Join 100k+ subscribers on our YouTube channel and enjoy highly engaging lessons packed full of best practices.
A few careless PowerPoint mistakes can dramatically impact both the effectiveness and professionalism of your presentation.
Over the course of my career in consulting and strategy (and as a PowerPoint instructor for those industries), I’ve seen a lot of slides – great slides, terrible slides, and everything in-between. And what I’ve come to learn is that there’s a handful of common PowerPoint mistakes that many people don’t realize are hurting their presentation.
In this post I’m going to talk about the mistakes I see most often. I’ll give some basic examples of each mistake, explain why it hurts the presentation, and show you what you should be doing instead.
For the list, I’ll mostly be focusing on corporate style presentations, like what you’re likely to see day to day in the business world, but many of the lessons can be applied to other types of presentations as well.
If you’re interested in learning more about how to build your own high-quality PowerPoint slides, make sure you check our our advanced courses.
FREE Slide Design Course
Enroll in our free 5-day email course and learn how to design slides like a McKinsey consultant.
Complete hands-on exercises, review a realistic consulting case study, and get personalized feedback from your instructor!
Plus get a free copy of our Top 50 PowerPoint Shortcuts for Consultants cheat sheet.
Success! Please check your email.
1. Complicated Visualizations
Your job as a slide creator is to make it as easy as possible for the audience to understand your message, and unnecessarily complicated visuals don’t help you do that. Instead, they just confuse the audience.
In this slide from Muckerlab there is a simple sales funnel on the left, with various sales channels on the right. With enough time I can figure out the message, but it’s a bit challenging for my brain to map sales channels to the various stages of the funnel.
“Ecommerce & Digital Marketing” Muckerlab, 2014
You might think that your visual is easy enough to understand, but remember that the audience hasn’t had the same amount of time to look at the slide as you have, so it’s much more difficult for them to grasp the key takeaway quickly.
In the slide below from Edelman there are four different charts, but each one is communicating the same type of information. By mixing up the chart style like this it makes the slide overly complicated. Instead of showing four simple column charts, they’ve forced the audience to understand and interpret each type independently. This just makes it harder for the audience to grasp the key takeaways of the slide.
“Global Deck” Edelman Trust Barometer, 2012
Instead, ask yourself, what’s the key takeaway of the slide, and how does my chart or graphic help support that key takeaway. Avoid trying to make yourself look smart, and instead figure out the simplest way to communicate the idea you’re trying to communicate.
This slide from Credit Suisse is a great example of keeping the chart simple and clear. It’s just a normal-looking stacked column chart with easy to read data labels, a clear background, and a simple takeaway. The result is an effective and professional looking slide that’s easy for the audience to understand.
“Analyst and Investor Call” Credit Suisse, 2022
2. Simple Titles
The point of a title on a slide is to get a quick summary of the slide’s main takeaway, so the audience can better read and understand the details.
In this slide from BCG for example, the title says “Rising housing costs may be driving creatives out of the city”. So naturally, the audience is going to skim through the content looking for evidence of rising housing costs and creatives leaving the city, which makes for more effective delivery. (
“Melbourne as a Global Cultural Destination” BCG.
For more BCG content be sure to check out our full BCG slide breakdown
But unfortunately, many titles aren’t this descriptive. Instead what I see are titles that tell me the topic of the slide and nothing else. I get an idea of what the slide is about, but I’m forced to come up with my own takeaway.
“Fixed Income Investor presentation” Credit Suisse, 2022
You see this especially on slides with summaries of data, like this slide from Salesforce about its finances. But even on these slides it’s usually a good idea to put a takeaway in the title.
“Finance Update Q4 FY21” Salesforce
In this example from Orsted, they’ve shown some annual financial data, but they’ve also summarized what they want the audience to take away from the slide – that they are in line with expectations.
“Investor presentation Q4 and full-year 2020” Orsted, 2021
By including a full sentence for your title, ideally one that summarizes the main takeaway of the slide, you make it much easier for the audience to understand what it is you’re trying to tell them.
3. Default PowerPoint Designs
The third mistake I see more often than I’d like is using default PowerPoint designs. The worst case of this is using old slide themes, like in this example. Anyone who has spent any amount of time in PowerPoint recognizes this design, and aesthetics aside, it just looks like the slide was thrown together last minute.
“First 30 Days” Markstar, 2017
You certainly don’t want to overdesign your slide, but at the very least try to avoid the out-of-the-box designs PowerPoint provides for you. Many of these designs haven’t changed in years, and usually they’re meant for a different kind of presentation (like a school project).
And the same goes for PowerPoint shapes, graphics, and even colors. They all come across as unprofessional and overused, so it’s in your best interest to avoid them altogether.
But where I think this is most easy to mess up is with tables. A table like this for example looks fine enough, but with just a few tweaks it can be made to look significantly better.
In this example, all I did was bold the titles, turn the negative values red, left align the first column and right align the others, make the top line extra thick, then add other lines to separate the regions. The result is a much better looking, and much easier to read table.
When it comes to design, even just a little bit of extra effort can help you avoid cliche, unprofessional looking slides.
4. Unrelated Content
In corporate style presentations, it’s completely okay to have lots of content, so long as each piece of content has a purpose. What I see way too often is stuff that’s just there to fill space, and doesn’t have an actual purpose.
In this Starboard Value slide, there are a lot of unnecessary distractions. For example, the box at the bottom is really just a repeat of what’s in the subtitle. Likewise, there’s a lot of text in the bullet points that could be trimmed down or eliminated without changing the message of the slide. It would help the audience focus more on the key takeaways, without getting distracted by all the fluff.
“Transforming Darden Restaurants” Starboard Value, 2014
See our full breakdown of this slide here.
But what bothers me the most is the picture at the bottom, which really isn’t adding to the slide in any meaningful way. Yes, it’s on topic – the slide is about breadsticks after all – but it’s not giving me any useful information. We all know what breadsticks look like, and this doesn’t help me understand the key takeaway any better.
Pictures are typically the most common culprit when it comes to unrelated content. It can be really tempting to throw a picture on a slide to fill up the extra space – especially if that picture looks professional and seems to loosely match the topic of the slide.
Even McKinsey is guilty of this sometimes, as in this example. The picture looks great, but it doesn’t help the audience understand the main message of the slide about digital manufacturing being a high priority for a majority of companies. Instead, it just distracts the audience.
“Moving Laggards to Early Adopters” McKinsey & Co., 2018
Learn more about how McKinsey designs data heavy PowerPoint slides.
In this example from a different presentation, they kept the slide fairly simple, with only information that supports the main takeaway of the slide, and nothing else. The result is a clear and easy to understand slide with a well-supported takeaway.
“Capturing the full electricity potential of the U.K.” McKinsey & Co., 2012
So when you’re adding content to your slide, whether that’s a picture, chart, or anything else, make sure it contributes to the message in some way. And if it doesn’t then just leave that part blank and adjust the other parts of the slide accordingly.
5. Distracting Backgrounds
This is related to the last mistake about unrelated content but is important in and of itself. A bad background can completely ruin a presentation. At best it’s distracting, but at worst it looks horribly unprofessional and makes the content hard to look at.
Once again this is where PowerPoint is to blame. Some of the default backgrounds make it almost impossible to read the text, especially if that text doesn’t provide any contrast.
But even simple backgrounds can be distracting, as in our previous example from Starboard Value. Shading the background makes it difficult for my eyes to know where to focus my attention. Not to mention it makes some of the text slightly harder to read.
Even subtle text or images in the background can be distracting, as in this BCG example.
“Projecting US Mail volumes to 2020” BCG, 2010
The general rule of thumb with backgrounds is if you notice it, you should change it. The idea is you want to reduce the number of distractions on your slide so that the audience can focus on the insights. In that regard, you can almost never go wrong with a plain white background. This keeps the audience focused on your content, and ultimately on your message.
This slide from Accenture is a great example of a non-distracting background that keeps the emphasis on the content. Nothing is diverting my attention and I can focus on what they’re trying to tell me.
“Fintech New York: Partnerships, Platforms and Open Innovation” Accenture, 2015
But of course, the background doesn’t always have to be white. Sometimes darker backgrounds work better for longer, live presentations, especially when those presentations are given on a large screen.
In another example from later in the presentation, Accenture uses a darker blue background that’s simple, clear, and professional. And most importantly, it doesn’t take my attention away from the content on the slide.
“Fintech New York: Partnerships, Platforms and Open Innovation” Accenture, 2015
6. Not Guiding the Audience
Most modern business presentations are full of text and data, which can make it difficult for the audience to process the information on a slide and see the key insights. In a live presentation, it is even more difficult – the audience has to simultaneously listen to the speaker, read through the content on the slide, and think critically about the information.
The easy way to manage this challenge is to guide the audience through your slide with visual cues – things like text, callouts, and boxes. Unfortunately, it is something that many people just don’t think to do. What this leads to is dense, difficult to read slides, as in these two examples:
“Bridging the Gap Between CIO and CMO” Isobar, 2014
“Transforming Darden Restaurants” Starboard Value, 2014
And the same thing can happen with charts. By just putting up a chart with no real commentary or guidance, you make it hard for the audience to understand what it is you’re trying to tell them.
“Fifth Assessment Report- Synthesis Report” IPCC, 2014
In many ways, this is the counterpoint to the last mistake. Whereas you don’t want unimportant pieces like your background to be distracting, you do want the important parts of your slide to be distracting, because it helps the audience quickly grasp the key takeaways.
Returning to our Accenture example, notice how they’ve used bolded text to help call attention to what’s important. Likewise, they’ve also used a line to put emphasis on the title of the slide.
Check out our full breakdown of this slide here.
This BCG slide has quite a bit of information on it, but they’ve made it easy to work through by drawing the most attention to the title with green font and large text, then the next amount of attention to the subtitles with bold black text and green lines underneath, and then the least amount of attention to the bullet points. It helps the process the information on the slide in the way they want them to – starting with the highest level idea, and working their way through the details.
“Evaluating NYC media sector development and setting the stage for future growth” BCG, 2012
This chart from McKinsey is another good example of guiding the audience. Instead of just keeping the chart plain, they’ve added callouts that help emphasize the message in the title.
“Jobs lost, jobs gained: Workforce transitions in a time of automation” McKinsey, 2017
Guiding the audience can be as simple as adding an arrow or bolding important text. But even small changes like this can make a big difference in your presentation.
7. Too Many Colors
It can be tempting to use a variety of colors on your slide, but doing so just distracts the audience and takes attention away from the important parts. And not only that, it can look really unprofessional.
On this slide for example they’ve decided to separate each of these sections by color to make it easier to distinguish between them. But instead of making it easier to read, the slide is difficult to understand and hard to look at. The sections are already naturally separated, with lines, titles, and even icons. But by adding bright colors, in addition to the orange and green that’s already on the slide, they’ve reduced the slide’s readability considerably.
“Harnessing the Power of Entrepreneurs to Open Innovation” Accenture, 2015
The best slides use color strategically, to help highlight key points and ideas.
In this Bain slide for example, they’ve decided to highlight the important columns in red, while keeping the less important columns in grey. It provides a nice contrasting effect that helps emphasize the message.
“2011 China Luxury Market Study” Bain, 2011
Likewise, this Deloitte slide contains a minimal amount of color, making it easy to sift through the data and focus on only what’s important. Not to mention it keeps the visuals of the slide clean and professional.
“Consumer privacy in retail” Deloitte, 2019
It’s a bit counterintuitive, but when it comes to color, sometimes less is more.
A few simple tweaks to your presentation can really make a difference in both its quality and overall professionalism. Above all, be sure to focus on your main message, and avoid any distractions that might take away from that message. If you can keep an eye out for cliché, unprofessional, and meaningless content, you’ll be well on your way to creating high-quality, insight-rich presentations.
You can watch a video version of this article on YouTube.