Rules for PowerPoint Slides Don’t Apply to Most Presentations

Christopher Witt —  December 17, 2014

Speaking PowerPointThere are two basic approaches to designing PowerPoint slides these days.

1. The traditional approach produces the type of slides we’ve all grown accustomed to…and bored by.

This approach has its own set of rules. It emphasizes clarity and simplicity. It recommends limiting the amount of text on a slide (e.g., no more than 5 lines of 5 words each). It counsels against using animations and fancy fonts.

2. The newer approach creates a most artistic, visually appealing set of slides.

Its rules are simpler. Use images with a few words. Tell stories.

Both approaches to designing PowerPoint Slides have their merits. But a book I recommend (and wrote the foreword for) — Speaking PowerPoint: The New Language of Business — makes me question both approaches.

Bruce Gabrielle, the author of Speaking PowerPoint, distinguishes — rightly and wisely, in my opinion — between two different types of presentations:

  1. BallroomBallroom presentations are given at conferences and to general audiences by keynote speakers or at breakout sessions. The audiences may (or may not) be invested in what the speaker is addressing. They are easily distracted. They generally do not have an in-depth knowledge of the topic being addressed, nor do they want a detailed, in-depth presentation.

    The audiences are at a distance from the slides. They have trouble reading text and most graphics (charts and the like).

    The rules recommended by both the traditional and the newer approach apply, it seems, to ballroom presentations.

  2. BoardroomBoardroom presentations are for business meetings, where attendees do’t expect to be entertained. They don’t want to be bored or confused, mind you, but they want to be informed. They expect details, data, and in-depth analysis. They dislike fluff.

    The audiences are up close. They can see the screen. And, often, they have printed handouts to read. (They may have received and reviewed the “deck” in advance.)

    Boardroom-style PowerPoint decks, according to Bruce, have several uses. They can be used as 1) a stand-alone reading deck that is circulated, almost like a white paper, 2) a discussion deck, to spur a conversation among decision-makers, or 3) a briefing deck.

The slides used for a boardroom presentation — which includes most workplace presentations — require more detail, including text and statistical data. They are, necessarily, complex.

The PowerPoint slides used in business today — the most common type of presentation — require a new set of rules, different from those proposed by both the traditional and the newer approach.

Bruce proposes his own rules, which I find very helpful. (They’re too sophisticated for me to go into here.)

So let me ask you. Do you buy into the distinction? Does it make sense to you? What do you find works?

(By the way, I do not receive any compensation for recommending Bruce’s book.)



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Christopher Witt

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Chris Witt was born in Los Angeles, California. He currently lives in San Diego. He works as a speech and presentations consultant, an executive speech coach, and an orals coach.

4 responses to Rules for PowerPoint Slides Don’t Apply to Most Presentations

  1. I understand the distinction, but I am not convinced that it is quite as cut and dried. In my experience even a boardroom has to be engaged and as such still requires many of the “newer ballroom” type rules (specifically – minimize text).

    But I do understand that often slides are viewed as “documents of record” and “reading docs.” This has always caused me some grief.

    I have been experimenting with Duarte’s “slidedocs” ( and think they have potential. Not yet sold, but I think that they are better documents than what slides would be. (this, of course, assumes that you will have handouts for the folks around the boardroom table).

  2. Chris, I agree there are differences between ballroom and boardroom talks, but I think it’s more useful to see them as 2 ranges of points on a continuum, rather than as a dichotomy.

    The common factor between them is human nature. Most of what you wrote about ballroom talks (e.g. listeners may or may not be invested in the topic, are easily distracted, and don’t have in-depth topic knowledge) also applies to boardroom talks.

    It’s true that boardroom audiences will often want to discuss more deeply and actively than will a ballroom audience. But to me it’s a huge mistake to use complex slides to meet that need. Businesses need speakers to choose just a few key numbers to aid the decision or discussion – they don’t need to see another spreadsheet!

    I also disagree that slides can work as both a standalone reading deck and as a visual aid for a speaker: If the slides can stand alone, then during the talk the speaker is redundant, and the audience will be distracted from the discussion by all the words on the slide (which are needed for it to make sense without the speaker).

    Rather than ballroom versus boardroom decks, I argue that varied slide types help all audiences. Granted, business audiences might want to see more tables and charts than a broader ballroom audience, but everybody can benefit from at least a few of those. And nobody wants to literally read slides while a speaker talks about what’s on the screen!

    P.S. That link I shared refutes the claim that talks are either informative, emotive, or persuasive, so the context’s a bit different from ballroom vs. boardroom. But roughly, informative talks equate to boardroom talks, and emotive talks equate to ballroom talks.

    • Craig,

      Thanks for the insightful response.

      I agree with you…mostly.

      I absolutely agree that you have to engage the audience, whether they’re in a ballroom or a boardroom. And, even when you’re presenting complex material to an audience that wants to dive deep into the detail, it’s your responsibility to be selective about that detail and to be clear in formatting it. And no one wants you to read your slides to them.

      But I disagree with you about the standalone and presentation deck, in certain cases. For example, I work with clients who make presentations to the government on large contracts. The PowerPoint deck is often considered part of the proposal and will be evaluated on its own merits. And the team has to make a presentation using those slides, without altering them. It’s my job to help the team 1) create a slide deck that can stand on its own, and then 2) make a presentation using those slides in a way that clarifies and drives home the message without simply repeating the what’s already been established in the slides.

      It’s also my experience that companies use PowerPoint decks as white papers. Decks are circulated as if they’re a written document. (I don’t like this, mind you, but I think it’s an irreversible trend.) And then there’s a meeting where the decks are presented and discussed. It would be preferable to have two versions: the standalone version, and a tighter, more focused presentation version. But people barely have the time to create one version. (Which may be why most decks such.)

      I look forward to reading the piece you’ve linked to and, if I have the option, I’ll comment on it.

      Best, Chris

  3. Brad,

    I agree that there’s no hard and fast distinction, more of a sliding scale between the two. But I’m not sure I’d be comfortable with using the photo and a caption slide when presenting to a boardroom. I’ll look at what Duarte offers. And I’d love to hear your experience after you’ve experimented with them. Best, Chris