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Presentations 101: The Absolute Basics of Making a Presentation

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This post is part of a series called Presentation Fundamentals.
Jump-Start Guide to Essential Business Presentation Skills
Writing Speeches That Grab Your Audience From the Opening Sentence

Presentations don’t require PowerPoint, Keynote, or any specific app. They don’t require a projector, a laser pointer, or a long stick. And they definitely don’t require bullet points, animations, and soundtracks.

All they require is the info you want to share, simplified to show one bit of info per screen. That’s it.

There’s no reason that making a presentation should be a daunting process. Here’s everything you’ll need to make a perfectly good presentation, in any app you have on your computer.

The Presentation Basics

Making a presentation can feel intimidating, since the best look so polished they’d require an art degree to make, and the worst cram so much information into a slide deck that they seem like they’d take forever to put together. And yet, neither should be that intimidating. The PowerPoints of today are simply digital refreshes of the original overhead transparency presentations that date back to World War II and the couple-decades-newer photographic slide projectors. Both of those were, again, a refresh of another idea—a large poster you could point to with a stick while speaking.

Of all things, the first version of PowerPoint wasn’t even designed for making digital presentations to be shown on a projector from your laptop. It was instead designed as a simple way to make transparencies you’d print out and then show on an overhead projector, or perhaps print on paper and show as a flip chart. That first version only had a few tools, including text and basic shapes, but it was enough for Microsoft to acquire the company that made it for $14 million.

PowerPoint and Keynote of today have far more features than that early presentations app that started it all, but the basics of a presentation haven’t changed. All you really need to for a presentation is a full-screen clear view of the text and images you want to share. Backgrounds aren’t really necessary, and more often than not are simply distracting and make the text harder to read. Animations and transitions can be nice, but they’re not necessary either, as long as you can easily shift from one slide to the next.

So all you really need to make a presentation could be the built-in Paint app on a PC. You’d add text and images, save each “slide” as an individual picture on your computer, then open them full-screen with the Photo Viewer app. Voila, you’ve got a full presentation. You could do the same thing with practically any graphics app, and—with somewhat worse results—could do something similar by putting large text and pictures on individual pages in any basic word processor—including the built-in apps like TextEdit and Wordpad—and a quick PDF export that’s then opened full-screen in your PDF reader. For the most basic of presentations, there’s literally no need for a specialized presentations app.

That’s why presentation features are cropping up in all types of apps you’d never expect to include presentation features. Evernote recently added a basic presentation mode that turns your notes and included images and more into a basic, clean presentation. Draft, the online writing tool, just added a similar tool to turn a plain text document into a presentation, and Deckset is a Mac app that’s coming soon for the same purpose.

You really, really don’t need that much for a presentation.

The Stuff you Do Need

Now, all that’s needed is to make your presentation, in any app you’d like. If you have PowerPoint or Keynote, go ahead and use them—or use their free online counterparts, or Google Docs Presentations. Or, perhaps, just use any graphics app as mentioned above. Either way, the only things you need to focus on are the essentials: a decently basic background, your images and other graphics you’ll include to press your points, and—most importantly—your text. Nothing else matters.

Start with a simple slide design, and work up. A plain color, offset by a contrasting font color, is plenty. Then, if you want to include graphics, make sure they’re very clear from a distance, and then figure out where they’re going to go in your slide lineup.

Now, focus on your text, the most important part of your presentation. Guy Kawasaki famously said that PowerPoints should adhere to the 10/20/30 rule: 10 slides, shown for 20 minutes, using at least a 30 point font. The first two rules are great for not losing your audience’s attention, but the latter is crucial if you want people to be able to quickly grasp what your slides say. Use the largest font possible—far larger than 30 points works great, too—and simplify your concepts to the most basic so they can be communicated in the fewest words possible. And there’s no necessity to stick with the typical larger title and smaller bullet points on your slides. Instead, you can make each slide showcase only one idea, presented in a larger font, to keep everything from being so cluttered.

Finally, you’ll need a simple way to present. Every slide app—the web apps included—let you take your presentation full-screen in a tap, typically on a small Present button on the bottom of the screen. If you choose to make a non-traditional presentation with individual images as slides, then just open the set of “pictures” in your photo viewer app. All you’ll need then is to tap your arrow keys to proceed through your presentation, no matter which app you’re using. You could use animations and transitions, but those aren’t necessary. What is necessary is the info you’re trying to share, and these steps are all you’ll need to do that.

There’s one more thing: the device you’re using to share your presentation. The obvious choice is a laptop connected to a projector. That’s far from the only way, though. You could play back your presentation on almost any device these days, and can make it in similarly simple tools even on a tablet or phone. The important thing—large text and images in a simple, full-screen view—works universally.

And That’s All.

It might sound crazy, but that’s really all that’s needed for a presentation. The PowerPoint and Keynote alternates, and even their own web apps, aren’t nearly as fancy and don’t include all the snazzy animations, charting and diagramming tools, and more that you’d perhaps expect. But then, all of that isn’t needed for a presentation.

What is needed is your ideas, simply presented, and your speaking skills that will bring your message across to your audience. For that, be sure to check our newest Tuts+ business tutorials on presentations that’ll help you make the best of your presentation, regardless of what app you’re using:


Graphic Credit: Presentation icon designed by Alexander Bickov from the Noun ProjectIdea icon designed by Joe Harrison from the Noun Project.

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