Help with Research Presentations: Powerpoint

As I gathered together my slides for the next week of teaching, I was thinking about the difference between the way my slides look, the way archaeologists’ slides looked at the AIA, and the way a lot of other slides look (no fingers pointing — the worst I’ve ever seen belonged to the prof who taught before me in one of my four classrooms last year. And I don’t even know who that was!). This can be broken down into, basically, text vs. non-text slides. The archaeologists at the AIA had almost exclusively non-text. The prof before me had thick text — size 20ish, filling the slide, no bullets. And mine tend to be a mix of the lightly texty and the pictorial.

This leads me to what I learned as the 20-20-20 rule of Powerpoint (Prezi tips to follow in a different post — if anyone uses Keynote, please feel free to jump in!):

  • 20 slides max
  • 20 words per slide
  • size 20 font minimum

Okay, so maybe #1 isn’t doable in a 3-hour lecture (this was meant for 20- to 30-minute business presentations — although I usually don’t go far beyond 20 even in my longest classes). But the other two are, I think, key: 20 words per slide because otherwise it’s distracting; size 20 because otherwise it’s too hard to read from far away.

Too small, too busy, too yellow

But why should you care about following these rules, and when should you break them?

It probably depends on who you’re giving the presentation to and why. So if you’re reading this blog, I figure you present to professional peers (e.g. at a conference), students, and perhaps student peers (e.g. in a seminar).

If you are presenting at a conference: you should care because you want people to understand and comment upon your work. You will probably want to pay the most attention to the font size, because the rooms are big and you never know how big your screen will be. I know that I have had people tell me in large (or even just deep and narrow) venues that they could not read my size 20 font. So make your life easier: pick the most memorable and/or important parts of your text for the slide, and splurge on size 24. Or bring a handout.

If you are teaching: You should care because you want your students to learn. And students often don’t like text-heavy slides, and they don’t necessarily learn well from them. They think whatever you put up is important. They try to copy it. Even if you tell them to stop copying and listen to you, they try to copy it. This isn’t because they’re dumb or don’t trust you — there is actually learning science on this stuff. When students are presented with text and a voice saying the same thing, the two modes cancel each other out. You may well be better off just bringing a printout of your powerpoint and reading it (although your students may not appreciate that, either!).

I like to use one key image or a list of terms/dates that last for several minutes of talking. It doesn’t always work, but I’d say that a map or list will do the job 80-90% of the time (and also brings me awfully close to >20 slides per 2-hour lecture).

If you are presenting to your peers: Here your motivation is probably the most complex. On the one hand, you want a good evaluation (in whatever form that’s going to come). On the other hand, you want to teach something to your companions. So the class presentation is a mix of #1 and #2.

Class presentations are usually short enough that you will want fewer than 20 slides. Even in a small classroom, though, you’ll want at least size 20 font for anything that you actually want people to read (an image credit or reference could go in 18). But in a small seminar setting, you may want to ignore the 20-word rule in favor of a longer chunk of text for the group could discuss. In that case, break the rule — but you may also want to consider providing copies to everyone either electronically or in hard copy, so that they’re able to mark it up as they read.

Too much even for a dedicated audience

Although I don’t know of any specific rules about images, you want to avoid filling your slides with too many (think clean, not cluttered). Two or three is usually enough, although I admittedly go up to five. More than that, I find, don’t fit very well, and once they are small, you have the same problem as with the tiny text — no one can see the images well enough to interpret them.


You should also try to find good, high-res images. I use Google image search for most of my classroom powerpoints, and once I find the image I want, I pick the highest-res example I can find. (You can see the size by hovering your mouse over the image — this gives you the size in pixels and the website it comes from. If you’re not sure about the source of your image, this is also useful!) Note that these images are often larger than you want. That’s okay! It’s better to get a big image and crop/resize it than it is to get a small image and blow it up — which is what a projector does. The latter is how you get blurry pictures. Trust me — just because it looks good on your computer screen doesn’t mean that it will look good on the projector screen. I’ve found that 800×800 is usually okay for an image that will be >75% of your slide. If you are planning to make the image take up the entire slide, or if you know that you are going to have a very large screen, you might want to go up to 1000×1000 or higher.

As for fonts: I generally think simple is best, but as long as your fonts are not distracting anyone from your presentation, it doesn’t really matter what you use. It’s generally better to stick with a single font in multiple faces (e.g., bold, italic) than it is to use a lot of different fonts (using other scripts, such as Greek, is an obvious exception). One caveat: not all fonts can be read by the projector. So if you are using an unusual font (not Arial, Times New Roman, etc. — and this includes Greek!), you may want to bring a backup of your presentation in PDF in case the fonts don’t transfer correctly.

Right column, third from bottom: disaster Greek

This is also true of colors, by the way — basics, like plain red, will work just fine, but if you use Powerpoint’s custom-color capabilities, you may find that your colors have changed. These changes are more likely if you are switching platforms.

Finally, a word about animations: the fewer, the better. And if you must use them, please make them the less flashy kind. This isn’t do much because they’re distracting (they sort of are), but because those rotating boxes can make people ill — just like a badly-done Prezi. I’ll try to get to the basics of that in a different post.


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Help with Research Presentations: Powerpoint by is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.


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