There’s no way to rescue a presentation with flashy visuals if you don’t have a clear story that you’re telling your audience. However, applying a few simple principles and making smart use of graphics and tools can lift your slides and create a bigger impact.
Know your audience
What exact message you want them to take away, and what you want them to do. How much prior knowledge can you assume? How much time will they have to take this information in? Will they make a decision straight away, or go away and discuss it with colleagues? Can you sum up the story you're telling in a single sentence?
Keep it simple
Be absolutely ruthless about only including information on your slides that pushes that key message to your target audience. If they have questions, you can be ready to answer them, and you can always provide follow-up information as needed.
Tell a story
And make it a human story! Have you solved a problem for somebody? Have you transformed an area of your industry? Have you pushed a message out to a hard-to-reach group of people? That's all much more compelling than a profit and loss spreadsheet.
Keep slides sparse
Use few words, in big fonts. Try to use one visual per slide. It's always better to end up with more slides, rather than dense chunks of information – your audience will struggle to read a crammed slide and listen to you talk at the same time.
Here are a few free tools (for those of us who aren’t graphic designers) that you can use to make your presentation sing.
Where Powerpoint is effectively a set of cards that you flick through one-by-one, imagine Prezi as a giant wall with Post It notes on it. As you switch between each note, the screen will pan between them. It’s a particularly good way of showing the journey of a business, product or individual. prezi.com
This is a quick way to create very visual slides – simply download them, and then you can drop them into PowerPoint. Avoid the gaudy graphics – check out the banners, backgrounds and text containers. canva.com
SlideDog This is an alternative to PowerPoint that’s specifically designed for handling multimedia. So if you’re showcasing a lot of video or slideshows, this could be a better tool. slidedog.com
This is a frequently updated database of free icons that you can drop into your presentations, reports or other documents (provided you credit them). They have a consistent and clean design aesthetic, and cover a huge range of subjects.
A massive, open source database of icons that attempt to communicate nouns (whether mundane objects or major concepts) in a clear way. thenounproject.com
Infogram A tool for creating templated, visually appealing data visualisations and infographics. infogr.am
If you’re sick of using the standard fonts that come with PowerPoint or other software packages, Smashing Magazine have curated a set of the best free alternatives. Smashing Magazine
Microsoft have a set of free picture and effects templates for Powerpoint here.
And a bonus tip – check out Seth Godin’s timeless guide to Really Bad PowerPoint here.