Making the Best Use of PowerPoint Slides

This week, I presented at the InsightOut conference in Tokyo, Japan. The experience has been amazing. I met a lot of interesting people from different database platforms. I would like to share some lessons I learned from presenting to an audience that does not speak my language.

The conference was mostly targeted at a Japanese participants, and that meant I had to use synchronous translators. It is only the second time I have done this – and doing it three more presentations like this really taught me something about my own presentation style. Hearing your own words translated, even when you cannot understand them, helps you understand a lot about the pace you speak, and how clear your points are.

Another major learning was my use of slides. As I carefully explained my slides to prepare the translators for the session, I discovered things that would confuse my audience, even the ones that speak my language.

Here are the lessons I took away (and some general observations about presentations)

Text on slides is just a distraction, get rid of it: The translators have to translate BOTH the text and your words. This makes it extremely hard for the audience to keep track of your points.

Furthermore, going over the slide text with the translators before the session made me reflect on that fact that text really is redundant or should be kept to very small sentences. If you have anything to say: say it, don’t write it.

Avoid the use of vendor specific acronyms: I presented to both SQL Server, Oracle and PostgreSQL people. You are not doing yourself any favours by using acronyms like: PDW (Parallel Data Warehouse), RG (Resource Governor) and FT (Fast Track)

This may work for an “in-crowd” – but it will not work for a new audience unfamiliar with your terminology. Hearing the translator say the acronym in English, in the middle of a Japanese sentence, sticks out like a sore thumb.

If you are stuffing your slides with acronyms, you are also making it hard for people to share the slide deck with others.

Always annotate graphs: When people look at a graph, they should be able to immediately understand what the axes represent. Use your spoken words to describe what the MEANING of the data is, not WHAT the data it is. If you say: “What you are looking at here is…” – you already made a mistake. For example, take the illustration below, a real example from my deck. imageThe graphs lacks both horizontal and vertical axis information. These omissions makes decoding the information difficult, and makes the translator’s job harder. It also makes it nearly impossible to share the slides with others.

Pictures REALLY matter: A picture is worth much more than a thousand words to an international audience. No matter where you are from – you can “read” a picture. Since visual input is the preferred learning method for most people, pictures make your points much clearer.

In fact, I think it is well worth the time to replace text with good pictures whenever possible.

Pointing with your finger (or laser pointer) does not require translation: Using pictures instead of text, allowed me to illustrate complex problems with less chance of getting things lost in translation.

Use tables, not text, for data points that cannot be shown in a graph: I tend to put data points in bullet form, in-lined with the text on the slides. This is wrong. Mixing numbers and text makes for a VERY poor translations, and also decreases readability.

Take this poor slide (my own) as an example. This is just wrong:image

A much better way to represent the same information is:


By the way, use alternating colours on the table rows – it makes them easier to read.

If it does not look good in gray scale, change the colour scheme: I saw a lot of people carrying printed slides to the session (including my translators). Many printouts where in black and white. For an audience that tries to prepare themselves by reading slide before they show up, you should respect them by making sure the slides look good in gray scale.

Below is a real example of a slide I used, along with how it looks when printed in black and white:



The Original Slide

The printed version

Clearly, important information is lost here!

Write compression rates as 1:X instead of Y%. What does it mean that you get 10% compression? Does it mean that the data shrinks by 10% or that the data is 10% of the original size?

If I write 10:1, it is unambiguous that the data becomes 10 times smaller.

Be consistent in your choice of colours: If you use one colour to illustrate a concept, keep using that colour for the same concept throughout the presentation.

Here is an example: I used this slide to illustrate distributed vs. replicated tables in Parallel Data Warehouse:


The red tables are replicated, the green one is distributed. Five slides later, in the same deck, I used this slide:


Now, the red table is distributed, and the purple table is replicated. Clearly, I am not doing my audience any favours.

Use white backgrounds and high contrast imagines for your slides: Similar argument as the above guidance: printing a black background slide looks horrible. A high contrast colour scheme (black text on white background) makes it easier for people in the back of the room to read your slides.

Here is a real example that I made the mistake of using:



The original slide

A printed, blurred version


Here are my takeaways to implement in my future presentations. I will:

  • Stick to pictures and short sentences in every slide
  • Make the slides “pointer friendly”
  • Use high contrast, white background and simple slide layouts
  • Use consistent colour schemes that look good in gray scale
  • Carefully annotate graphs
  • Use tables and graphs, instead of text, to illustrate points


  1. Pingback: Implementing MurmurHash and CRC for SQLCLR « Thomas Kejser's Database Blog

  2. Edwin Sarmiento   •  

    Great information about slide presentation. I remember the first time I did a different style of presentation to a group of IT professionals. The comment was that I was “pushing my luck” simply because I used minimal text & bullet points. I guess that’s how we technology professionals are accustomed to receiving a presentation. Eventually, they appreciated the style.

    Color schemes really do matter. Whenever I rework a slide, I use a color palette (yes, those RGB values really do make a difference) as a reference together with the concepts of contrast and emotions conveyed by the colors. And, don’t forget FONT and typography selection.

  3. sirpadk   •  

    We will never know when we are crossing the line. It’s impossible for you to know how the audience in Japan thinks about you, and your slides. They will likely not to tell it to you in person, and a smile from a Japanese can say many things, you as an outsider will not be able to get the notion of the smile correctly.

    Now I’m from Israel, and I live in Denmark. I’ve been stepping on Danes toes many times, I reckon that I was only aware to doing it, maybe 30% of the times. Now after 9 years I can tell when I’m over the line and when I’m doing OK, but that took a lot of mistakes and corrections, and believe me Israel is closer to Denmark than the west is to the far east. So even if you think there is no cultural lag between you and you audience, it’s there you are just lacking the skills to see it.

    Once I participated in a presentation on understanding Indian culture, as I was due to train some Indians workers for a client. You’ll be amazed with the differences, and with how getting the right answer is mostly depended on how you ask the question. Honesty is less important than loyalty in India, when a superior position is asking a question it is considered rhetoric, and will never be answered honestly. Imagine a project leader asking his team if the algorithm he chose is a good one, and they will all say yes, even if they think it’s the worst way to solve the problem.

    Rafi Asraf

    I was rude before, as I wrote sarcastic remarks without the use of smileis 😉
    The internet is yet another, different, culture environment 🙂

    • Thomas Kejser   •  

      Hi Rafi

      No offence taken, I generally assume people are being constructive and do not take offence from such comments easily.

      I do realize that the Japanese tend to keep opinions to themselves, but the actions and questions they ask reveal intent. If my communication gives rise to good questions that show understanding (as indeed it did, despite my failures) – then I have done the job I set out to do.

      With regards to Indian culture: I do not think that “loyalty is more important than honesty” is the right interpretation. I have worked with several Indians, and honesty is highly valued (indeed, I think this is a universal trait). But most cultures have rituals imposed on human interactions, to avoid embarrassing people in public. Are those rituals an expression of loyalty taking precedence over honesty? I don’t think that is fair to say of a nation that has gone through major cultural transformations in a very short time, and is the largest democracy in the world. They would hardly have gotten there through sheer loyalty and without some honest challenges of each other.

      I don’t see how cultural differences like this prevent the discovery of a universal techniques for presenting information. You may have stepped on the toes of the Danes (I know I do, and I am Danish) – but what you have to say will still be valid if you argue for it rationally. And getting the information across, making progress, is after all the goal of a presentation. That means we may continue to step on toes (and I believe we always will) – but no one ever made progress from being “respectful” of each other all the time.

      It is however true that if you are doing too many disrespectful actions, people tune out and your message does not get across. But truth and honesty are universally appreciated, and I have found that most people will accept significant amounts of “cultural abuse” if your message is a good one. Most intelligent people CAN rise above their cultural preferences, this is how science makes progress and the universal convention here is a ritual of mutually agreed, culturally neutral Sado Masochism (they call it peer-review).

      Edit: Fixed some of my glaring spelling mistakes

      • sirpadk   •  

        Hi Thomas,

        I agree with your observations, my reply was not made to apply that you didn’t get your message through in Japan, but rather to point out that – yes a picture can mean 1000 words, but one should be carefull when using pictures when presenting to a culture so different as the far eastern cultures, as it may back fire.

        • Thomas Kejser   •  

          You make a great point and I think it hints at a good little research project: collect ad exhaustive list of culturally sensitive images that could be shared. Think of it as an: “Avoid this check list”.

          Intuitively (and I may be wrong) I recon the list would be small compared to the full “visual communication space”, a space would could be described with generic, cultural agnostic, methods.

  4. sirpadk   •  

    Hi Thomas

    I’ve not yet finish a university degree in cultural differences, so I may not be able to fulfill a complete set of examples to support my thesis, but I do know of a particular situation, when a comics of a doctor giving a baby to the mother, after she just gave birth, which was published on an Arabic news paper. The problem was that Arabic is read from right to left, so the readers thought that the doctor is taking the baby away from the mom, and thought that it was an inappropriate thing to do.

    I know that dogs are not considered sweet pats in some Arabic countries, so using a picture of a dog for illustrating a sweet thing may not go through, we all know how cows are treated in India etc.

    I think that if one is to be conducting a lot of business with ppl from the far east, then one should take the time to learn the culture, dos and donts. there are plenty of books on that, and having a local to review your slides with you is allways a good thing.

    • Thomas Kejser   •  

      That is an interesting point sirpadk

      I am generally opposed to “designing for all exceptions” as a design philosophy. What do I mean by that? I have travelled the world extensively, and my overall conclusion is that people are a LOT more similar than they are different. Cultural differences are generally minor, compare to the more universal human behaviours, values and preferences. Japan, where I am right now, is quite different from Europe – but as I speak to people here, I find that we still share the vast majority of communication preferences. I therefore think that a culturally universal technique is discoverable.

      Interestingly, animals, and the way they are treated, despised or worshipped does seems to be a culturally dependent trait – so perhaps the guidance (as you hint) is to avoid pictures of animals. This could mean that a universal list of “cultural faux pas” could be quite useful – perhaps it could even be made exhaustive.

  5. way0utwest   •  

    Some good ideas here. I’d like it if you showed a good graph, or one that conveys information better.

    I’d also re-emphasize again that you shouldn’t read your slides. The audience can read your quotes, or bullets when necessary. If it’s a lot of data, or a complex picture, ask them to look at it while you sip some water.

    • Thomas Kejser   •  

      Thanks WayOuut

      I may update the slide with a graph to illustrate that point more.

      My usual techique has never been to read slides (that would be REALLY bad) but instead to add additional information in textual form. Here, i am arguing that you should NOT have sentences AT ALL on your slides.

  6. Marco Russo   •  


    I tend to use darker backgrounds, but (at least for conferences) I always check Grayscale and Black and White views. You can also adjust how every single item looks in these views, adjusting it if necessary.
    I used this technique more often when it was common printing slides for conference attendees. Now color printers and a lower demand for this type of media made this activity less important, but you should know how hard is to remove a feature from Office…


    • Thomas Kejser   •  

      Marco, I thought that no one would actually USE slide printouts. And if they do, they would at least have a colour printer. This turns out not to be true, there clearly are still people who use grayscale printing (or photocopiers perhaps?)

  7. Thomas Kejser   •  

    SirPadk: I am curious to hear some examples of cultural “faux pax” differences in pictures?

    Alberto: thank you, downloaded to my Kindle

    ThomasRush: I partially agree. There are general rules of thumb that can be applied – but most people have to find their own style instead of cloning the style of someone else.

  8. sirpadk   •  

    Hi Thomas, great tips!

    Remember though, that when using pictures one can go very wrong from culture to culture.

    So a picture that will illustrate one thing to European audience, may do the exact opposite to Japanese audience.

  9. Alberto Ferrari   •  

    Nice points Thomas,
    During PASS, I have bought this book:
    I strongly suggest everybody wishing to present in public to read it from cover to cover. The title looks somehow too “commercial”, but the content is great and it gives some really cool advices to make slides and presentations much better.
    And… no, I’m not gaining money from this ad, just a fan. 🙂

  10. thomasrushton   •  

    This convinces me of the requirement for PowerPoint training for all public presenters! I was wondering how to put the suggestion forward at the most recent SQLBits!

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