Stop powerpointing and start outlining

February 4th, 2009 by shane

Powerpoint is ubiquitous in academic presentations, yet it is often roundly criticised. One of the major problems with powerpoint is that it focuses on form over content. Powerpoint is a what-you-see-is-what-you-get editor. This makes it easy to spend more time on the form than content, as if you start writing a presentation in powerpoint from scratch, the bells and whistles can easily be distracting, and rather than writing your presentation you can end up spending hours tweaking fonts. Powerpoint can help, however, in structuring a talk. Much of this structuring ability comes from the use of powerpoint essentially as an outlining tool. Indeed, powerpoint has an outline tool built in. However, what I recommend is not to use the inbuilt outlining tool, because it is very hard to resist playing round with the formatting. You need to separate form from content completely.

Instead, use a different tool for outlining. Chances are, if you use powerpoint, you also use word, which has a reasonable outlining feature. Go into outline view on word, switch off “show text formatting”, and write your outline using level headings. I use the ctrl-alt-1/2/3/4 keyboard shortcuts to create headings and indents.

When done, save as a normal word file, and open in powerpoint. Powerpoint will make every first level heading the title of a slide, and lower level headings will be converted to bullet points within slides.  You will need to add graphics at this stage, as importing pictures from word to powerpoint doesn’t work. I use figure names in the outline to remind me what figures I need to insert. Your pictures should come last, as like formatting, it is easy to waste time looking for clipart when you should be focusing on your content.

So once you have your content sorted, now it is time to worry about its presentation. You can then apply one of the inbuilt templates. Alternatively, for greater control and your own unique style, go to the view menu and choose Slide Master. Change the formatting of the top level slide master (choose your colour scheme, fonts, background etc…) and then all your slides will be automatically updated. You can also edit of the existing layouts or add your own. For example, I sometimes use slides with just a single line of text in the middle, so I create a new master for title page for this and name it “single title”. Then, I go back to the slide view and change the layout for particular slides to new slide master layouts I have created.

Using slide masters is key to control over visual presentation in powerpoint and becoming a power user. Rather than going through slides and making individual changes, you can make global changes that affect all slides. And if you create a slide master you like, it is worth saving them as a powerpoint template to the form the basis of future presentations.

For some inspiration and 10 top tips on good powerpoint design, see Garr Reynolds.

One thing to note is that with what some consider really good powerpoint design, the pictures can be more important than the text, and therefore you might want to build your powerpoint around visual points instead of a text outline. But I don’t think that type of style of presentation works for so well for the technical and specialist talks that academics typically give. Maybe you can pull it off. As always, you have to consider your content, your audience, and the message you want to communicate.

I better stop posting now and finish outlining the presentation I was working on before writing this post…

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12 Responses to “Stop powerpointing and start outlining”

  1. DavidNo Gravatar Says:

    Interesting suggestion. When you import the Word file into PowerPoint, does PowerPoint automatically create multiple slides, based on the headings? Also, if you have a PowerPoint template, can you import into it for automatical formatting rather than a blank file? –David

  2. Todd StanfieldNo Gravatar Says:

    I use OmniOutliner Pro and then export to Keynote. Educational pricing info here:

  3. pNo Gravatar Says:

    For those who like total simplicity I suggest LaTeX Beamer. You can focus on a content only.

  4. shaneNo Gravatar Says:

    David, I adjusted the post in response to your first point. In regard to the second point, the formatting you get when importing is the formatting of the word file. I haven’t found a way to open it using a default template.

  5. Alex Says:

    I just completed my second presentation using beamer.
    Once you get over the initial hurdles, it’s really quite
    great. It also helps that everything comes out to
    pdf. I can’t count the number of problems we had
    in class last semester; ppt for win, for mac, 2000/2003/2008,
    openoffice; total mess.

  6. Adam Says:

    Beamer rules!

  7. Todd StanfieldNo Gravatar Says:

    I turn all of my Keynote presentations (and ppt too) into pdf files. It is rare that I really want to use page transitions or animation.

  8. Dave SmithNo Gravatar Says:

    How can i stop power point from freezing? It wont let me add pictures.?

  9. Web Designing QuotesNo Gravatar Says:

    I turn all of my Keynote presentations into pdf files. It is rare that I really want to use page transitions or animation.

  10. Academic Productivity » Literate programming for talks: Beamer, Sweave and LaTeX Says:

    [...] lot of these issues can be fixed using tips here on the site. Outlining your talks for example helps get away from the staccato style of PowerPoint and as commenters have pointed out [...]

  11. EdNo Gravatar Says:

    Shane, good insight! I need to do presentations when I try to get a freelancing gig and I find that overly animated powerpoint slides tend to distract my clients’ attention. At the end of the day, they’re just interested in what you’ve to offer versus what they need to pay. Hence it’s back to style of presentation and how much you really know your stuff.

  12. GregNo Gravatar Says:

    Yeah you absolutely nailed it, when I make a presentation I end up spending at least 80% of my time making it look “pretty” but barely spend ant time writing good content.

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