Seven key principles to tailoring PowerPoint messages

By Robert Lane and Chantal Bossé

What if your presentation was supposed to last an hour but your time slot was reduced to only 20 minutes? What would you do?

If you’ve been in that situation, what DID you do?

Now imagine that next time this happens to you, you’re ready for it. You can completely restructure your slide sequence on the spot, without making any changes to the actual PowerPoint slides themselves, because you’ve added navigation elements to your slide shows. In other words, you can instantly adjust the visual display to accommodate any circumstance, any audience question, any threat or opportunity instantly.

This article helps you discover how you can use the Seven Key Principles for creating a visually interesting and flexible presentation to tailor your delivery to any circumstance.

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So, you’re all set to go on stage with that carefully crafted linear slide show and all of a sudden something changes your plans. Maybe there’s a technology problem, the speaker before you went over his time slot, people are arriving late to the meeting, or a million other possible variables. You need the flexibility to adjust the sequencing and timing of the message on the spot, but as usual, you’re stuck inside that darn linear, rigid show. You decide it’s time to take PowerPoint presentation to its full potential and integrate navigation elements, giving you complete freedom of expression while in front of audiences.

But wait! Before adding hyperlinks and taking the non-linear plunge, consider these valuable guidelines that can greatly improve the quality of your interactive experiences. Below, we explore seven key principles that will help you create visually interactive PowerPoint presentations. These concepts have been well worn by thousands of presenters over the years, from boardrooms to classrooms, yet most PowerPoint speakers have never even heard of the ideas.

While experimenting with interactive presentation, ponder the following thoughts:

Principle 1—Stay on Track

Just because we CAN jump around randomly between different pieces of content while speaking doesn’t give us permission to be disorganized or lackadaisical in doing so. As ironic as it may sound, interactive performances should be very carefully planned. They are almost never completely spontaneous. Yes, the speaker has enormous freedom to make choices at any time, yet he or she simultaneously pursues a planned, methodical track from beginning to end.

Here’s an example of what that looks like:

Figure 1: Nested Navigation with Content Ladder Graphic

We suggest an approach called the Content Ladder. Think of your overall message as a collection of small, sequential topics, like rungs on a ladder. During the talk, work your way up the ladder from topic to topic. Every once in a while it’s ok to dive off into a tangent, pulling in extra slides while answering questions or showing hidden detail, but return quickly to the planned track each time. As much as you can, keep on that planned track. Stay oriented with where you want to be at the end of the talk, even if that means skipping a planned topic or two along the way for sake of time. In fact, some interactive speakers reserve navigation components primarily for crisis situations or to subtly adjust timing as they go. In their case, under ideal conditions, the overall message maintains a relatively linear flow.

We also recommend a technique called the 75% Approach. If you have an hour to talk, plan only 45 minutes worth of content—leaving 15 minutes free for interactions throughout. At the beginning of the performance, tell the audience, “Ok, folks, we won’t have a question and answer session at the end of the talk because the question and answer session starts right now.” Encourage questions while moving forward and gradually work through the track topics at the same time. Don’t be shy about mixing it up with the audience occasionally. You’ve already budgeted the time for such opportunities. Just be sure to stay oriented.

What happens if viewers sit there like rocks and don’t interact with you, resulting in an extra fifteen minutes of unused performance time? Well, plan for that possibility too. Have optional content such as examples or subtopics available that can be interwoven during the talk if necessary. Most of us have plenty of extra things to say and show when time allows.

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Principle 2—Stay in Control

A related principle is to always, always stay in control of the performance agenda, no matter how dynamic it becomes. It’s your responsibility to provide viewers a quality experience that doesn’t inadvertently wander down unproductive rabbit paths. With practice you’ll master a delicate and intricate dance that balances viewer input with performance goals.

Figure 2: Maintain Control

Be careful, too. Several situations will push you towards losing control. One is a contentious presentation environment. Perhaps it’s your task to announce layoffs and departmental cutbacks. In that case, pent up audience frustration and anger may motivate some individuals to abuse your interactive generosity as they ‘hog the floor’, venting their emotions. Similarly, you may come across an occasional blowhard whose mission in life is to express his or her opinions during your time slot. Or you may get so caught up in the excitement of interacting with certain energetic, fun audience members that ‘time just flies away before you know it’. In all cases, stay in control. You must constantly monitor your role as moderator and pull up on the reins as needed.

We use two discrete, yet very powerful techniques for quickly reasserting control. The first is to listen for transition points. When he says a word or phrase that relates to your content, gracefully interrupt and navigate to that information while saying something like, “You know Bill, that’s a good point. Let’s look a little more closely at that budget item.” Bill and the rest of the audience have no choice but to shut up and listen because you are acknowledging input and specifically addressing it. You’ve taken back control. The other technique is simply waiting until the other person takes a breath and then applying a more generic lead in: “You know what Sally, that reminds me…let me show you something else you’ll probably find interesting.” That something else can be anything. It might be the next item in your track or another topic you planned to cover anyway. Regardless, the intervention completely stifles further interaction and again places you back in control. With practice, you’ll be able to instantly and continually shift focus in this way without the audience even noticing. In essence, your presentation style will feel like a conversation.

Principle 3—Prioritize Content Importance

We’ve seen it so many times and probably you have too—a speaker miscalculates the length of her performance and starts rushing delivery, trying to reach those beloved conclusion slides on time. She has fifty slides in her show and believes the earth surely will freeze over if she doesn’t show every detail on every slide. She begins summarizing complex information too quickly for viewers to understand. Everyone knows she’s stressed and flustered. Her speaking effectiveness plummets.

Figure 3: Plan Content Cuts

Interactive speakers easily avoid this situation by gracefully skipping slides throughout the performance when appropriate—but which slides should you skip? Here’s a big tip: Try not to make those kinds of decisions under pressure. Instead, analyze the message before the performance and prioritize each slide’s importance. Think to yourself, “Ok these 30 slides are really essential and I definitely must show them. These other ten slides are…well…helpful but I could live without them if I get in trouble. And these 10 are not vital at all—I could easily skip them altogether without substantially affecting message flow or meaning.”

And you’re thinking, “What?!!! Are you crazy? ALL my slides are really important”. No they’re not. Some slides are more essential than others. Or if all your slides truly do have equal weight, that may indicate you are cramming way, way too much information into a single performance. Pretend your time slot will be reduced from an hour to 20 minutes. Which slides make the cut? Those are your highest display priorities. Everything else is expendable to some degree.

Principle 4—Be Willing to Change the Planned Track

Principle 1 aside, interactive speakers occasionally must modify or abandon the originally planned track—even in mid-performance. Novice dynamic presenters struggle greatly with this concept at first. They build sophisticated navigation structures into their slide shows, preparing for all conceivable contingencies, but then refuse to use such devices when circumstances clearly warrant a change of plans!

Figure 4: Showcase Navigation (courtesy Paul Franklin, Leeds University)

A classic situation is following a speaker who goes 20 minutes over his assigned time limit. His blunder doesn’t give you permission to go 20 minutes over your limit. However, are you willing to spontaneously adjust the delivery plan accordingly, cutting perhaps half your planned slides? In a sales situation, if the prospect shows obvious buying signs (or more often, impatience), are you willing to jump immediately to the close or otherwise get to the point, at the expense of your carefully prepared agenda?

All of us feel uncomfortable with such scenarios initially and we don’t want to change our momentum. Recognizing that fact and learning how to flow with the situation is a critical step towards mastery. Here’s a technique that can help. Think of your performances as conversations. Why? Because we often don’t get to say everything that’s on our mind during conversations, and yet we easily adjust input as topics change, with little thought given to the process. In the same way, polished interactive speakers learn to flexibly adapt to their environments. Tailoring delivery to circumstances becomes second nature.

Principle 5—Incorporate Visual Cues

A visual cue in cognitive psychology and media design is defined as any aspect of visual display that helps a user find information, understand available options, stay oriented in a complex field of data, or relate new ideas to concepts already understood. In an interactive presentation context, visual cues are your friends—BIG TIME. Incorporating various kinds of visual cues into navigation structures and slide displays makes a huge difference in how quickly a speaker can find needed slides and smoothly bring them into view. Visual cues even act as cheat sheets, reminding the speaker of upcoming slides or entire categories of information that wait in the wings for fast display.

Figure 5: Thumbnail Navigation Providing Visual Cues

Notice the menu in Figure 5, for example. Its small hyperlinked thumbnails offer a preview of slides that will display once the respective links are clicked. By casually glancing at this menu while discussing a topic, a presenter can think ahead about other available topics as well. Visual cues incorporated in this way are so effective that experienced interactive speakers rarely use, or even need, notes. Visual elements on slides are like road maps, providing constant guides that smooth out delivery, even when the topics under discussion are spontaneous or audience-driven.

Principle 6—Know Your Content

Presenting in a typically linear (non-interactive) fashion encourages a speaker to be practically dead and propped up behind the podium; PowerPoint spits out slides with robotic predictability, regardless of a speaker’s vital signs. Audience-tailored performances are different. They require at least a small amount of cognitive exertion. You are, after all, customizing displays to the interests, needs, and experience levels of viewers. Said another way, dynamic presenters must be intimately familiar with their materials, so that they can select their slides dynamically like the smoothness of words rolling off the tongue. Lazy performers need not apply.

Principle 7—Use Multiple Slide Shows

When first experimenting with interactive delivery, you probably began by adding hyperlinks within a single slide show and moving around between slides only within that show. Here’s a suggestion: tailored delivery becomes REALLY fun only after you are comfortable jumping to external, separate slide shows as well. In other words, you actually deliver multiple presentations during each performance, instead of just one.

Figure 6: Presentation Network Structure

Imagine surfing the Internet and being forced to stay within a single Web site. That wouldn’t be much fun. The same phenomenon occurs with interactive presentation. There is only so much you can do with a single slide show. Powerful visual expression comes from moving around between hundreds or perhaps even thousands of slides, selecting just the right content to match the current need. Building that kind of versatility into a single PowerPoint file is impossible. You must branch into additional shows.

Is that process difficult? No, not really. It’s no harder than moving around between Web sites. You can practice inserting external hyperlinks now by using the Ribbon (part of Microsoft’s Fluid User Interface initiative) in PowerPoint 2007. Click on the Insert tab, click on Hyperlink, and then click on the Existing File or Web Page button (see Figure 7 below). External links are slightly more complicated than their internal link cousins. So be sure to learn all about hyperlinks before taking such a multi-show network live.

Figure 7: Insert Hyperlink Dialog Box

You also may wish to request a free relational presentation pdf guide that describes multi-show presentation in more detail. Free navigation tutorials and video demonstrations of navigation strategies are available on the Aspire Web site as well.

Photo of Robert Lane Robert Lane is a US-based presentation consultant specializing in visually interactive communication theory and is the author of Relational Presentation: A Visually Interactive Approach. His Web site,, features free demonstration video clips, tutorials, guides, and other resources that further explain the concepts discussed in this article. Contact him at:
Photo of Chantal Bosse Chantal Bossé Chantal Bossé is a presentation professional in Montreal, Canada, specializing in interactive presentation design, instructional design, and computer training. Find her Web site at and contact her at

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