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When 1+1=0, and Other PowerPoint Tips

Updated: Feb 25, 2021

By Richard O'd.

College Prep is a school of presenters. Whether it’s a teacher giving a lecture, a student hosting a Common Classroom, or community members presenting during Assembly, we listen to and give each other ideas every day. We even have an entire day, CPS Day, dedicated to guest speakers presenting their take on inspiring topics. A key tool we often use when presenting is Powerpoint. For an application used thirty million times a day, I feel that we don’t take enough time to learn what makes a good presentation. In this article, I have compiled indispensable tips for creating a slideshow.

“If companies would have as little respect for business as they do for presentations, the majority would go bankrupt.” -John Medina, molecular biologist


Each of your slides should tell only one message. This may sound obvious, but it’s a very important step to maintaining audience focus. A change in slides represents a change in subject; just having a slight pause or a subtle change in your voice won’t do the job. Some might complain that this may lead to a large amount of slides in your presentation, adding that people will lose interest or focus on you over time or that more slides will make the presentation less memorable. To that, I say, “The number of slides in your Powerpoint has never been the problem.” The number of different messages that you convey per slide is what will make your presentation less memorable. 

Which would be less memorable: a manageable, forty-slide-long presentation with each slide having a clear, unique message; or a confusing, four-slide-long presentation with slides jam-packed with ten messages each? The idea that teachers and professors should implement limitations on the number of slides that a student’s presentation can have defeats the goal of an impactful presentation. So, in short, try starting by turning one slide like this into a more manageable combo, like this.

Sentences or Bullet Points?

A common mistake people make after writing a speech is dividing and copy-pasting their exact words into their presentation. While this may be the quickest and easiest way to create slides for your speech, doing so is problematic. Even after dividing your slides’ content into bullet points, you may still be left with full sentences, which can not only slow down the viewer’s understanding of the slide’s message but also distract from the presenter: you. To the audience, this issue can become frustrating if you’re used to paraphrasing from your written script when you present. I like David JP Phillips’ analogy from his Ted Talk “How to Avoid Death By PowerPoint.” Phillips explains that having full sentences on your slide and talking over it at the same time is like saying “1+1=0”; zero of your presentation is remembered by the audience. Instead, try to make your presentation convey “1+1=2” by creating bullet points. The content of your slide builds upon and reinforces what you are trying to say by being as simple and concise as possible. I recommend having one to two words per bullet point to help your viewers easily follow along but still focus on you. You should be the one presenting, not the PowerPoint. Continuing from step one, this is the process you should be moving towards to make your slides more concise.

The Magic Number

Counting the number of objects on a particular slide is not something people do very often. Anything from a bullet point to a picture or video on your slide can count as an object, but do not include the title; the reason being that it’s not what viewers will take away from your presentation. To find the right number of objects for a slide, I want you to participate in a short experiment.

Let’s open up this slide. Take a look at the photo on the left, and try to time yourself to see how long it takes to count the objects. Then, try the second picture. If you counted correctly, the two pictures had 7 and 5 objects on the screen, only leaving a difference of two. However, for the average person, there was a 500% difference between the time it took to count seven objects and five objects (1.2 seconds vs. 0.2 seconds)! How is this possible? To explain this, we’ll have to look at the human brain. 

Pretend that you roll a dice, and it lands on the side with three dots. Almost immediately, you know that the side has three dots without even thinking about it. How does that happen? In order to count so quickly, your brain “subitizes,” or unconsciously recognizes a small group of objects, instead of counting each dot on the dice as “one, two, three.” Humans usually have the ability to subitize up to the number five. However, I would argue that six is the magic number for the number of objects you should have in each slide. As we examined in our experiment, counting seven or more objects requires far greater cognitive skill than five or less, and five objects is the height of human perceptive abilities. I believe that you should aim for the sweet spot between counting objects and seeing objects to achieve the highest amount of slide memorability. Don’t become fixated on always having six objects, though — it’s fine to have a bit more or less between slides.

Don’t Let PowerPoint Control You

Slideshow creators love using pre-made templates. They are a great way to simply add color and design to your slides, but I dislike some aspects of them. For example, have you ever wondered why PowerPoint automatically thinks the title of each slide should be larger than the text? I find this philosophy totally ridiculous. One thing our eyes are immediately drawn to are large objects. After you have presented, you don’t want the takeaway to be the title, you want it to be the message. The most important part of your slide should be the largest. Utilize tools given to you such as the Master Slide Editor to change the size of the text so that it is larger than the title. If there is a word or two in particular you feel is important to remember, size them up a little or use bold. 

Another thing our eyes are drawn to are signaling objects and colors, such as white. Have you also wondered why the template you start with is black text on a white background? This is the opposite of what would be ideal. If you’re presenting on the Buttner Auditorium screen, a Smart Board, or even just screen-sharing your slideshow on Zoom, make your background a substantially darker color than your text. Weaker shades of black, gray, or dark blue work great; try not to even use the strongest shades of these colors. Again, you want the audience’s focus to be on you, the speaker, and not your PowerPoint. Finally, I recommend that you apply simple, non-distracting animations. All you need is a simple group of “appear, fade out” animations for each of your bullet points. 

Presenters love to choose a unique font for their presentation. The font you choose can often send a message about who you are as a person. You want to be taken seriously. Courier New is organized and structured, but you look like you want to pretend you’re using a typewriter. Comic Sans MS means you want to be funny. Times New Roman is a large improvement, but it can come off as “that font your teachers told you to use”: it makes you seem unimaginative. Personally, I recommend using Garamond or Georgia. For the final steps of creating your PowerPoint, try making this slide even better by altering your presentation's aesthetics.

In this process of PowerPoint excellence, you’ve shortened your speech from paragraphs to sentences to multiple bullet points and, finally, single bullet points, by using animation tools and styling expertise. PowerPoint, signified by its name, gives power to your point like no other platform. I hope, by reading this article, you learned something new about how to harness the power of this unique tool, which has become increasingly important and prominent, especially as we learn from home.

Editors' Note: This piece was updated on February 25th 2021 at the author's request. The has replaced photographs with hyperlinks and slightly adjusted the text, with minor abridgement by the editors.


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