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You knew it would be a bad presentation the moment a cartoon Freud tap danced across the presenter's first slide.

Whether it's animated .gifs, eye-straining charts or wild color combinations, we've all suffered through some terrible PowerPoint presentations. But do you know how to avoid making similar mistakes yourself?

Mastering PowerPoint may not top your to-do list, but learning to use the popular presentation software skillfully can help further your psychology career, says Richard Saudargas, PhD, who heads the psychology department at the University of Tennessee. "You will be giving professional talks at meetings as well as job talks, service talks and so forth," says Saudargas. "Learning to give an effective presentation is essential."

Research suggests that enriching your talks with graphs, charts and bulleted lists improves the amount of information your audience retains, says Taimi Olsen, PhD, associate director of the Tennessee Teaching and Learning Center at the University of Tennessee. "PowerPoint is effective, unless you mess up the [presentation] with irrelevant stuff," she says, pointing to a 2003 literature review published in Computers & Education.

What does work? Here are some tips to make your slides as solid as your research:

Write Your Speech First

Write your speech first, and only power up PowerPoint once you've drafted your talk, says David Levin, author of the 2009 book "Don't Just Talk, Be Heard!" "It's a mistake to use PowerPoint to plan the presentation in the first place," he says. That's because your slides are there to embellish your points, not make them for you, Levin says.

Lead with an Outline

Decades of research show that giving your audience an overview of your talk at the start of your presentation improves learning. So, start with a slide outlining your talk and your "take home" message. But don't return to your outline until the end of the presentation, say Nicholas Pandiscio, a New Jersey public relations professional. "An outline is a useful tool for making sure the material is coherent and flows well, but it should not be used as a placeholder to show the audience how far they are in the presentation," he says.

Use Sentence Fragments

Many presenters make the mistake of putting their entire speech on the slides, says Kelly R. Morton, PhD, a psychology professor at Loma Linda University. Instead, use your slides to augment your talk, she says. "If you can't elaborate on what they are reading, then you may not need to be present," she says.

Be Smart with Fonts

Text should be big enough to read, but not so big that it overpowers the slide, says Pandiscio. If you need to shrink the text to make it fit, he points out, you probably have too many words on the slide. Pandiscio also recommends using sans serif fonts, such as Arial, Calibri and Verdana. "They're easier to read and look better on computer screens or projectors than Times New Roman or Garamond," he says.

Use Graphs, Not Tables

To better engage your audience, convert words or numbers into diagrams and figures whenever possible, advises Moin Syed, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Minnesota. "Tables are not amenable to quickly gleaning information, especially the big picture," he says.

Summarize

Be concise. For example, if you want to discuss the clinical diagnosis guidelines for Prader-Willi syndrome, don't list all the criteria in a single slide — either select a few symptoms as examples or break the major and minor criteria into separate charts. "Too many words on a slide ... makes the audience members unable to hear what you are saying because they are too busy reading the text," Morton says. Also, stay away from animation or too much use of multimedia. However, photos or videos can be a plus, especially if they illustrate a procedure that is easier to show than explain, she says.

Keep the Human Touch

Dimmed lights and bright slides tend to diminish the personal connection between the speaker and the audience. That may seem desirable for shy scientists, but you'll be more effective if you make eye contact with your audience. "Don't be afraid to come out from behind your presentation and interact," says Erinn Leary Green, PhD, an educator assistant psychology professor at the University of Cincinnati.

After all, you — not the software — need to bring your subject to life. Too much dependence on slideshows can severely limiting, says Judy Primavera, PhD, a psychology professor at Fairfield University. "If you are a good teacher, PowerPoint can help you make the organization of your thoughts more transparent and introduce some bells and whistles that make the lesson more interesting," she says. "But if you are not a good teacher, it can be a crutch and short circuit any chance you have of learning how to connect with your students."

Mark Rowh is a writer in Dublin, Va.

Further Resources

Digital Extras
Further Reading
  • Bozarth, J. (2008). Better than bullet points: Creating engaging e-learning with PowerPoint®. San Francisco: Pfeiffer/John Wiley.

  • Daniel, D.B. (2011). Practical PowerPoint: Promising principles for developing individual practice. In D. S. Dunn, J. H. Wilson, J.E. Freeman, & J.R. Stowell (Eds.), Best practices for technology-enhanced teaching and learning: Connecting to psychology and the social sciences (pp. 87–104). New York: Oxford University Press.

  • Fedisson, M., & Braidic, S. (2007). PowerPoint presentations increase achievement and student attitudes towards technology. International Journal of Information and Communication Technology Education, 3(4), 64–75.

  • Kosslyn, S.M. (2011). Better PowerPoint: Quick fixes based on how your audience thinks. New York: Oxford University Press.

  • Tufte, E.R. (2003). The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint. Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press