“Death By PowerPoint” and Other Presentation Pitfalls: A Crash Course in Multimedia Design



What follows is the list of common mistakes I often see students make when they don’t consider the rhetoric of their multimedia design decisions. (You’ll recognize some of these from Don’s video.)

1. TIME & PROPORTION One Slide Doesn’t Always Equal One Minute

If you’re composing a PowerPoint, make sure you consider your ration of slides to minutes you’re presenting. It’s pretty hard to get through 20 slides in ten minutes unless you want your audience to experience visual whiplash. Depending on the kind of information you’re covering, some slides may take more time, whereas you might breeze through others. Practicing your presentation – and timing it – is the most useful way to know whether you need to cut down, or add on, to your presentation. Make sure you leave time for your title, introduction, and conclusion slides.

You’ll also need to pay attention to the proportion of slides you dedicate to each section of your presentation. For example, if you have 5 slides with information about your current event but only one that discusses your original analysis, you might want to rethink what you really need to emphasize. Likewise, if you’re making a DVD, don’t spend more time educating your audience about your issue than you do backing up your original analysis. Think balance.

2. STRUCTURE    Paragraph : Slide : Frame

Each medium has a basic organizing unit. An essay has paragraphs. A PowerPoint has slides. A video has frames.  Just as each paragraph in an essay should have a clear purpose, so each slide or frame should have a clear purpose and should relate to the larger composition. And just like an essay, your PowerPoint or DVD should have an introduction (including a thesis), a body, and a conclusion. An outline works for composing in any medium, and a topic sentence outline can still be useful for organizing your points in a multimedia project.

A. PowerPoint. Take advantage of bullet points and differing slide layouts to organize your ideas, manage your slide space, and help structure your ideas.

B. DVD. For frames that present written text, PowerPoint rules generally apply. In addition, make sure a quote or statistic stays on the screen long enough so that the audience can read it. If your text is spoken (i.e., an interview), choose someone who speaks clearly and is articulate about his/her ideas.

3. AESTHETICS    Flash does not equal attention

Multimedia software offers the student composer a number of zippy add-ons and animation options to make a presentation flashier.  But like a good essay, you want your audience focused on your ideas, on your good thinking, not on flashing colors and blinking text that distract readers from your ideas or hurt your ethos by making you look unprofessional.

A. Clip Art. Like flash animation, clip art can also be distracting. More importantly, it probably won’t set the right tone. Let’s say you’re creating a presentation on the importance of foxes in an ecosystem. Consider the ethos of the following images. Which one seems most professional?

Cartoon clip art.

A pen-and-ink illustration.

A photograph.

B. Other Images. Tables, graphs, and photographs can also be useful and may help your audience visualize a point you’re making. Make sure these images are big enough for the person in the back to see clearly, and make sure they’re not fuzzy, stretched, or pixelated, especially if you’ve enlarged the original. Poor photographs and hard-to-see graphics will hurt you more than not including them at all.

4. FONTS    Pretty Isn’t Always Professional

Just like clip art, fonts have a tone or ethos as well, and your audience will take you more, or less, seriously depending on the font you choose. As with Word, you have a wide choice of fonts to use both in PowerPoint and Movie Maker. There are basically two types of fonts: serif fonts and sans serif fonts.

Two Types of Fonts.

Remember to pick a font that’s easy on the eyes. You may want to use a different font for headings than you use for the rest of your text. That’s fine, but be consistent and don’t use more than two fonts total or your text will start to look messy.

DO steer clear of fancy fonts or fonts that are “themed” – for example, those that look like handwriting or cursive or fonts that look like engraving, etc. In addition, avoid using fonts with letters placed too close together; they’re hard to read.

A. Font Color. The most important thing to remember with fonts, and particularly with font color, is readability. This is especially important when your audience is viewing something like a PowerPoint or a video. Your favorite color might be yellow, but it sure won’t show up well on a white background. And yellow on a dark background can look fuzzy when enlarged.

Stick with neutral colors and remember that the sharpest contrast is usually dark text on a very light background.

B. Font Size. Again, readability is of the utmost importance. Make sure your fonts are big enough to that the person in the last row can read what you’ve written.

5. TEXTUAL EXTREMES    Achieving Balance

I tend to see extremes in students’ PowerPoint slides: either a slide contains a whole paragraph and fights with the presenter for the audience’s attention, or  a slide has very little text and looks “unfinished.” Another problem: bullet points may contain one vague word apiece, neglecting to give the audience enough to understand what’s being said. So I often see bullet points on slides that look like this (say your presentation is about advantages of cleaning up the Wabash River):

  • Water – ecosystem
  • Wildlife

When these more specific bullets would help your audience understand your points better:

  • Healthier river ecosystem
  • Return of endangered wildlife

6. JUGGLING THE MULTI- IN MULTIMEDIA    Transitioning with Technology

The last mistake I often see students make is neglecting to transition smoothly between different forms of technology. For example, if you’ve been going through PowerPoint slides and you want to show a video, make sure that the audience knows what’s coming and why we should pay attention. In short, just as you would offer us a transition in an essay, give us one in your presentation too. Consider the following introductions and which one would make you sound more credible:

  • “So here’s this video…”
  • “The following BBC news clip from October shows protesters occupying Wall Street…”

So  make sure you effectively introduce your media.  Here’s one last thing to consider. You don’t necessarily have to embed a video in your PowerPoint. It’s fine to have a video pulled up ahead of time and to switch over to it. Just make sure your transitions are smooth and seamless so you don’t waste time or look unprepared, and your audience doesn’t have time to get distracted.


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