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From Cluttered to Clear: How to improve your PowerPoint slides

by | Aug 28, 2021

Your main goal should always be to make your slide as readable and easy to understand as possible.

Back in 2014 activist Hedge Fund Starboard Value made a successful bid to oust the board at Darden Restaurants, a company that owns multiple restaurant chains in the US including a beloved Italian restaurant called Olive Garden.   

In this post, I’m going to take one of the slides from this presentation and show you exactly how to take boring unprofessional slides, and turn them into slides that are clear, insightful, and engaging. I’ll walk through each step of the redesign explaining the logic behind each choice and why it matters for your audience. Plus I’ll provide you with some great PowerPoint tips along the way to help you build your slides a whole lot faster. 

cluttered Starboard value slide

“Transforming Darden Restaurants” Starboard Value, September 2014

As you can tell the slide is all about breadsticks, and how Olive Garden’s lack of training and discipline is leading to reduced profitability and a poorer guest experience. 

The first thing that strikes me about this slide is just how much text there is. That’s not inherently bad — a common feature of slides in consulting, strategy, or finance is that they contain a lot of information that needs to be digested by the audience all at once. 

What’s difficult about these types of slides is that they can overwhelm the audience. Especially if it’s delivered live where the audience has to read all the information on the slide, listen to the speaker, and potentially think of a response. Even for a smart person, it’s a lot to ask. So your job as slide creator is to make it as easy as possible for the audience to understand your message by limiting distractions, drawing attention to the important parts of the slide, and guiding your audience visually. 

When you look at this slide, which parts of the slide are distracting, and are they important to the slide’s message? For me, it was the dark blue boxes: the one down at the bottom with the slide’s main message, but then also the blue labels for the table. The box at the bottom says, “Olive Garden is famous for its unlimited breadsticks, but poor execution around this signature item we believe both increased costs and hurt the guest experience.” To me, this is a pretty important takeaway from the slide, so I’ll leave it in place for now.

Starboard value slide

But then how about the other blue boxes? Do they need to stick out so much? I need them to support the information in the table, but I don’t think they should command so much attention. 

So the first thing I’m going to do is remove the attention-grabbing blue color. I’ll do that by holding the control key as I select all the objects (or CMD key if you’re using a Mac), then using my ribbon shortcuts to change the shape fill and the font. 

I’ll hit Alt to access the commands in the ribbon, then H for home, then SF for shape fill, and then N for no fill. And then obviously the text can’t be white so I’ll follow the same process to get to the Home tab, then hit FC for font color, and choose the blue color. 

Starboard value slide

Another thing on this slide that I think is unnecessarily distracting is the picture of breadsticks down at the bottom. The rule with pictures on a slide is you want to make sure it’s contributing to the message in some way, and not just there for good looks. 

This one could probably go either way because, on the one hand, I think it’s good to be able to visualize the topic, but on the other hand, we all know what a breadstick looks like and this isn’t providing any new information. Not to mention, I don’t think it fits in cleanly on the slide – it just sort of sits down at the bottom and isn’t aligned with anything. So I’m just going to delete it. 

Now on to the background. The general rule for backgrounds is if you notice it, you need to change it. And this one I noticed right away. Maybe it’s just me but it’s incredibly distracting and almost looks a little unprofessional, especially when the text is also blue. 

So to delete this unsightly background I’m just going to right-click on the slide and go to format background, select solid fill, then choose white. 

Starboard value slide

Now I know what you might be thinking here, this slide is starting to look a little plain. But remember, the first step here is to remove distractions that aren’t important to the slide’s message, so that’s what we’ve done. Now, we’re going to put more emphasis on the important parts. And this is where it starts to get a little more interesting.

Generally speaking, the most important part of any slide is the title. People like to look there first, so you want to make sure your title attracts attention and provides valuable information. On this slide, however, the blue box down at the bottom is a little more attention-grabbing, so the path for the audience isn’t quite as clear. Should they look at the title first? Or the box? Or maybe the subtitle? We want to remove that complexity and make it as easy as possible for the audience to know where to look first, then second, then third. 

Starboard value slide with arrows pointing to cluttered parts

The title of the slide says, “Breadsticks: just one example of food waste”, which is short but provides a good idea of what the slide is all about. Then there’s this subtitle, “As just one example, we believe lapsed discipline around Darden’s renowned unlimited salad and breadsticks offering has led to both high food waste and a worse experience”. 

You might have noticed that this sounds very similar to what is already in the box down at the bottom, and I don’t think we need both. Of the two I like the bottom one better so I’m going to select the text by hitting control A, the control C for copy, and go up to the top and right-click and go to paste, then over to the option that says paste as text. That way I don’t have to worry about formatting. 

Starboard value slide

I mentioned earlier that you want to guide your audience visually, and part of this includes directing their attention to the highest level ideas first, and then to the details. The idea behind this is the Pyramid Principle, which we’ve explained in more detail here, but basically, it’s a method of communication that involves starting with your main point, then working your way through the supporting details of that main point. The advantage of this approach is that it helps you communicate a lot of information in a way that’s easy to understand and digest. 

The way we do that on a slide is by making sure the title captures the slide’s primary takeaway, and that it’s the most attention-grabbing part of the slide so the audience looks there first.

Take a look at the BCG slide below for example. Notice how the title sticks out from the rest of the slide. It’s bold, it’s got a large font, and it has a dark green line underneath it. By reading the title first the audience will understand the main takeaway for the slide, so when they get to the details in the chart and in the bullet points, they’ll have some guidance and some context. 

Starboard value slide

To maximize the clarity of our Olive Garden slide I’m going to do the same thing – put the main idea at the top, and then the supporting points beneath it. It looks like they’ve kind of done that already by putting a short title on the top, then a more detailed subtitle just below it. This is something I see quite a bit, and I think it accomplishes the goal of providing a summary of the slide. 

But the issue is the subtitle is really where the main takeaway is, and it doesn’t grab that much attention. So what I’m going to do instead is move that text to the title, and just delete the subtitle. Then I’ll just cut out some words from the title so it fits and drag some of the other objects up to get rid of some white space. Now we have a nice clear title that summarizes the slide really well. 

Starboard value slide

Alright now that we’ve got the main message of the slide clearly in place, we can worry about the rest of the content on the slide (and this is where things can get tricky). There’s a lot of text on the slide so we need to find a way to naturally separate the different sections so they’re easy to distinguish visually. 

The first thing I’m going to do is to separate out the takeaways down at the bottom. They’re obviously very important in helping to show the difference between 10 years ago and today, so I want to make sure they don’t blend in too much with the rest of the text. The easiest way to do this is by holding the control key and selecting each of the boxes, dragging the bottom part of the box up, and then I’m just going to duplicate them by holding down the control and shift keys and dragging them in a straight line downwards. 

Starboard value slide

Then I’ll just change the text to say what I want, and increase the font by hitting Control Shift and the greater than sign, then bolding it by hitting Control B. Then I can get rid of the extra text and move the icons to the side for later use. 

Starboard value slide

By the way, if advanced keyboard shortcuts like this are new to you, or if your PowerPoint skills could use an upgrade, make sure you check some of our other resources on PowerPoint. We’ve got some great posts here on our blog, a very popular (and free) PowerPoint shortcuts cheat sheet, and full courses that provide advanced PowerPoint training for consulting, strategy, and finance professionals. 

Now on to the text. Notice how right now the text is all the same color and at first glance it sort of blends together. So to make it a little easier to process I’m going to first change the main text to black. I’m also going to make sure the bullet points are black as well, and I can change these things pretty quickly just by using my ribbon shortcuts.

Starboard value slide

Another thing I’m going to do is separate the subtitles/labels a little better by increasing the text size and adding lines underneath the top two. A neat trick to know here is when you’re adding a new line, hold the shift key and the line will be perfectly straight every single time. 

Then I’ll make it black, and copy it over using the same shortcuts from earlier. Then just for good measure I’ll delete the extra line and increase the font size of the main text, just to make things a little more readable.

Starboard value slide

Starboard value slide

The takeaways down at the bottom feel separated from the main text but I think we can do a bit better. First of all, I want to align them better and I can do that by selecting each of the text boxes and going up to the align text menu in the ribbon, and selecting middle. 

Starboard value slide

I’m also going to try and use the icons because I think they do a good job of providing a visual cue for which approach is better. So first I’ll adjust the margins of the text box and move the text over, and I can do that by again using the ribbon shortcut to get into the format shape menu, and changing the left margin. Then I’ll just drag the icons over and make them a little bigger. Then I think we can take it just one step further by putting a shaded box behind the text to make it pop just a tiny bit more.

Starboard value slide

Starboard value slide

Another critical part of formatting is you want to continue to draw attention to what matters. We’ve already done that with the title at the top, and the key takeaways down at the bottom, but you can also bold the keywords on the slide to make skimming the content just a little bit easier. Not everyone likes to do this, but I think it adds a nice touch. 

So I’m just going to read through the text and bold what I think is most important. It’s going to be hard to notice much of a difference because we’ve already been looking at this slide for so long, but for someone looking at this slide for the very first time, bolding keywords like this can make a big difference. 

Starboard value slide

Then just a few more finishing touches to help with the spacing on the slide and the overall look and feel.

Starboard value slide

So as we compare the slide with the original, you can see that it looks quite a bit different. The slide might not be the best-looking slide out there, but anyone who looks at this slide is going to have a significantly easier time processing the details and understanding the main takeaway. 

Starboard value slide

Ultimately, your main goal isn’t to make the slide as “pretty” as possible. Your main goal is to make your slide as readable and easy to understand as possible. We didn’t really change any of the content on the slide or remove any of the information, but we did reformat it in a way that’s more natural for a first-time viewer. 

You can watch a video version of this article on YouTube.

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