How to avoid 'death by PowerPoint'

By Jane Wakefield
Technology reporter

  • Published
People asleep at a meetingImage source, Thinkstock
Image caption,
Is this how most people feel after a bad PowerPoint presentation?

Most people who've endured a terrible PowerPoint presentation will have experienced boredom, followed by frustration, then anger that it took up an hour - or possibly even more - of their lives that they will never get back.

So why, in the age of the internet and millions of digital images, do slide presentations seem to belong to an older, duller decade?

And what can the businesspeople of the future do to jazz up their presentations and leave their audiences feeling a little less like zombies?

Swedish crowd-sourcing photo database, Pickit, recently teamed up with professional PowerPoint designers Eyeful Presentations to pick out the top 10 images to avoid in presentations.

Their findings are summarised best with the use of bullet points - that stalwart of PowerPoint presentations.

Image source, Fotolia
Image caption,
Businesspeople gathered around a monitor is a classic PowerPoint slide

Things to avoid:

  • cogs
  • images of people holding hands around a globe
  • stacked pebbles
  • thumbs up
  • archery targets (with optional arrow)
  • jigsaw piece being fitted into puzzle
  • businessperson poised to run a race
  • handshakes
  • rosettes
  • groups of businesspeople staring intently at a monitor
Image source, iStock
Image caption,
A lot of presentation illustrations fail to hit the mark (like this one, maybe?)

These days, there are plenty of alternatives to PowerPoint - Keynote, Slides, Prezi, SlideRocket,, Emaze, Slidedog, to name but a few - many of which are freely available online.

But Microsoft's software, launched in 1990, still dominates the market - with an estimated 1.2 billion users worldwide and millions of presentations made each day using the software.

Unfortunately, the phrase "Death by PowerPoint" has also become part of our lexicon.

In an attempt to change that, Microsoft offered new tools last month that will allow people to make presentations look better.

Morph allows users to create animations by moving objects around slides, while its Designer feature makes it easier to add photos to slides.

Image source, Microsoft
Image caption,
Microsoft says that Designer uses smart image analysis to help get the best out of content

Microsoft worked with professional graphic designers to create more than 12,000 possible options with variables such as picture placement, framing and transparency.

To help users out, Microsoft is using machine learning so that, when a user uploads an image, Designer will analyse it and suggest design options for it.

It can also zoom, crop and frame it.

Lateral not literal

Aaron Weyenberg who makes slide decks for the slick Ted (Technology, Entertainment and Design) conference, says people making presentations need to think differently about photos.

"Frequently in good presentations, photos serve well in a metaphorical or conceptual sense, or to set a backdrop tone for what the audience is hearing from the presenter, and not necessarily to communicate actual content," he told the BBC.

Image source, iStock
Image caption,
Surely there are better pictures to illustrate positivity than this?

He offered some words of advice - let's go with bullet points again.

  • Think about your slides last
  • Create a consistent look and feel
  • Avoid slides with lots of text
  • Use simple photos that enhance meaning
  • Use storytelling
  • Have a focused message that you want your audience to retain
Image source, Thinkstock
Image caption,
This kind of cliched image is a no-no, say presentation experts

Perhaps most radically, he also asked: "Do you need slides at all?"

"Ted's most viewed talk of all time hasn't a single slide, and many of Ted's most successful talks have a focus on what's said, not seen," he said.

For those traditionalists who rely on slides to help them get through a presentation, there is no excuse for not finding a great picture these days.

In March 2014, Getty Images, the world's largest photo agency, made vast swathes of its library free to use, in what some regarded as acknowledgement that pictures were going to be stolen without attempt to pay for them.

Image source, iStock
Image caption,
What does a picture of cogs really say?

Most people looking for images to illustrate their presentations headed straight to Google Images, said Robert Dysell, chief marketing officer at Pickit.

"We estimate that 85% of the photos used in presentations are stolen from Google Images or similar," he told the BBC.

As well as hoping to change this and reward photographers for their work, Pickit is looking to offer more unusual imagery for presentations.

Image source, iStock
Image caption,
This image may illustrate partnerships, but will anyone still be awake to see it?

"So many people rely on stereotyped photos that have been used so many times that they don't say anything new, it doesn't add to a story or teach you anything," said Mr Dysell.

"A really good visual presentation needs photos that are unique."

"If you are illustrating a new partnership, rather than using a handshake, why not a picture of bacon and eggs sizzling in a pan?" said Mr Dysell.

It would, if nothing else, stimulate the audience's taste buds and hopefully keep them awake.