How to Present Bad Slides Well


It happens all the time. You’re given a set of PowerPoint slides to present, whether for a roadshow, investor day, board meeting, management presentation or something similar. You are not given the opportunity to edit them. You must present them as they are.

And they’re bad.

You could sit and sulk. But the reality is this: It is your responsibility to find a way to pull off a great presentation even if you have slides that are awful. Sometimes, they’re all bad. Most often, however, there are just a few slides in the presentation that are a problem. Either way, you’ve got to make the best of it.

The good news is there’s always a solution. With this in mind, I’m going to review the key issues that make slides bad and address how to solve each particular problem.

6 Ways Your Slides Can Be Bad

  • Too much information. This is the most common problem I see with slides. The author, either striving to be complete or uncomfortable editing out information, gives you a slide that has far too much data. This makes the slide: 1) unfocused and 2) impossible to present in the time allotted. The solution in this situation is you must be selective, deciding which information in the slide will be presented and what will be ignored. There’s no requirement that you must hit every point on a slide. So don’t. Pick the most important points and present them. Your audience will see the rest and your emphasis will guide their thinking.
  • Busy, busy, busy. This issue is similar to the one above but not identical. In this case, the slide’s design is poor with too much on the page to draw the viewer’s eye clearly to the relevant information. The solution is to guide your audience through the dense woods. You could simply point to the particular line or graphic you are talking about using an electronic or physical pointer. Or, you could guide the audience verbally. For example, something like: “Let me draw your attention to the graphic on the upper right of the slide titled ‘Revenue up 300%’.”
  • Throwaway headlines. As a former reporter, this one drives me nuts. Journalists know the critical role headlines play in drawing readers into a story and distilling the key point of an entire article in a handful of words. But this is hard to do, for slides as well as news stories. As a result, many slides simply have summary headlines. A slide about a company’s 200% increase in earnings over the prior period might have a headline that just says, “Financial Results.” This isn’t the story. The solution is to figure out what the story is for each slide, regardless of the headline, and focus on that verbally.
  • Poorly positioned elements. People tend to read slides as they read their native language. In this part of the world it’s top to bottom, left to right. Therefore, the order in which you present information on a slide ought to reflect this. Start at the top left, move to the right, then to the bottom left, then the bottom right. Sometimes, however, slides will be created where the key information is not at the top left. This can be challenging, so you have to make a decision. Can you get away with presenting the slide top to bottom, left to right, despite where the information is located? Or do you need to guide viewers, either physically or verbally, outside of the natural order? The answer depends upon the specific slideshow. But know that if you need to guide them outside the natural order, it will be confusing for the audience so take your time and be very specific.
  • Wrong slide order. This is the most difficult problem to overcome. Sometimes, slides will not be in the optimal order for your presentation. If you can’t reorder them, you’ll need to find a way to present them in the order you find them. Jumping backward and forward is simply too disruptive to allow. The answer in this case is being very aware of ordering problems and making sure you present enough information on each slide to properly set up the next slide. Don’t be afraid to bring in information not on the current slide if you need it to set up the next one. It’s on you as the presenter to make the slides work in the order in which they come up.
  • More slides than time. Another common problem, this one is easy to solve. Typically, you should budget about 2 minutes to present each slide. So, if you have 30 minutes, that’s about 15 slides. Ever get 30-plus slides for a 30 minute presentation? The solution is to skip some of the slides entirely or simply touch upon them for a very short time. If you try, instead, to do each slide in 1 minute or less, you’ll just present every slide badly. Therefore, you must spend some time in advance figuring out which slides are critical so you can spend an appropriate amount of time presenting these.

There are certainly other problems you can run into with your slides, but these are the ones I see all the time in my training seminars. And, as I’ve noted, they can all be overcome. The key to all these challenges is to spend enough time preparing that you can identify the problems and come up with solutions.

A well-presented slide show can be compelling and provide a great deal of information. Present your slides well and you’ll be rewarded with a truly captivated audience.

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