Leverage Human Nature to Create Mesmerizing Presentations

Maybe you’ve worked for days on your PowerPoint presentation and feel confident about its professional quality. You’ve included facts, diagrams and charts. You’ve packed in enough bright colors that it looks like a Disney World holiday light show.

No one, you vow, is going to accuse you of giving a bad presentation. You’ve got lots of good information, and approach it with the deep belief that no one would ever dare tweet during your presentation that he or she is in the #PowerPointfromhell.

But despite all your preparation, you may still be judged as giving a bad presentation.

Why? Because you’ve made some errors that don’t have anything to do with spelling or facts, but have the same effect of turning off your audience and making the PowerPoint bomb.

The brain is capable of many wonderful things, but it also has some limitations that you should consider before giving that whiz-bang presentation. For example, did you know that the colors of red and green are difficult to focus on at the same time? Do you know that using more than three italic words in a row is more difficult to read than standard text?

Stephen M. Kosslyn, author of “Better PowerPoint: Quick Fixes Based on How Your Audience Thinks,” has studied how the mind works when it comes to taking in visual information from a PowerPoint. He offers suggestions that can make an audience much more receptive to your information, such as not underlining information because it makes it difficult to read descending letters like “p”.

Other suggestions from Kosslyn about text include:

  • Type should be at least 24 point, so even those in the back of the room can read it easily. At the same time, use consistent typefaces for copy, headlines, etc. Mixing different typefaces may seem creative, but distracts the audience away from your message.
  • When using captions that will be in 14-point type or smaller, use sans serif typeface instead of serif typeface. Research shows that serif typeface, with its little “feet” can become grouped together awkwardly and make the letters difficult to distinguish. Avoid “fancy” typefaces such as Alegerian, which can be difficult to read for your audience.
  • Only use a white background if the room will be partially lit. A white background in a dark room causes glare and can result in audience members seeing “after images” when they move their eyes.

Once you’ve made improvements in your text, it’s time to think about color. While you may think your chart with red, orange, purple and green is dazzling, your audience may just be dazed. Kosslyn also has a few suggestions to make sure your color has impact. He advises you to include:

  • Text in a warmer color than the background. Because of how light is focused in the eyes, warm colors such as red and yellow will appear to be in front of cool ones such as blue or green. This will make it easier for your audience to automatically focus on the text, instead of the background.
  • Make sure the title is in a more eye-catching color than the text so that audience members focus on the key thought first.
  • Avoid a deep, heavily saturated blue color because the eye can’t focus on it properly and it will even appear blurred around the edges.

Just as people form an impression of you within seconds based on your appearance, the same can be said of a PowerPoint. Before you give a presentation, take the time to consider not only the content, but how it will look to audience members.















Anita Bruzzese

Anita Bruzzese is a syndicated columnist for Gannett/USA Today on workplace issues and the author of “45 Things You Do That Drive Your Boss Crazy.” She has been on the Today show, and quoted in publications such as O, The Oprah Magazine, Glamour, Self.com and BusinessWeek.com. Her website, 45things.com, is listed on the Forbes top 100 websites for women.

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  • James Cosman

    These are great tips! I can’t tell you how many presentations I have sat through where somebody posts a white slide with black text with about 5 paragraphs of text and then just reads the slide. I am always tempted to ask them to just provide the slides, leave, and read them at a coffee shop. Also, I have been doing presentations lately with an online tool called Prezi (www.prezi.com). Once you get used to it, I have found that presentations in Prezi result in endless compliments.

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  • Anita Bruzzese

    Thanks, James! I think even experienced PowerPoint users always need to be learning, finding out what best works to deliver their message clearly to their audience…so people like you aren’t wishing they were in a coffee shop!

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