Rethinking the Design of PowerPoint & Keynote Slides: Is it Time for a Makeover of Presentation Slides?

24 Oct

As with effective writing, keeping the audience, their expectations, and limitations in mind is key to making engaging PowerPoint [and Keynote] presentations.  Bob Grant

I’ve been using PowerPoint for a long time in my teaching, but after reading an article by Michael Alley and Kathryn Neely, in Technical Communication, I am considering how to make my presentations more memorable for my students.  Regardless of the content of my presentation slides, if the slides aren’t verbally and visually memorable, my students aren’t likely to retain the information.  In “Rethinking the Design of Presentation Slides,” Alley and Neely make a convincing case for the use of sentence headlines and visual evidence when designing presentation slides as opposed to the traditional use of phrase headlines and bullet points.  Their approach is summarized below.

  • Use a sentence headline (rather than a phrase headline) to orient your audience to both the topic and the purpose of the slide.  Begin your design process by distilling the main take-home of the slide into a single sentence.  Think of this as analogous to a topic sentence in a paragraph. This helps orient your audience as they study the slide.  For example, instead of the non-descriptive “Results” as a slide title use “Genetic database searching shows that the worm gene unc-103 is homologous to the human cardiac potassium channel HERG” to establish your assertion.
  • Use visual evidence to present details.  Use the sentence headline as your guide as to what images to choose.  Presenting your information both verbally (your sentence headline) and visually helps increase audience retention.  Choose images that will persuade your audience, not clip art that provides decoration rather than pertinent information. Alley and Neely argue that clip art undercuts the seriousness of a presentation. Images to use may include photos, charts, graphs and visual arrangements of text. Some online sources for photographic images include Flickr Creative Commons and everystockphoto; also, check to see if your university offers local image resources, such as the University of Minnesota’s image library.
  • Use rhetorical strategies rather than bullet points to structure slides.  Why?  Because bulleted lists do not show connections among the listed elements, nor do they typically orient the audience to “both topic and purpose of the slide.” They also argue that the conclusion slide becomes the most important slide of your presentation when it contains the essential information that you want your audience to take away.

Penn State University’s “Rethinking the Design of Presentation Slides: The Assertion-Evidence Structure” provides samples of redesigned slides making use of these principles.

Bob Grant, in a recent Scientist article, adds these suggestions:

  • Start with a blank slide to challenge and forget about the presentation slide program’s default, which will free you from the constraints of bullet points, subheadings, boxes and borders.
  • Establish your assertion even before creating your slide – start planning each slide by writing down a single sentence stating the idea you want the audience to take away, your assertion sentence.  Can’t do it in one sentence?  Maybe you’re trying to cram too much information into one slide.
  • Select appropriate visual evidence by letting assertion sentences guide your decisions as to which visual(s) should accompany it as evidence to build persuasions.  Aim for explanatory rather than decorative images.
  • Signpost changes in information by signaling the move to a new concept with a significant shift in your accompanying imagery.  Have a picture appear or an arrow move in to point out important information on a graph or use typeface choices as signposts.
  • Go for big differences when signaling changes to new concepts or ideas, avoid slight variations in font, color or size.  Make it easy on your audience by going for big, bold changes.  But be careful not to overdo the differences on single slides or across entire presentations.

And, finally, some fine-tuning suggestions for alternative design of presentation slides (from Alley & Neely):

To design an effective presentation:

  • Use a sentence headline that states the slides main assertion for every slide beyond the title slide
  • Present supporting evidence in a visual way in the body of each slide by making us of images, graphs or visual arrangements of text)
  • Limit the number of slides so that at least one minute can be spent addressing ideas and evidence set out by each slide

To create a layout that is appealing to your audience:

  • Limit blocks of text (including headlines) to one or two lines
  • Limit lists to two, three or four items
  • Be generous with white space

To help your audience know where your presentation is going:

  • Include an image on the title slide that orients the audience to the subject or purpose of the talk
  • Include a mapping or organizational slide and include mnemonics for the sections of the talk
  • End with a conclusion slide that conveys what you see as the presentation’s main/central take away message

To make your presentation easy for your audience to read:

  • Use a sans serif font like Arial
  • Use 28 point or larger type size for the headline, and at least 18-24 point type size for the body text
  • Avoid text in all capital letters, it’s harder to read



Alley, Michael & Neely, Kathryn. “Rethinking the Design of Presentation Slides: A Case for Sentence Headlines and Visual Evidence.” Technical Communication 52.4 (2005): 417-426. This link will connect you to an earlier – and publically available – version of the paper.

Grant, Bob. “Pimp your PowerPoint.” The Scientist 24.4 (2010): 76-78.

Penn State University. “Rethinking the Design of Presentation Slides: The Assertion-Evidence Structure.”


4 Responses to “Rethinking the Design of PowerPoint & Keynote Slides: Is it Time for a Makeover of Presentation Slides?”

  1. Aubrie Adams 24 October 2011 at 7:38 pm #

    Good tips : )! And also very timely for me, I am leading a discussion in my Instructional class tomorrow on using PowerPoint effectively!

    • UMinnTeachLearn 24 October 2011 at 9:01 pm #

      Yay, Brie – please, after your presentation, do share some of your ideas and what it was you ended up doing and saying in your prezi.

  2. Cristina Costa 26 October 2011 at 6:21 am #

    indeed great tips. I usually use images and caption only as you mention – as a prompt to what I want to discuss. It’s true that people seem to engage more.

    When I teach online I also use blank slides so learner can actually write on them – I use those as an opportunity for active participation.
    (when teaching face to face I replace writing on slides on the fly with post-its cause I’m a lousy speller! 🙂 )

    For creative commons pictures I have started using
    And add the ones I use to my flickr faves so other people can have access to them too – some of us have actually started doing that so another pool of pictures is being created through some of my flickr contacts’ favourites 🙂

    Love this presentation on “how not to do powerpoint” 🙂 just thought I should share.

    Thanks for writing this blogpost! 😉


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