The Steve Jobs Simplicity Test for PowerPoint Presentations

Last Updated Apr 29, 2010 12:41 PM EDT

As you know, most PowerPoint presentations are boring and ineffective. Here's why. We create them not to convey crucial information, but rather to help us ease our uncomfortableness with public speaking. I'm convinced this is true. We use PPT like a magician uses a lovely assistant -- to misdirect the attention of the audience.

As a result, most slide decks are:
  • Simply speech outlines. We encourage the audience to follow along by reading the screen rather than looking and listening to us. What could be more deadly?
  • Jammed with much too much information, presented poorly. Your audience must decide whether to digest the slide or listen to the speaker -- impossible to do both.
  • Choreographed to bullet point style. Bullet points have no rhythm, no tempo, no liveliness -- and neither do presentations that rely on them.
Look, I'm not one of those PPT Haters who think it has no value. The key to using PowerPoint, Keynote or any other presentation technology effectively is to use it to complement your talk and drive home key points, not to serve as the main event.

Learn from the master presenter, Steve Jobs. Look at the opening minutes of his iPad intro earlier this year to see how he uses the medium wonderfully:

Color: The slides are bathed in a soothing dark blue color. He heightens interest by occasionally just leaving an empty blue screen.

Space: When he presents a key data point, such as the number of programs available in the App Store, that number is about the only thing you see on the slide. It encourages you to listen to him for the context.

Images: Instead of filling the screen with text, a beautiful image often delivers the message. Jobs' remarks on the opening of a new Apple store in NY is backdropped by a few beautiful photos rather than bullet points about how many marble steps were used or how many people crowded in during the first month.

Special effects: The effect -- a spinning product, a dust cloud -- usually appears at the start of the slide, drawing your attention, but then is quickly gone.

Like his products, a Steve Jobs slide show is about simplicity, elegance and impact. So take your next slide presentation and run it through this five-question filter.
  1. Does each slide convey just one idea?
  2. Are images sometimes used instead of words to convey those ideas?
  3. Do the slides make use of empty space?
  4. Does the deck sometimes disappear, leaving nothing between you and your audience?
  5. Have you minimized bullet lists, distracting effects and eye charts?
What do you think are the keys to a good slide presentation?

(Steve Jobs image by Mario Sundar, CC 2.0)
  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.

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