How to avoid making boring presentations

I have been doing a lot of presentations lately. So, inspired by the classic Steve Jobs and Bill Gates comparison, and after reading these comments over at Presentation Zen:

If someone emailed you both presentations, you’d probably be more likely to make out Bill Gates’ message.

How would you scape from bullet points and charts if you are presenting a technical subject?

I’ll have to throw in my little presentation guide as well. Hell, I’ll even give you an example. I am going to show you the presentation I use to tell students about pixels, colour schemes, dynamic range and a complete explanation of run length encoding of pictures.

Without one single bullet point.

The typical bullet point hell version of one of the slides would be like this:


Nicely done with a horrible default gradient background and an ugly font.

The first quote from the comments is answered by my presentation rule number one:

If someone that did not attend to my presentation can understand anything if I mail them my slides I have made a really bad set of slides. Really bad.

Why the heck would I bother spending money on a ticket to London and do a presentation if I could just mail the people my presentation and they would get the same? Ladies and gentlemen: slides are an illustration to what you are saying.

…but what about the people that did not attend? If they are important you’ll have to do another presentation or you’ll have to produce a document that people are supposed to read. A set of slides is not a document that people are supposed to read.

I’ll show this with my example.

In my presentation I have three illustrations that I use while talking about bits and how a picture can consist of simply huge amounts of bits:

Bits Illustrated

That’s my slides when I talk about bits, switches, header files and why we need to compress. The illustrations alone are not enough when the students repeat for themselves before exams. So, I have to provide them with a document that they can read. An excerpt from the document:

Figure 26

The simple picture in Figure 26 will be stored in the computer as a series of zero and one:


The header of this picture-file would tell the computer that this is a 1-bit picture and that the dimensions are 8 by 8 pixels. After ordering the bits in rows with 8 bits in each row it starts to look like an image:


In a computer everything is stored as a representation of zero and one. A simplified view could be to compare the zeros and ones to switches. A switch that is off or a switch that is on. The simple picture in Figure 26 needs 64 switches to be described. When sent over a network a total of 64 small signals have to be transmitted. Storage and network communication cost time and money. If it was possible to describe the same information with less amount of switches it would be possible to send it faster over a network or store it on a cheaper hard-disk.

When I talk about pixels I have this on my slide:



What about quote number two? Yes, I know – it seems difficult to illustrate highly technical issues. Still, these issues are the ones that really scream for illustrations. Now feel free to download the following files. They are excerpts from my presentation on digital images:

The presentation (PDF)

The accompanying document (PDF)

My best advice would be that you give yourself serious restrictions like “never bullet points”, “always an illustration”, “only one font”, “never animation effects”. And no, that would not limit your creativity. Setting restrictions for yourself will actually enhance your creativity! Especially if you stick to them like they where the truth and nothing but the truth.

I will most likely be back here with more presentation advice.

Already more presentation advice: Presenting Software

But really – you don’t need more than this free eBook from Seth Godin: Really Bad PowerPoint (click the red “Get it”-button)

And a tour of Presentation Zen.

And as a little note in the end. No, I don’t hate bullet points in text documents. I hate them when they are on peoples slides.

How to avoid making boring presentations

20 thoughts on “How to avoid making boring presentations

  1. Hey, that first comment is mine.

    Thanks for the excellent article and examples.

    My issue is that a lot of people at my work expect PowerPoint slides to be an Executive Summary of a presentation.

    Let’s say you were giving a presentation about a specific program. How would you highlight the features of a given screen, without using those EVIL bullet points?


  2. It’s great that you like my post!

    Very often you need an executive summary. Make it, but give it to the audience after the presentation. And, please use PowerPoint to make the executive summary, and remember that bullet points is perfect for written summaries that is handed out.

    When I talk about software I use a lot of screenshots. Then I highlight the part of the screenshot that I am going to talk about. Depending on how the presentation is done I can highlight by walking up to the picture and point myself, or use a red circle in the presentation.

    I have made a new post with an example:
    Presenting Software

  3. Mark says:

    Very interesting Blog! It’s interesting for me because here in corporate America (and maybe other places for all I know?) PowerPoint has replaced Word as the delivery vehicle for everything from simple reports to corporate strategy. It as always been my thinking that the more information rich (read: dense) my slides are the better. Our “decks” (PowerPoint) are meant to be read, generally, so they contain a lot of text. With that said I think it depends on whether it’s a presentation or a deck. A presentation can be done with few/no words because you’re speaking to it real-time. You wouldn’t get the information simply from viewing graphics and charts but I wonder if it’s possible to be more creative, after all, a picture is worth a thousand words…

  4. I have been working several years as a consultant for Accenture and know everything about dense slides :-)

    PowerPoint is actually quite fine as a tool to make handouts, summaries and quick reports.

    I think the main problem is that people use these dense documents as their illustrations to what they are saying in a live presentation. The problem is that they are exactly that: dense documents – and not illustrations.

    As mentioned here, you need two documents. One that work as illustrations to what you are saying in your live presentation and one that you hand out after the presentation.

  5. Not only is that an excellent point, it takes into account those who are using PowerPoint as documentation. It’s not telling them to stop, it’s just saying that “documentation” does not equal “presentation”. Besides, who would think of giving a presentation using Acrobat Reader? :)

  6. Eirik, I spent several years at Accenture as well, most of them as a Graphics Specialist churning out one PowerPoint slide after another. (Ugh. Is it possible to imagine modern management consulting without presentation software? I’ll admit that I, and many people around me, were part of the PowerPoint problem.)

    I’ve learned a lot since then. Today, among other things, I have a weblog about PowerPoint and presentations. Thought you might be interested…

  7. Hi

    I am looking out through Google Alerts for “boring presentations” as I want to update my lens on Squidoo.

    Well done on a great post. Before I decided to post I searched for “Beyond Bullet Points” and could not find any. If you are familiar with it then, “sorry friend”.

    I use Beyond Bullet Points everyday enjoy the freedom and creativity it allows using PowerPoint.

    Beyond Bullet Points (BBP) is a add-on to PP and you can find the book on it at Amazon.

    Using screen cast of my BBP PowerPoint slides make it easy to distribute it on the net, and on CD business cards.

    I will keep in touch with a great blog.


    Johan Horak

  8. Dan says:

    I downloaded the presentation.pdf sort of by accident and it opened in preview. I just quickly clicked through the presentation … and in about 30 seconds, understood digital imagery better then I ever had.

  9. Great stuff, thank you for sharing.

    I think that the presentation style is more important than the format, because I sometimes give presentations and receive excellent feedback, even though I have forgotten that I had a slide show and only showed the introductory slide…

    Best wishes,

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