5 Tips for Making Better Slide Show Presentations

Back in 2003, I was at what was then called Macworld Expo wearing two hats. First was as a member of the press, and second was as a speaker at a breakout session. As a member of the press I was sitting in the Macworld Keynote where Steve Jobs was making his usual dynamite presentation.

All through Steve’s presentation I kept admiring his slide show presentation. Actually, drooling is a better descriptor. At the end, he announced that the software was called Keynote and everyone in the audience was getting a free copy.



I was stoked. I went back to my hotel room, installed the software and immediately converted the Power Point slide show I had put together for my own session to a Keynote presentation. The rest, as they say, is history. 

I like to think I have improved my skills with Keynote in the 11 years since its introduction. Currently, I create 15 or so slideshows a year for CapMac, my local Mac user group. I have learned some things the hard way, so in this first of a two part series, I would like to share a few tips to help others make keynote presentations their audiences will enjoy.

Bonus Pre-Tip: But before you get started creating a Keynote presentation, ask yourself if a slideshow is what you need. As wonderful as Keynote is, I will be the first to say that a slideshow, no matter how well developed, is not always the answer. If you are using the slideshow as a crutch, then rethink the need. Many times a slideshow just gets in the way.

As an example, if you are teaching some kind of skills and you need to demo those skills, you will have to constantly leave the slide show to get to your desktop. That is so distracting to the audience and I have seen it done over and over. As an alternative, consider a handout that covers each of the elements you are teaching and then practice your presentation until you are comfortable with it.

1.) Before making a presentation in a new environment, test a few slides in that environment, or a similar environment, before you start.

Is the room large or small? How many people are expected? What about natural light? Our user group—CapMac—meets in a pub. (Yeah, I know, it is totally cool.) There are lots of windows and we discovered, the hard way, that in the summer the sun goes down at the start of our meeting. That means the windows are full of bright sunlight that completely blank out the projection screen. Now, one of our members tapes black garbage bags over the windows during the necessary months. 

2.) Choose a theme (background) that can be easily seen in the farthest corner of the room and is not distracting.

Keynote offers a number of themes. It is so tempting to choose a really cool theme that looks great on your Mac, but not so great in a large room. In any given crowd there will be a number of people who are easily distracted by clutter, so avoid it.

3.) Limit the number of words on a slide and consider the font size.

The biggest mistake I see speakers make is cramming too many words on a slide. If you want the audience to read information then give them a handout. Otherwise, use the text on a slide to make people think. Besides, slides are free! You can use as many as you need.

And remember that when using Keynote, you can have information appear and disappear on a single slide with a touch. If you want to highlight several important facts on your slide, have each one appear by itself. It helps keep the audience engaged. That is, if they can read the text. Slide text needs to be large and in a bold font. You can add interest with other elements, but people all the way in the back of the room should be able to read the text.

Next: Transitions, Timing, Titles

Page 2 - Transitions, Timing, and Titles


4.) How to have information appear and disappear on a slide.

Select the slide you want to use. It helps to use one with predetermined elements such as the placement of central information as demonstrated below. It will also contain recommended font size and color that work well with the background. After you get comfortable with this method you can experiment with your own placement, color, and fonts.

Slide template

Enter the text you want featured into the text box. If there is too much text to fit nicely in the suggested box, double click on the box lines and make it bigger by dragging on the corners. Remember though that your text is a thought generator, not a complete description. 

Use corners to adjust size

Once you start rearranging the sizes of text boxes you can center them once again by right-clicking in the center of the box. Guide lines will appear when your text box is once again centered.

Guidelines help center slide elements

When your text is entered to your satisfaction, you can start the animation process. Click on the Animate option in the top right corner of your Keynote screen. You will see options for “Build in,” “Action,” and “Build Out.”

Use Animate option for builds

Highlight the text box in question. If you want the text to appear when you open the slide, simply click on Build Out” and then click on “Add an Effect”. Choose your effect. Don’t get so flamboyant that you distract from your message.

When I choose Disappear, the app will show that this is my first action and that it will happen all at once as opposed to one letter at a time.

Sample options

Now I have two choices. I can enter my second line of text right on top of the first which makes for a smooth transition, or I can place it elsewhere on the page. Start by copying your existing text box and pasting it somewhere on the page. Delete the old text and enter the new text. To place it on top of the existing text just drag the text box to the appropriate point. This animation activity will take two steps. The text box should still be highlighted.

First choose “Build in” and select your action. Then choose “Build out” and select that action. In this sample I choose appear and confetti. Continue this process as many times as needed. Keynote will assume you want to continue the pattern so you don’t have to make the same choices over and over.

Build options

My finished slide looks like this before I tell the slide show to play.

Slide ready to play

And when viewed by an audience, my example slide show would look like this:


Example of Keynote Transitions and Timing

5.) Use titles sparingly.

Every slide does not need a title. Think about it. If you are covering something like the Battle of Hastings, do you really want to see "Battle of Hastings" at the top of each slide, taking up room that can be used more productively? Your audience already knows the topic, or they probably wouldn’t even be there.

When I move from one topic to another I often demonstrate this by adding an image or logo to the first page of the new topic.

We have looked at the necessity of making sure your slides will work properly in the presentation environment, the importance of limiting the number of words on each slide, and the importance of evaluating what is on each slide and what can be left off.  In my next column I will continue with suggestions for making the most out of Keynote, including tips on adding images effectively and a recommendation that you follow Steve Jobs advice when using bullets.