Article Category: Visual Aids

Stop, Prepare, THEN PowerPoint

When you hear the term “presentation design”, what do you think of?

PowerPoint? Or perhaps Keynote if you’re a Mac fan, right?

When you take the first step in designing your presentation, how do you start?  I believe most people sit down in front of their computers and open their favorite slide software (slideware).  Sounds good, right?  Wrong.

Slide software was designed in a way that inexperienced users can open the program and follow a few template prompts to create their presentation.

Title here… bullet points there… graphs on the side.

In order to create unique presentations in a narrative format, the process of designing your presentation must happen before you open PowerPoint.

However, slideware can be a vice on one’s creativity, and few are able to break its grip.  Thus, presentations are created in analog form along the guidelines that templates dictate, resulting in nearly all presentations looking exactly the same.

In order to create unique presentations in a narrative format, the process of designing your presentation must happen before you open PowerPoint.

4 Ways to Prepare Before You Open PowerPoint

With that in mind, here are 4 ways to prepare your presentation before you open PowerPoint:

1. Get off the Grid

Leave your desk.  Leave your entire office.  Leave your house.

These places are filled with distractions — ringing phones, curious co-workers, and constant emails.  They make it incredibly hard to concentrate on the task at hand.  When I start my design process, I head to my local coffee shop, grab a hot chocolate (I actually don’t like coffee), and begin thinking of how I can tell my story.

2. Use a Printed Storyboard

Just like in kindergarten, grab a pencil and paper and start sketching your slide ideas.  You can create a simple grid by printing out 9 blank slides on a piece of paper.  Don’t worry about your drawing skills -– you’re not being graded on this.  You can even start sketching out your story by simply writing the different themes in the slide boxes, and creating the designs later.

3. Grab a Wall and a Stack of Post-It Notes

One of my favorite non-linear design techniques is to simply grab a stack of Post-It notes and start sketching my slide designs.  Place them on a wall (or with the correct-size notes, on your printed storyboard) and start placing them in the best order.  Now you can easily move them around and create the order and flow that best suits your story.

4. Mind-Mapping

Mind-mapping is a great way to organize your presentation prior to beginning your design.  Place the main idea of your presentation (as succinctly as possible) in the center of the page.  If you can reduce that to just one word, even better.  Now start making branches off of your main idea to the different supporting ideas.  It’s a great way to create the framework of your presentation without the limiting, linear aspects of slideware.  There are plenty of software programs out there to help you with this, but a simple pencil and paper will do just fine.

Are you Designing, or Are you Clicking?

Viewing presentation design as simply clicking through commands in PowerPoint is a mistake.

Creating an effectively designed presentation isn’t a clearly defined process.  There is no manual, just as there is no manual on how to paint like a particular artist.  Presentation design is its own art form, and like any art, the artist needs inspiration, clarity, and focus to create their design.

Viewing presentation design as simply clicking through commands in PowerPoint is a mistake.  It’s simply a tool – a vehicle for your ideas, your message, and your passion.  So break the confines of your slideware, free your mind, and let your vision take shape.

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Comments icon10 Comments

  1. Jessica Pyne says:

    Great post, and great point. Our CEO just delivered a presentation on this very fact, actually – using acetates and a flipchart, rather than PowerPoint. The video can be found here, if you’re interested:

    Opening up PowerPoint or Keynote and just starting to type is the worst thing presenters could do – everything should be planned, and slides should be truly visualised before they are put into PowerPoint.

  2. Joel Heffner says:

    The best place for me to think about presentations is sitting alone in the car. A close second is taking a walk. The worst place is usually at my computer. That comes at the very end of the process.

  3. Jon Thomas says:

    @Jessica – Thanks for the link.

    @Joel – Exactly. We all have our “places” to disconnect and let our mind roam the possibilities. Since I’m near the coast, I also like to go to the beach, or run.

  4. Glenn says:

    I like using post-it notes on a wall. That works great for me. Before I get to that step, I attempt to identify the top 3 points (if that many) I want to get across. (I’m not a mindmapper.)
    Once I’ve got that, I proceed to the Post-it notes. I’ve just ordered one of Garr Reynold’s Presentation Zen Bento Boxes. Can’t wait to try it.

  5. Jon!
    Great article, as always.

    But I note you assume that the reader will – at some point – turn all this preparation into a slideware presentation.

    I’d like to remind readers that many of the best presentations don’t use slideware at all.

    Try it without some time. It’s amazingly effective, and your audience will love you for it.

    All the best,


  6. Excellent post, Jon. Would make a great starting point for a PPT skills workshop…!!!

  7. These are all great points. Makes me think that when I inherit a rough presentation full of text and bullet points that I should pull out the key points and then basically start from scratch. One thing I do is to search through lots of stock photography. I can also get a “look and feel” started by using a series of images from a particular photographer. For example, blue shots with motion.

  8. I agree. The best advice we can give to a presenter is shift the focus away from PPT production. Instead, focus on the message, contents, rehearsal of the presentation. It’s just like 80/20 rule. The 80% of time most presenters spent on PPT production will only bring 20% of effectiveness. It’s the 20% that most presenters forget to do that really make the difference to a presentation.

  9. Pete K. says:

    Great article! So much of creating great PowerPoint presentations is stepping outside of the box, which is easier to do when you leave your cubicle.

  10. Dave Mac says:

    Awesome advice! Designing great slides should always be an offline activity. Offline you have a much better chance of designing slides that are not just a bunch of bullet-points that serve as a reminder of what you need to say.

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