text and your image. This means that you must select your image according to the text that will sit on top of it. In other words, you have to know what text content you are going to put on that slide, then find the image which most accurately represents and amplifies the point you want to make.

To bring all together, crafting a winning PowerPoint slide deck is not as complicated as it may appear. It requires that you become aware of some simple rules. And you can make up your own rules. Whatever rules you create, just make sure you make your audience the hero. Doing so will make your design process better, and turn your slide decks into visual aids that your audience will love.

This article originally appeared on