Episode #7:

Punch Up Your PowerPoint Proficiency

PowerPoint presentation design

Want to become a better PowerPoint presentation designer? Ever considered a career in it? No? Because you can’t stand PowerPoint, right? (I can hear you screaming.) Presentation design expert Laura Foley states her case for why you should embrace PowerPoint. She also explains how she’s made a career specializing in working in software that makes most designers cringe. You’ll also learn best practices when using PowerPoint and how to price your PowerPoint projects.


Show Notes


Laura FoleyKnown as the “Cheater of Death by PowerPoint,” Laura Foley has more than 20 years of experience in presentation design, marketing and copywriting. She provides training and presentation design services to help clients communicate their ideas and be better presenters. She has worked with companies such as General Dynamics, Procter & Gamble, Nestlé and Harvard Business School, and has taught at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Simmons College, the Central Mass Business Expo, and the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst. Her speaking engagements include HOW Design Live, the largest conference for creative professionals in the world. You can find her online at lauramfoley.com.


Colleen Gratzer: Welcome to the podcast, Laura. So happy to have you here.

Laura Foley: Thank you very much, Colleen.

Colleen: Laura, you’ve built a career around niching in designing PowerPoint presentations. In fact, you’re known as the “cheater of death by PowerPoint.” How did you decide to make that your niche?

Laura: Well, it’s interesting. I was going to the HOW Design conference, back when it was the Creative Freelancer Conference in, I think it was 2008, and I was talking to my friends about how my design work was tapering off. A lot of my clients were doing the work in-house and they weren’t hiring me anymore because they weren’t doing as much print work.

I was saying to people, “You know, I was thinking that maybe I should do PowerPoint because I know how to do it, and I won’t have to learn any brand-new skills and it will be something that will be different.” Every single person I talked to at the conference said, “That’s an awful idea. PowerPoint is the worst.”

I thought, “Wow, if all of my graphic designer buddies think PowerPoint is terrible, then that means they aren’t very many professional designers using it. That means that there is a huge opportunity for me to be a professional graphic designer who specializes in PowerPoint.” That’s how that started.

Colleen: So you made a complete niche around what others don’t even want to do.

Laura: Absolutely.

Colleen: Yeah. Most designers do hate PowerPoint, myself included. Why do you think designers should learn to like it though?

Laura: Well, because, now as then, people don’t really consider PowerPoint as a design tool. They think that it is something that Microsoft put together, so therefore it must be terrible because no self-respecting designer would do anything in Microsoft. But if you think about it, think of how popular TED Talks are now, and think about how many people need to present for so many reasons:

  • People are teaching using PowerPoint.
  • People are pitching clients using PowerPoint.
  • People are selling using PowerPoint.

All these presentations are being created and they don’t all look terrible. They all look pretty good, and someone’s doing that work. But there is an incredible vacuum of professional graphic designers who are doing PowerPoint work. Even still, it’s been 10 years since I’ve been doing this and there are still really bad presentations out there. There is a real opportunity for designers to get over their hatred of PowerPoint to learn how to use it, so that they can become specialists in it and provide that needed service.

Colleen: Do you find that presentation design is much different from graphic design?

Laura: Absolutely not. It’s exactly the same as graphic design, because you’re still doing visual organization of information. You are still editing out needless visual elements, so that only the crucial things remain that present the message that you want to convey. You’re using color theory. You’re using typography. You can incorporate drawing and data visualization.

Graphic design is a large part of presentation design, but it isn’t the only part. It can really help you if you’re also good at copywriting, because you can help people with what they’re actually going to say. You can help people storyboard their speeches so that they have a clear goal. They know what the speech is going to be about. They know what the goals of the presentation are, so you can help them to create a story that gets them where they need to be.

There’s project management involved, because you’ve got to make sure that everyone has their stuff in on time, so that you can get this presentation out on time for your client. It really involves a lot of different aspects of design and communication that it’s more than just learning how to use PowerPoint. I find it constantly challenging and fun.

Colleen: Most designers I think just “pretty up” the client’s existing slides or, if the client’s just handing over the content, they just take that and plop it in and make it look better. But often the slides are so full of text. What are some things that you need to consider as a designer who’s creating a presentation?

Laura: As you would design anything, say an advertisement or a logo or a website, you have to really talk with your client to figure out what it is they want from that presentation, what is their version of success after they give the presentation? If they are teaching, then the goal of the presentation is that the audience walks away with some knowledge that they remember and they can repeat. If it’s selling, then it is that the client agrees to engage the presenter for a business venture of some kind.

If it is trying to persuade people to change their opinion about something, then the end goal is to provide a convincing argument that supports your point of view, so that you can convince the audience that they should change their behavior in whatever way that you want. Really it’s so much more than just making things pretty. You have to know what the ideal end state of the presentation is so that you can help the client to get there.

Colleen: Excellent points to consider. Clients already know how to use PowerPoint, for the most part.

Laura: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Colleen: So what reasons, besides the ones you’ve already given, should clients hire a professional designer to create these PowerPoint presentations?

Laura: Really it’s because of our experience in changing a lot of disparate ideas into something that is very simple and easy to understand and repeatable, and visually engaging. This is something that designers do all the time when they’re creating advertising or they’re creating any kind of visual communication. They have that understanding to quickly be able to interpret what the client is talking about, read between the lines and get to the point. That is something that is very important in any kind of graphic design.

Colleen: Now, when clients ask for a PowerPoint presentation, designers often just go and create slides mainly in Photoshop or InDesign, and then they save those as one big image per slide and then they go and insert them into PowerPoint and then they call it a day. So, can you address if that’s okay or not, or are there any best practices that you recommend?

Laura: Sure. That way of doing things, of designing in InDesign, Illustrator, Photoshop and then exporting a single static file like a JPEG and putting it into PowerPoint makes it really easy for the designer because the designer can work using the tools that she’s familiar with, can get the best results most quickly and efficiently, and it creates a stunning-looking slide deck. A deck is another name for a presentation or a set of slides.

The problems start when the client needs to change something, and the client is never going to want to change something two weeks before the show. They are going to find a typo two hours before their show. So, if they have a static image like a JPEG that they can’t change, not only are they going to freak out because it is wrong, but they’re going to be furious at the designer for creating that situation in the first place.

If it’s a case where you’re trying to design something that might be running in the background of a trade show, or something that doesn’t have a lot of data or facts or statistics that are likely to change, then I’ve seen Photoshop files being put into PowerPoint files (PowerPoint decks) with great success.

But it’s when you have the things that are constantly in flux, the sales presentations, teaching materials, persuasive presentations… Clients need to be able to change those up to the last minute, right before the presentation. If you give them a native PowerPoint file that they’re able to change, then you don’t get that 3 a.m. call from some angry person who can’t edit the file.

Colleen: Right. You don’t want any of those calls.

Laura: Oh no. That’s a big drag.

Colleen: When you’re saving images, what formats and in what color mode and resolution do they need to be?

Laura: My rule of thumb is that everything should be 150 DPI at 100% of where you’re going to place it in the slide. That just seems to work for a lot of different kinds of shows. I have some clients that demand super high resolution images because they’re just really trying to cover themselves using these super-high-def screens for presentation tools.

So, those files can be hundreds of megabytes and very unwieldy, but for the most part, 150 DPI. If you’re opening the file in Photoshop, I always save it as 150 DPI and then Save for Web as a JPEG if it doesn’t have a transparent background, and that seems to work 99% of the time for PowerPoint.

Other file formats like EPS files do not work too well in PowerPoint. You want to go with an SVG or a WMF file. These are also vector-based files and they can be ungrouped and manipulated in PowerPoint, which is pretty good if you wanted to take away an element or change a color. It’s not like Illustrator levels of finesse over these files, but it’s nice to be able to ungroup stuff. The other kind of file type is a PNG file for when you have something with a transparent background.

Colleen: Okay. What about the proportions, because I know there’s some different monitor sizes and screen sizes, so how do you figure out what proportion, or what size those slides should be?

Laura: It’s really up to the client and how they’re going to project them. Ordinarily, these days, I go with a 16:9 format, and that is a typical widescreen high-definition format. The 16:9 proportions are what you would find on a computer monitor, a laptop, a smartphone and all these different modern LCD kinds of screens.

Other clients—I’ve worked with military clients and some larger corporations—just don’t want to change and they will go with old 4:3 format, which is a little more squared off. You have less room to work with, but it’s something that you need to determine at the beginning of the project with every client. If they have no idea, then I will give them a 16:9, and if they are adamant that it be 4:3, okay, that’s fine. But more likely than not 16:9 is the format to go with.

Colleen: What about sound files or video files?

Laura: Those are fun to use, because you can have music or narration that goes across slides or you can have kind of a music bed that goes across slides. You can have sound files that punctuate things like if you have something that’s funny with a sound effect just to break up, add a little levity to the presentation, you can do that.

Video files are also fun too, because the whole thing about a PowerPoint presentation is that it is very visual and if you can tell a story better by incorporating a video, that not only can communicate better, it can also wake your audience up. So they’re not looking at bullet points and static images the whole time.

Something to remember about PowerPoint is that unlike InDesign or Quark, if anyone is still using that QuarkXPress—

Colleen: I loved Quark.

Laura: Yeah, me too. You do not link files. Everything is embedded into a PowerPoint file. The more audio-visual elements you have in there, the bigger your file size is going to be. That becomes a consideration if the client wants to share the presentation. If a client is, say, doing a sales presentation, they’re not going to want a 2GB file to email to their clients, because that’s just way too big.

You sometimes have to work with, like, for audio files, I use Audacity, for video files I use … What is it called? I can’t remember the name of the … It’s like Apple iMovie. It’s one of those movie-making files, movie-making software. You can make your file size a little smaller by degrading the quality of the video a little bit if the file size is a problem. But you do have to watch out for what the end use is going to be.

Again, clear communication with the client is key, because if they want a small PowerPoint file that has movies and sound in it that they can e-mail to someone, that’s not going to be the file that they’re going to use for their keynote presentation on a 50-foot screen. That’s going to look terrible. So knowing where it’s going to be shown is very important when you’re figuring out what resolution audio and video files you’re going to put in.

Colleen: I have a question now about templates, because I have struggled with templates in PowerPoint, so I’m sure others have as well. Are there any recommendations or suggestions that you could give on when to set up templates in PowerPoint and how you approach templates and the color scheme in PowerPoint?

Laura: Sure. When to set up templates is always. The reason is just as when you’re using InDesign or other kinds of page layout software, you do have master pages where you have elements that don’t change. That’s the same in a PowerPoint template. You do want those background elements to stay the same. If a client has their logo on every page, for example—or every slide rather—then it has to be in the same position on every slide. You want that to be in the master. Otherwise, you’re making the file size a little bit bigger every time the logo appears if you’re putting it on the slide.

Another thing that masters help out with is it enables the user to create slides more easily, because all they have to do is click on the text box and type in it and they know that it’s going to be the right typeface, it’s going to be the right spacing, it’s going to be the right color.

If you don’t use a template—and I’ve done this if I’m creating a one-off, say, a keynote presentation that nobody is going to be using in any other way—then I will go off template all over the place, because those slides from that presentation aren’t going to be taken and used in another way.

But the problem with working off template is that when you send it out into the wild and your customer gets it and then if they need to apply a different template to it … Unless the template is followed, when they apply a new template to it, everything is going to have to be fixed by hand if the slide was created without a template. That can be a real drag.

Colleen: And you’re able to set up the color scheme in there too for like if they’re going to have a certain blue that they’re going to use consistently or a certain red or green or whatever?

Laura: Oh, absolutely, yeah. I don’t want to dive too deeply into the weeds, but there’s a difference between a PowerPoint template and an Office theme. A PowerPoint template gives you the layouts—or rather you develop the layouts—you want the client to have in the PowerPoint slides. You can include examples of things like graphs and photo placement and artwork styles and things like that in a template.

A template can have a whole lot of slides in it. This is great. It’s kind of like a library for the client to use, so if you have a certain style of, I don’t know, a photograph with different effects applied to it, then they can copy that from the template and put it in their file and they’re super happy. But a template, strangely enough, doesn’t carry the color from one machine to the next one.

If you send a template that you created on your PC or your Mac, you send it to your client, it won’t have the same color scheme. You have to create an Office theme for that.

What I generally do, if I’m creating templates for a client, is I’ll create a template that has, I don’t know, 10 or 20 slides in it that shows all the different layouts and all the different graphics treatments and type treatments and stuff like that, and then I’ll send the theme that everybody can install on his or her computer that will carry all of those—the typeface and the colors… All of the master elements get carried over with the theme. But none of the slides themselves do.

It’s kind of confusing unless you work with it for a while, but it’s something that a lot of designers struggle with, it’s, “Well, I sent my guy a template and he screwed up the colors. How is that possible?” Well, that’s how.

Colleen: Oh, that’s good to know. What about pasting text? I’ve seen situations where clients go in to paste their own text, and it changes the font, the size and line spacing.

Laura: Well, the thing about using a template or a master layout in a file and in a PowerPoint file is that, let’s say someone has got all their stuff typed out in Word and they copy it in Word and then paste it into PowerPoint. When they first paste it into PowerPoint, it could come out too big, too small, wrong typeface, any of that stuff. You can reapply the layout and everything just zaps right into place where it’s supposed to be, at the right size, at the right position in everything. That’s where using master layouts are really important to use.

Colleen: Okay. Are there any other ways that you could use PowerPoint files outside of presentations? Are there any other useful applications for them?

Laura: I have used PowerPoint to do page layout. Actually, earlier this month, I used PowerPoint to lay out my kid’s yearbook. The reason I did that was because I knew that the final print files had to be PDF files. Because I’ve been working with PowerPoint for so long and a lot less with InDesign, Photoshop and Illustrator, I find it a lot faster to do things in PowerPoint.

As long as it’s a PDF file, the printer doesn’t care how it got there. I’ve also created posters for scientific poster sessions using PowerPoint. Just with any other workflow, you have to make sure that if you’re using PowerPoint for something other than slides, if you’re using it for publications or artwork creation, you need to find out if the end user is going to be able to use that file. I would never send a PowerPoint file to press. They’d think I was an idiot, and I would be an idiot for doing that. But printing a PDF file from a PowerPoint file, I find it works really well.

Colleen: So you’re just using high-resolution images then instead.

Laura: Yes.

Colleen: Okay. Can we talk about pricing for a bit? When it comes to pricing a presentation design, what do you take into consideration? Do you price per slide? Do you price maybe based on the amount of content and what type of content it is, like if it’s a lot of charts or are there any other factors? How does that work?

Laura: Well, like any kind of design pricing, it’s a lot of experience, a little bit of alchemy and just figuring out what your time is worth. When somebody sends me or somebody asks me how much does it cost? I will say, it depends because it depends on a lot of factors.

  • Do they have a presentation now that needs to be redesigned?
  • Are they starting from scratch?
  • Do they have any photographs?
  • Do they have any idea what they want out of the presentation?
  • Do they know who’s going to present it?

So many questions need to be answered before you can come up with any kind of an estimate.

I’ll tell you, the fastest jobs I have and the ones that are easiest to quote are if the client says, “Look, I just want this to look okay,” and after I try to convince them that, “Well, maybe you should be telling a story, maybe you should have your goals in mind so that you make sure that everything you say and do is leading up to that goal…” If they finally say, “No, we just want it to look good,” “Okay, I’ll figure that out.”

Making a slide deck look good sometimes involves:

  • taking away a lot of text,
  • creating new graphics,
  • finding photographs that illustrate the points better than the text could.

These jobs tend to be lower priced for the client, because it’s just editing out. Editing out is so much easier than creating.

What you would do if you were just starting out is to get some slides that look terrible, redesign them and figure out how long it takes you to do it. If you come up with an average time per slide, then you multiply that by your hourly rate that you charge and then you can come up with a project cost.

I never ever, ever tell my clients, “It’s going to cost X amount of dollars per slide,” because then they start wondering, “Well, how many slides do I need? How many can I take away? If I do a three-slide presentation, is it going to cost less than a 10-slide presentation?” It just gets to be really picky. I generally tell people to come up with an overall project cost.

When you’re first starting out, sometimes you’ll really eat a lot of the cost if you came out way under or sometimes you’ll come out a little bit over. But after you do it for a while, just as with any design pursuit, you tend to figure out how long things will take you, and that really helps you to form your cost estimates.

Colleen: What are some ways that a designer could integrate Photoshop and Illustrator into their workflow with PowerPoint?

Laura: That’s a great question, and it’s a little thing that we designers have that is an advantage over the general PowerPoint user, is that we have these professional tools, Photoshop and Illustrator, that we can use to create custom graphics, custom photographic effects, things like that. We can place those into the PowerPoint presentations and the clients are generally pretty happy with it.

That’s very different from creating an entire slide in Photoshop. I’m talking about creating say a Multiply effect over a photograph to get a color to pop or doing some interesting 3D-type effects like that, or working with vector graphics in Illustrator and then putting them into PowerPoint.

Now, having the ability to use Photoshop and Illustrator helps you out a lot, because, with Photoshop in particular, you can manipulate photographs in a way that you can’t in PowerPoint, and you have a lot more control over how big the file size of the photographs that you use that go into PowerPoint.

That being said, there are a lot of surprising photographic tools in PowerPoint that you can use, things like the typical thing you’d expect like cropping, rotating. But you can also apply colors and filters and you can mask things in PowerPoint. Is it as exact and cool as Photoshop? No, but there are a lot of tools that can be used in PowerPoint that a lot of people don’t really realize exist.

If you’re working with vector graphics, as I mentioned earlier, when you’re exporting them from Illustrator, you want to save them as SVG or WMF files, so that when you put them into PowerPoint, the colors don’t get all wacky and you can ungroup them and mess around with them in PowerPoint if you need to.

Colleen: If someone is interested in learning more about presentation design and PowerPoint specifically, what do you recommend?

Laura: Well, there are a lot of places to go. There’s lynda.com. It’s a pretty well-known place to go to to get very affordable training on just about any kind of software there is. They do have a lot of PowerPoint tutorials.

There’s also a group called the Presentation Guild. I believe they’re at presentationguild.org. The Presentation Guild is a group of presentation designers, either professional presentation designers or people who use PowerPoint at work. They have an annual convention that’s happening in September in San Diego. That is a wonderful place to learn new skills if you’re already using PowerPoint. I wouldn’t suggest that for the rank beginners, but if you’re already using PowerPoint and you want to learn a little bit more, get some insider tips, make some friends that you can rely on for help, then Presentation Summit is a great place to learn that.

Also, I offer one-on-one PowerPoint training for people who want to learn a specific thing in PowerPoint. If they are trying to figure out “How in the world do I get this animation to do XYZ?” Then they can find me at lauramfoley.com, and you can check out the one-on-one training. It’s a live training, so I sit with you at the computer and we go over your file and we do the thing that you want to figure out. So, that way, if you have a very specific thing that you want to learn how to do, then you don’t have to sift through all the different tutorials on lynda.com or really rack your brain looking for it.

Colleen: Oh, that’s really helpful. You know, you have a really great blog, and I really like your slide makeovers—the before’s and after’s. They’re always mind blowing. I recommend that designers check out your site for those too. You have an ebook that’s called Cheating Death by PowerPoint as well, I saw.

Laura: Yeah. That’s an interesting thing that I’m going to tell the listeners how they can do it too if they have a WordPress site. This is something I learned a couple of years ago. If you’re writing blogs on whatever your subject is and you want to create an eBook as a downloadable giveaway, then a PowerPoint plugin called Anthologize will pull all of your blogs out and put them in a Word document, which you can then format the way you like.

Then create the PDF file, or you can take it out of Word and redo it in InDesign or whatever page layout software you like and save that as a PDF file. That was a nice way to repurpose some content, having a nice eBook as a bait piece and not have to do a whole lot of extra work to make it happen.

Colleen: That’s really cool. I didn’t know about that. Really cool.

Laura: Yeah, it only works as a WordPress plugin. If you have another kind of site, another platform you’ve built on, then you can certainly repurpose your blogs that way, but it’s probably going to be a cut-and-paste situation.

Colleen: Yeah, that would be a nightmare.

Laura: What fun!

Colleen: Right. Well, great Laura. Thanks so much for your time. This has been really helpful. I’ve used PowerPoint for years on and off, but I learned so much from this, so I imagine that the audience will have as well.

Laura: Yeah. There is one more point I’d like to make is that one way you can really learn something is by setting yourself a deadline to do something by and then doing it. Experience is a great teacher and you won’t learn everything there is to know about PowerPoint by using it on your own, but if you just give yourself I’m going to have two weeks and I’m going to create this presentation, then just getting into it and working with it will make you less afraid of it.

It’s like, you didn’t graduate from art school and suddenly you were an expert web designer or you were an expert page layout person. These are skills that you learn, tools that you learn how to use. Really hating PowerPoint is like hating a hammer. It doesn’t make any sense. Don’t hate the tool. Just learn how to use the tool and you’ll be able to create some incredible projects with it.

Colleen: I love that. Don’t hate the tool.

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