PowerPoint Basics: Building a slide for your deck.

Today we’re going to talk about the basics of formatting a deck in PowerPoint. Before we start, it’s important to note that many companies have their own philosophies and methodologies around presenting and presentation building—what I am going to try to show here are some fundamental characteristics of a good presentation slide that will serve you well no matter where you end up working.

Behold, the generic (and bad) PowerPoint slide:

This is a generic example of a boring slide.

Now, there is nothing wrong with this slide per se—it is informative, and relatively easy to understand—but it has one key flaw: it’s boring.

Now, when I say “it’s boring”, I don’t mean that it needs more color or a flashier font, or that the language you use needs to be attention grabbing—that can sometimes be worse:

This is an example of a bad slide that’s attention grabbing. (Don’t EVER use comic sans. EVER).

What I really mean by “boring”, is that the slide doesn’t really give you any reason to care about what it’s saying, nor does it really tell you anything about the data other than what’s already presented in the visualization on the left of the slide.

In general, a good slide should include four things (and we’ll discuss the reasons why below):

  • A heading that is a data-related observation.
  • A clear and easy to decipher graphic.
  • Context for the data to sit in.
  • A reason why your audience should care.

1. Make sure you have a good heading for your slide:

We’ve all been building these types of slides since our first science fair in elementary school and most of us are familiar with the title you see in the examples above: “Fruit preference among adult humans”.

However, a good title shouldn’t tell you the topic of the slide, rather it should draw you in to the content of the slide.

Can you imagine if, instead of starting off with “The cosmos is all there is, ever was, or ever will be.”, Carl Sagan started his famous documentary with “Today we’re going to talk about space.”?

If he HAD started this way you would have either shut off the TV immediately or fallen asleep, but most of us kept watching because we were intrigued.

The skill that Carl Sagan had mastered is called “storytelling”—I’m sure you’ve heard of it if you ever attended elementary school.

It’s the same skill Homer used when he told the Iliad, and the same skill your buddy Dave used that one time to make your roommate Mike laugh so hard he booted all over the PS4.

In short—storytelling; the process of recounting information in a way that is interesting and engaging—starts with the title of your slide.

The best way to create an engaging title is to make a claim based on the data contained in the slide. In this case, we have a perfect title highlighted in green below, and we can just move it to the title position:

A good title makes a claim, and draws the audience in by raising other questions in their mind.

Now we have a title that is data-based and makes a claim that pulls your audience in and invites further discussion.

2. Create a clear and easy-to-decipher graphic:

Graphics can be hard—we’ve all seen examples of amazing graphics, an horrible ones—but at its core the purpose of a graphic should be to convey clearly and accurately the underlying data so that you as the storyteller can guide your audience to the conclusion to which you want them to arrive.

The study of what makes a graphic compelling is a rabbit hole that I’m going to avoid in this article, (maybe I’ll tackle it in another article down the road.) but if you’re feeling curious just google “infographics” and check out all the amazing things people have built.

Normally we want to stay away from colors that are jarring to the eye (like the bright neon red above). These colors are hard to look at and distract from the data.

Instead, we should use colors that complement the purpose of the slide.

In this case, our focus is on convincing our audience that humans prefer apples and oranges to other kinds of fruits. One thing that we can do to achieve this is to change the colors to highlight this fact, like this:


Now we have a graphic that is clear and also highlights the point we’re trying to make.

3. Put your data in context:

It’s very important that in the comments to the right or our graphic, we avoid regurgitating facts that are easily discernible by just looking at the graphic. If you look above, you’ll notice that our existing comments just list the values in our graphic.

Rather, the purpose of our commentary should be to put the results of our analysis into context with the larger picture that we’re trying to tell.

In this case, let’s pretend that this slide belongs to a deck about optimizing produce shipments for a large chain of grocery stores. What kind of questions could this information about apples and oranges answer? We can try to address those questions in the comments.

Also, if you still want to report some numbers, you should!

Try doing so by doing the math in between the values given in the graphic. In this case, I’ll combine the apples and oranges category: (32% +28% = 60%) and write a comment based on this metric that my audience won’t be able to see immediately when they look at my graphic.

The result looks like this:


4. Give the audience a reason to care about your conclusion.

This bit is not to be confused with context. As we’ve discussed, context provides our audience with a bigger picture of how the data fits, but the “why” needs to convince the audience that they should care.

Generally this is done by creating a reason to buy in. This is the part where you need to ask yourself: “What does my audience want out of this?”

In this case, I’m sure that the executives of BonGrocery, Inc. could benefit from the cost savings they would get by optimizing their orders of fruit shipments to be more in line with their customers’ preferences—so that’s what we’ll pitch to them.

Our final slide includes all four pieces: Strong title, clear graphic, context, and purpose.

Hot Tip: With corporate executives it always helps for them to have a hard-line $$ number to latch on to if possible. In this case we made one up ($2M over 4 quarters), but in real life it should always be as accurate as possible.

With these 4 things, we’ve created a much more interesting, clear, and engaging slide for our audience to look at while we bore them with our words (more on that later). Before and after below:


Weak title, bland graphic, regurgitated numbers, no context or ‘why’.


Strong title, clear graphic, context, and purpose.

Extra Credit: There is another change that we can implement that would make this slide even stronger. Can you figure it out? Comment below!

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