5 Ways to Avoid the Powerpoint Timesuck

Photo by: ToastyKen

Note: In light of the popularity and timing of Merlin Mann’s recently posted MacWorld video, I should note that these tips were written with a technical presentation in mind, where data, figures, text and in general significant information on each slide is often necessary. In that vain, I’m also not sure how presentations are done in the humanities or even in many social sciences, so this may or may not apply to folks in those fields.

PowerPoint can be one of the greatest timesucks in a grad student’s life. And by grad student, I really mean anyone who uses PowerPoint. The most dangerous part, however, is that often we have no idea the crimes it is committing in taking our precious time and energy from us. Its guise of productivity is its greatest weapon. We add our slides, pick layouts, tweak them, add titles, tweak them, add figures, tweak, text, tweak, tweak, revise, tweak, tweak, tweak. Hours go by like this. Hours. Isn’t PowerPoint just supposed to be a tool to help us convey our ideas?

My questions to you my friends is this: Who is the tool, you, or PowerPoint? Join me in reclaiming our time lost to PowerPoint.

  • Layout all slides first. Work from the outside in. In my experience, the single greatest timesuck is revision. Of course, only in a perfect world can you get things right the first time, but we want to avoid common situations like making the first slide, adding the figures, the text, the title, realizing space is scarce and moving things around just right, resizing all the figures to actually make them fit, spending a good 30 minutes on this one slide before deciding, “You know what, the third figure really belongs on its own slide, where I have more space and can add the fourth figure that would complement it just perfectly.” I’ve found that thinking big picture and working into the details is the best method. I almost always outline first on a scratch piece of paper, deciding what the main points I want to get across are, basing those main points on key figures, and parsing those figures into slides. Only then do I start making slides. This has worked wonders.
  • Use the simplest layout possible. Now it’s time to make the slides. As I mentioned, each side should be based on 1 or 2 figures. Chuck the constraining ready-made layouts as they just cause frustration and you browsing through other layouts. Start with a blank slide or the title-only layout, pick a place for your figure(s) and text, put those two things in their place and move on.
  • Avoid clicking “new slide” whenever possible. After you’ve made a couple of slides, you should not have to create many, if any, layouts. Unless you’re in graphic design, presenting to graphic designers, the goal is to keep folks’ attention on your work, not distracted by how flashy your presentation is. So simply copy and paste the previously created slide that has the best layout for the slide you are about to create, delete the content, and replace it with new stuff. Now we’re flying along.
  • Finalize all images and figures before putting them into PowerPoint. Oh no! You made almost the whole presentation and realized that a bunch figures had this-one-thing mislabeled. Or the units are wrong. Or the line color really doesn’t show up well. That’s a killer because now you have to go back into your image editing or graphing software, tweak tweak tweak, recreate the figure, and replace it in PowerPoint. There’s not much I can say on this point other than be careful. And most importantly, once you figure out the details for a few figures, stick with what works! Again, let your content and work do the razzling and dazzling.
  • Make non-essential presentations as simple as possible. Lastly, we come to a subtle killer within the already subtle time-killer known as PowerPoint. Many times, we have to make little mini-presentations to summarize the status of a project to colleagues. If it’s not being shown to strangers, it’s not that essential. That’s my philosophy. You should go for sheer speed and content in these presentations. This is a time to discuss. If you are showing it to your professor or group, focus on figures only. Text should just be a reminder for things you want to bring up to them. They know the basics, and you can explain many detials to them very fast. Think about how colleagues discussed work before PowerPoint. They probably just printed figures and talked. Don’t worry about pretty-ing up these presentations, just get them done so you can get feedback and getting back to things that are more worth your time.

Lastly, I should mention that these are time-saving tips for PowerPoint, general advice on quality of your presentations should still apply: Use large font sizes, keep text to a minimum, etc.

What time-saving PowerPoint tricks do you use?

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