Make Your Point - How to create winning PowerPoint presentations.

The symptoms are already appearing: Your stomach is in a knot; you're sweating; you don't want to eat; your mind won't stop racing. You've got a presentation to make tomorrow, and you have no idea how you're going to pull it off.

What's worse, you know next to nothing about that ubiquitous professional presentation tool, Microsoft PowerPoint.

No worries! We're here to help. Whether you've never loaded PowerPoint in your life or you're a casual twice-a-year PowerPoint user who forgets the basics between projects, this article has something for you.

First, we'll help you think about the structure of a presentation--because technology can't help you if you have the wrong game plan to begin with. Then we'll show you how to create basic slide shows, how to spiff them up so they keep the audience from falling asleep, and how to avoid common design errors.

A quick note: Our tips are geared toward PowerPoint 2000, but most of this advice will apply to the 97 edition, as well. When program functions differ between the two versions, we'll point that out.

Before You Start

You may already have an idea of what you want your presentation to look like. Good. But hold on to your laser pointer, because you need to plan a few details first. Jumping into design mode without planning your presentation's structure first is like traveling to an unknown country without a map or basic supplies. So here's a checklist you should consult before you embark on this visual safari:

- First things first: Are you absolutely sure you need a slide show? Often it's easier to get your point across by taking your clients (or colleagues) to lunch and discussing the issue at hand in a relaxed atmosphere.

Many people genuinely despise watching presentations, and the last thing you want to do is alienate your audience. If you're going to be making a pitch to potential clients, do the smart thing and ask them before the meeting if they have any objection to watching a slide show. If they don't object but ask you to make it brief, keep that point in mind when you build the presentation.

- Are you expecting a captive audience (such as a room full of conference attendees) or an interactive session, whereby each slide is likely to be interrupted with questions or comments? Since you probably have a target presentation length, sketch out a rough "storyboard" with this factor in mind. Try to plan for up to one minute per slide if your audience is going to be passive, and longer if you expect questions. For a 15-minute presentation, use no more than 15 slides; make it 10 or less if you're expecting to have a dialogue with the audience.

- Slides are just highlights of points you're trying to make. People won't read a lengthy report projected on screen. Remember to summarize important points on the slides, use charts and graphs as often as you can, and keep more verbose content on handouts or in e-mailed follow-ups.

- Are you planning to use specific graphics (such as a company logo) or charts? Have them ready--that is, on your hard disk--before you start.

- Think of your presentation environment. If you're going to have a projector (and the lights will be dimmed), the design rules will be different from when your audience is going to sit next to you, watching your tiny notebook display. Enter too much text on a slide displayed three feet away from your audience, and you'll be facing squinting, irritable readers. On the other hand, the same slide may be much more legible when projected.

- Avoid sound effects at all cost. The point of a presentation is to serve as a visual while you speak.

Your audience doesn't need the extra distraction.

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Yael Li-Ron

PC World

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