By Erica Massaro-Hales

July 24, 2017

Worldwide, more than 250 million computers have PowerPoint installed, and roughly 30 million presentations are produced each day.[1] PowerPoint is a user-friendly, accessible, and intuitive tool that can be used by a variety of presenters in virtually any setting. However, this accessibility results in the common employment of PowerPoint’s default settings, which, perhaps surprisingly, are not necessarily conducive to learning.

The most pervasive and detrimental flaw in presentation design is rooted in PowerPoint’s default layout: a hierarchy of text and bullet-point lists over images. The title, topic, sub-topic layout makes up
65 percent of sample presentations in professional communication in engineering and science.[2]  This format does not easily permit the audience to understand how each point relates to each other. Instead, to present clearer ideas and themes, the “assertion-evidence” approach should be used, which changes the title from a vague theme to a persuasive headline, and changes the body from a hierarchy of text to visual evidence that supports that headline assertion.[3] This is especially important when attorneys are presenting.

While replacing bullet-point lists with more expressive visuals is generally recommended, it should be noted that there are instances when a bullet-point list can be a necessary and effective method to distribute information in the courtroom. A successful list is simplified to the main points and speaks to an overall message. One way to enhance learning with bullet-point slides is to highlight each point as it is discussed, guide the audience, and create a visual hierarchy that a list alone cannot achieve.

The preset color theme in PowerPoint also is not beneficial to learning, as it often involves a white background with black text, which has been shown not to hold the attention of an audience. This monotonous default should be replaced with carefully selected colors that evoke emotion, engage the jury, and enhance memory performance.[4] Color has the power to strategically guide the audience’s attention, helping them remember key facts and themes. Color can also have the opposite effect and evoke an unwanted emotion or draw attention to something that should be minimized. Different colors can serve different purposes depending on context. For example, a blue highlight may draw focus to an object, but a yellow highlight indicates urgency and would naturally take attention away from a blue highlight. A color palette should be chosen with care and intention to ensure the correct message is conveyed.

The graphics below highlight a few of the key differences between a slide created with the typical PowerPoint layout and one created using the assertion-evidence approach that applies the principles of design. The first slide, used in a study on clinical trial participation, uses PowerPoint’s defaults with a descriptive title, a bullet-point list of information, and a relevant image. The second slide demonstrates an alternative design with the inclusion of a graph and careful consideration of layout, color, text, and overall message.

Powerpoint slide with header, bulleted list, and image of woman looking through microscope

Slide 1: Created using PowerPoint’s default settings

Redesign of first slide showing two charts with header

Slide 2: Redesigned for greater impact

This would be better communicated with a persuasive title and the results of the study described, paired with a graphic that supports the message. The image of a scientist conducting a study may add visual interest, but is ultimately distracting and draws focus away from the text because the viewer’s gaze is constantly pulled toward the image. Although this image may appear to be related to the text, it does not broaden the understanding of the overall message. Color is also not employed effectively on this slide. The black text on a white background is difficult to look at for extended periods of time, especially on large projection screens commonly used in courtrooms. The slide requires more effort to process, and thus reduces the viewer’s comprehension.

In contrast, the second slide uses the most notable fact as the title so the audience can instantly recognize the message being presented. Instead of a bullet-point list, there is visual evidence that demonstrates the most significant results of the study – that the biggest determining factor in patient participation is age. The graphic clearly shows that the younger the patient, the more likely he or she is to participate in a clinical trial. The speaker could describe the low participation in studies overall, and use this slide to demonstrate the factors that do or do not make a difference in participation.

Another benefit from the design of the second slide is that the use of color breaks down the information, making it easier for the viewer to digest. The title is boldly set apart from the body of the slide, and the graphs each use a different color to separate the sets of data. The lighter blue is used for the patient age graph because this draws more attention, indicating to the audience that this is the most important part of the slide. It also highlights the drastic change in clinical trial participation when distributed by age, versus the muted blue used on the more evenly distributed graph of participation by ethnicity. The blues and greys provide ease of viewing and readability with an aesthetically pleasing, professional tone. This is even more important in long jury trials to maintain the jury’s focus.

PowerPoint is a tremendously popular and powerful tool for presentation, if used strategically. While the defaults and templates of the program allow for convenience and accessibility to a wide variety of users, these presentations can be designed more effectively. Designing with expertise and intention is extremely important in reaching an audience successfully, especially a jury. Every detail must be carefully considered when creating slides for a presentation so that the message communicated is clear, compelling and memorable.

1. Doumont, J. “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Not All Slides Are Evil.” Technical Communication, 2005, Pp. 64-70. 
2. Garner, J. K., M. P. Alley, A. Gaudelli, and S. Zappe. “Common Use of PowerPoint versus Assertion-Evidence Structure: A Cognitive Psychology Perspective.” Technical Communication, 56, 2009, Pp. 331-345.
3. Garner, J. K., and M.P. Alley. “How the Design of Presentation Slides Affects Audience Comprehension: A case for the Assertion-Evidence Approach.” International Journal of Engineering Education, 2013. pp. 1564-1579.
4. Dzulkifli, M.A., and M.F. Mustafar. “The Influence of Colour on Memory Performance: A Review.” The Malaysian Journal of Medical Sciences, 2013.