My Toolkit for Powerpoint and Keynote Presentations

Originally published: 03/2009 by J Wynia

Between technical brown bag sessions, project status meetings, and just plain putting together something to explain an approach or solution to a problem, I find myself in Powerpoint/Keynote more lately than in the past. I've been asked a variety of questions about those presentations where the answers are something I thought might be interesting to share.

Zeroth, I'm fully aware of the irony of an article like this not "practicing what it preaches". Note that creating an engaging presentation full of lively slides is more work than quickly writing up a few points. This article is the latter because of the effort involved in the former when faced with my current work queue.

First, is that I do use both Powerpoint and Keynote and go back and forth, even on the same presentation. That's due in large part to the fact that I don't actually use either one when it comes time to fire up the projector. Rather, I use both (and quite a few other tools) as mechanisms for creating slides/graphs/infographics, etc.

The final result of the computer side of a presentation for me is actually a PDF. PDF turns out to be a great format for actually delivering the presentation. You can throw the PDF on a memory stick and it's almost a universal certainty that you'll be able to open it using whatever machine you're expected to use.

Given the number of people I've seen show up with Keynote only to discover a PC, hard-wired to the projector, I think this is a sound strategy. Acrobat Reader handles full-screen just fine and also includes the only transition I ever use: fade. You don't get the fancy "builds" where text comes flying in from the back of the room, does a little dance around your pie chart and then settles into your bullet point ranks. And, I'll go on record that that's a good thing.

So, basically, I use whatever makes sense to get a series of PNG slides that I turn into the final PDF presentation. However, before diving into how I build those slides"¦

Before Creating Slides

I think the most important presentation habit I picked up was to start working on the presentation somewhere other than *in* Powerpoint or Keynote. Both of those tools encourage a pattern that I think is the number one cause of the bullet-point onslaught.

What I see people do is File->New Presentation and they start by filling in the title and adding a new slide. That slide is always the Title/Bullet Points layout and they start filling in those boxes and just keep right on going.

If you start away from the presentation editor and organize your thoughts and ideas into the points you want to make, the things you want to convince your audience of, the things you want to be sure you communicate, etc.

This is where good old fashioned note-taking, outlining, and mind-mapping come in. Capture the ideas so you can cut out the crap that doesn't belong. Even if you take a bunch of notes, throw them all away and go to Powerpoint "fresh", your thinking will be clearer and the presentation better for it.

Slide Design

As I've been working on improving my own presentation techniques, reading books like Presentation Zen and slideology looking at the best of Slideshare, I've seen lots of "named" styles and varying sets of rules. Rather than getting hung up on the details of whether one of those sets of rules is "better" than another, I have boiled it down to my own guidelines/principles that are common to most such recommendations:

  1. The fewer words on a slide the better.
  2. The words on the slide shouldn't be the same as the words you say.
  3. The slides are a side dish, not the entree.
    • The things I've actually got to say are what I'm there for, otherwise, why bother doing it in person?
  4. Let the slides deliver the joke.
    • When you're nervous, the timing of humor can be difficult. If, however, you insert little jokes into the slides, as though your "assistant" was messing with you, etc. you can still use humor, without the stress of having to hit the punchline.
  5. A picture is worth a cup of coffee.
    • Whether it's a graph or a photo of a screaming monkey, a picture will keep people awake and engaged more than text.

To those ends, I basically have a handful of slide layouts that I use, none of which are in the default layouts from EITHER Powerpoint or Keynote.

  • Basic Text - this is the headline font, smack in the middle of the page. More than about 5-6 words and this layout stops working.
  • Quote - this is the subheading font smack in the middle for quotes of 1-2 sentences. I avoid using this for anything but a quote.
  • Fullscreen image - this is usually just the default "blank" with the image dropped in.
  • Graph/Chart - again based on blank with just the graph itself and maybe a small caption. The graphs/diagrams need to be simple, but then they can be really useful.

That's it. If I am concerned about people "catching up" later, I publish a different document or record the presentation. For URL's and links to resources, etc. I've been leaning more and more on a handout that I give out at the end rather than trying to include that stuff directly in the slides and hoping people will note down the info.

Finding Images

So, where do I find images and how do I keep track of them? This tends to be one of the most common questions I get.

First is that I always save a copy of the page where I find an image online as a way of taking a snapshot of the permissions it was marked with when I downloaded it. To that end, I use the MHT format to save the entire page, including the photo itself, into one file, which I name according to a description of the photo.

All MHT is as a format is MIME-encoded HTML. That's what is used for email attachments. So, don't let anyone tell you that it's a "Microsoft proprietary" format. It's not. Internet Explorer, does, however, support it out of the box, while Firefox requires the UnMHT extension to be able to save or open the format.

Then, where to get the images. I get 90%+ of them from Flickr's Creative Commons section. My site used to have an app that helped search through those, but it's been down for a while and I'm not sure when/if I'll put it back up. In the mean time, I actually use a simple bookmarklet that prompts for a term and then searches for photos based on that.

Flickr Search Bookmarklet

Put the following into a new bookmark as the URL, putting it all on one line.

javascript:Qr=prompt('Tag...','');if(Qr)location.href='http://www.flickr.com/search/?q='+escape(Qr)+'&l=commderiv&ss=0&ct=0&s=int&m=tags'

Thesaurus Search Bookmarklet

And, since it can be a trick to figure out which term to actually search for in order to get something you want on a slide, I've got a similar bookmarklet for a Thesaurus search.

javascript:Qr=document.getSelection();if(!Qr){void(Qr=prompt('Enter%20word%20to%20find%20in%20Merriam-Webster%20Thesaurus:',''))}if(Qr)location.href='http://www.merriam-webster.com/thesaurus/'+escape(Qr)+'%20'

I tend to cycle through those, fairly quickly coming up with stuff I can use. It generally works well to search for abstract terms like "fast", "angry", "calm", etc. to get good slide material and tends to cut down on the tendency to have slides made up of images of the exact words you're using, which feels weird to the audience.

Overall, this set of tools lets me work on multiple presentations at once, throw one together fairly quickly and has generally gotten me quite a few compliments when given in places where the bullet-point brigade is the norm. Hopefully, they can help you too.

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