Templates are lifesavers. They reduce the workload and allow people to avoid reinventing the wheel. In many areas of professional life, templates are useful, dependable, and critical to productivity. There is only one area in which templates become a trap for mindless execution. That area is slide design.
PowerPoint templates, whether they ship with the software or are bought through third-party services, come with a problem. Template designers don’t know or understand your audience the way you do. They do not care about helping you make your point more effectively. They do not care if 100 people use the template or a 1000 people use it. From their vantage point, That makes perfect sense. As the presenter, the onus is on you to determine what works for your audience. Why am I so set against PowerPoint templates? I have a few reasons. Here are the top five:
1. They are impersonal
Most of us understand that the way you speak to a group of teenagers should be different from the way you talk to a group of professionals. What makes good sense in one case does not necessarily in the other. PowerPoint templates, even when they are superbly designed, still lack the framework and rhetorical context in which your presentation will occur.
You might be tempted to say that you can customize a template. The question becomes how many people do you know that have the patience to go through a template and change its settings? If there are such people out there, they must be in the super minority because I have not seen many presentations that could evidence this. I sit through conference presentation quite frequently. I have seen all the templates that ship with PowerPoint or Keynote for that matter. They are impersonal and deny you the opportunity to make a visual impact. Your audience wants to be persuaded, but it expects you to do your homework.
2. They are dated
The templates that Microsoft and Apple ship with PowerPoint and Keynote, respectively, have been in existence for a while. The designers may add a few new ones with each release. So what’s the problem with this? The problem is that your audience has already seen all those templates used in one presentation or another.
I was at the NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) in Las Vegas, NV, a few years back. I saw two back-to-back presentations using the same templates. While the content was useful, I felt like the presenters only wanted to pass on information. These presenters were all respected practitioners of aural and visual storytelling. They just have not understood that they can use their skills to personalize the design of their slides. Even though using dated templates is not a cardinal sin, it can diminish the presenter’s standing in the eyes of the audience.
3. They diminish your standing as a communicator
Using stock templates also paint the presenter as someone who does not want to do the work on behalf of the audience. Perhaps my views are a bit extreme, but I believe in what Marshall McLuhan said eons ago. Indeed, the medium is the message. Just like we take good care of our appearance when we go to an important interview, we also need to take good care of the visuals in our presentation when we step on stage to share our knowledge with other professionals.
Anytime a presenter takes a shortcut, he or she cheats the audience out of what could have been an unforgettable performance. As an audience member, I lose some respect for the presenter when he or she uses an old and tired template from the PowerPoint or Keynote library. I want the presenter to show me that he or she has put some thought not just into coming up with the information discussed but also in formatting the message to help the audience retain the information long after the presentation has concluded.
4. They reduce visual impact to a minimum
Our visual memory is quite powerful. It’s the reason we are so drawn to stories. Long before moving images, we were using our visual memory to make sense of tales. We could see colors, landscapes, and vast emerald oceans of the Caribbean in our mind’s eye. We could go on adventures without leaving the couch in our living room. PowerPoint templates most of the time miss out on this critical component of information retention. With strong visuals, stories stay with us longer. Information that is complex, difficult to store, and almost impossible to recall becomes easily accessible. When your audience’s reaction to your first slide is “Not this template again, I feel like I see it everywhere,” you can assume that your message will fall on deaf ears. This happens because you delegated your creativity to someone who may not be qualified to design your slides.
5. They sometimes ignore basic design principles
Let’s face it. Most of the templates that ship with PowerPoint or Keynote are not half bad. However, some of the templates come with some ugly color combinations. Some are visually too intense; others just ignore all the basic principles of design. Moreover, people using templates are also not aware of the rules that govern design, so the audience ends up with confusing slides full of text and imagery that does not add any value to the presentation.
While these five reasons may have convinced you to avoid using PowerPoint templates, I’ll settle for a little bit of compassion for the audience. I reckon that there may be cases where using templates is the only way to get the job done. Even on those rare occasions, I would still encourage you never to use a template as delivered. After all, that’s why they are called template, right?