This past week I helped Mrs. Answer Guy put together a PowerPoint presentation. We did it using LibreOffice, but OpenOffice will also produce a PowerPoint presentation. I’m going to say PowerPoint throughout the article, but you can use almost any compatible tool and only key-presses and shortcuts will likely be different.

During the process of putting it together, I was giving Mrs. Answer Guy some guidelines and hints I’ve learned from a couple of decades of creating presentations and I thought I’d share some of them with you.

With summer coming up, most people are not thinking about this kind of thing, unless you’re building a presentation for a wedding or other event. These tips mostly apply regardless of the end goal.

First and foremost, it’s not about the slides. This is where most people start and where they create way too much work for themselves. They start adding images, and pie charts and rearranging them endlessly. It’s a natural starting point because it appears to be the endpoint, and probably because many of us think visually so that seems like the right place – but it’s not.

When you’re creating a presentation, you’re creating a story. The story might be to amuse, or instruct, or honour, or any of a myriad of other reasons, but ultimately you are telling a story. Your story needs a beginning, middle, and end. And your story needs a plot, point, or moral.

So, don’t start your presentation by thinking about a flow of slides from beginning to end. Start by thinking about the story as if you’re creating a children’s storybook or a graphic novel. First, you have a story, then you add images or pullouts to support the story.

I like to start with an outline and conveniently PowerPoint has an outline mode. In outline mode, it works like bulleting mode in a Word document except that the outermost number is a slide and sub-numbered items are slide contents. Type out your presentation as if you were just creating a series of bullet points and sub-points for everything. Then when you feel you’ve told your whole story, you can go back and look at the titles and contents to see where you’d like to enhance your story. But you don’t do that yet.

The next step is the notes. All good presentations have a lot more information than is on the slides themselves. I’ve seen excellent presentations where the slides were just a series of photos to look at while the presenter educated us on a subject. That’s a very high level of presentation skill, so we’re not looking for that yet.

Each slide can have notes attached. This area is just for you as the presenter. Depending on your comfort level you may just make a few bullet points, or write out exactly what you’d like to say. For now, just go through each of the slides you’ve created in the outline and write what you’d like to say. Note that what you’re saying may actually be unrelated to a specific slide, or may take several slides to cover a single point. That’s okay. Just make sure that the presentation works for you from beginning to end with what you want to say.

Now we get to slides. Once you know your story and created the language for your story, at this point you want to add images or messages to support your story. If you are doing a presentation at a wedding, or anniversary, or retirement, the slides are likely to be photos. They may have simple captions only, and that’s perfect. Because you want everyone to look at the slide, but listen to you, not spend time reading the slide.

If you’re educating people then the slides should focus on key ideas or features of your story. These may be photos, pie charts, graphs, or one to three key messages that you want your audience to take away from your discussion, but if you’re reading the slide you’re doing it wrong.

Finally, check your order and run through it from beginning to end out loud. Use the timer feature when you do the Show Slide Show option. Note how long it takes you to get through it. Does this match your time slot?

Now that that’s all done, you can start to look at how you want your presentation to look. There are a zillion templates that make it easy to give your presentation a nice professional and/or fun look depending on what you’re shooting for. They can easily be tried on like dresses to see what’s going to work for you. And don’t be afraid to tweek the Master Slide where the template is styled.

Keep fonts large and simple, people are reading from a distance.

Choose colours that match your presentation. Bright colours for fun. Muted for professional.

Check your spelling.

And finally, rehearse. A good presenter with a bad presentation wins out over the other the way around every time.