Effective Presentation and Visuals for PowerPoint:

PowerPoint can be an effective visual tool to present material to your audience.  At the same time, it can be a distraction to your students when used improperly.  It’s important to understand some basic principles regarding PowerPoint visuals and presentation to help make your lecture more effective and understandable.


There are many factors to consider when planning a PowerPoint presentation (or series of presentations).

  1. Your Students:
    1. How many students are enrolled?
    2. What are you trying to illustrate to them using power point?


  1. Venue:
    1. How big is your lecture hall?  What is the configuration of your lecture hall (ie: small classroom, long and deep, wide and shallow, etc…)?
    2. What’s the projector setup in the classroom you’ll be lecturing in?  Are you familiar with this setup?
  1. What are your tools?
    1. What Platform (PC or Mac) is your computer?
    2. What input/output plugs do you need? Do you need to bring your own display adapter cable? (i.e.; VGA to DVI adapter for IBook and Powerbook users)
    3. Will you be lecturing with the lights on or off?


  1. Your presentation:
    1. How do you want your lecture to benefit from PowerPoint (image intensive, reinforcing the narrative)? Do you want it to illustrate your points (through the use of diagrams, etc.)? Do you want to use it as an outline to follow ( listing key points)?
    2. What kind of media do you plan on using in your presentation?
    1. Will you need to switch between the digital projector, an overhead projector, and/or a chalkboard?  Why and how often?
    2. How much information will you be presenting in each slide?


  1. Your Students:
    1. Number of enrolled students.
  1. Venue
  1. Computer Platform
    1. This difference will affect the PowerPoint presentation itself very little (especially so with more recent versions of PowerPoint).  Your hardware platform will determine you input and output ports for things like connecting external displays and projectors.  It may also affect how your computer communicates with the display hardware in the classroom; a problem with this may cause your presentation to be displayed incorrectly.  If you have difficulties with a smart panel or other classroom display technology, you can call Classroom Technology Services for assistance (or there may be someone in the room who can assist you as well).  Remember to become familiar with your hardware; this is important to know if you call for help.

Check to see what kind of output port your computer has.  PC laptops have at least a VGA output port (and sometimes a DVI port) while current Apple laptops usually have a mini-DVI or DVI output.  While most projectors at UC Davis use a VGA import cable, your Apple laptop will likely have come with a DVI to VGA adapter or a mini-DVI to VGA adapter.  These adapters plug into your Apple laptop, and the VGA cable from a projector plugs into the adapter on the other end.  If your laptop didn’t come with one of these adapters, you should procure one as soon as possible.  Below, we have a picture of a DVI to VGA cable, which comes with most 15 and 17 inch aluminum Apple Powerbooks. 

APPLE M8754G/A DVI to VGA Display Adapter (Courtesy of: Amazon.com)


Benefits of lights on:

Benefits of lights off:

If maintaining eye contact with your students is important to you, then you may wish to keep the lights on.  This also helps if you don’t want student attention focused solely on the screen.  With the lights on, coupled with an effective presentation, their eyes will follow where you direct their attention.

While it may be impossible to prevent some students from falling asleep in class, leaving the lights on can help tired members of your class stay awake. 

If you expect your students to take a lot of notes during your lecture, then they should be able to see what they are doing.  Leaving the lights on will help see what they’re writing while they listen to your lecture.

If you are planning on posting your slide on the web for your students to print out and bring to class, then consider doing them on a light/white background (and thus keep the lecture hall lights on).  This way there is room for them to take notes around your slides.

Staring at a bright slide for an extended amount of time is hard on the eyes.  Too much brightness from the screen in addition to having the lights on can make things even worse.  Try to create a comfortable viewing environment to help your students better absorb your material.  A dark room makes looking at slides much easier on your students.

With the lights on, there is more room for students to become easily distracted by other things they may see.  You may want to turn the lights off to help students focus on more easily on what you’re trying to show.

If your presentation is image or media intensive, it will look much better and be much easier to see in a dark viewing environment.  This is especially true for video content. 


    1. Using PowerPoint to benefit your lecture (descriptive, image intensive, or to reinforce the narrative)?
    1. To illustrate your points (i.e.: diagrams, pictures, etc...)

Notice the difference background color and image size can make.  This would be a good example of what not to do.

The image displayed here is still large enough to see, while keeping within a “safe-zone” of 80%.

    1. Slides used for key points/outline/definitions:
    1. What kind of media do you plan on using in your presentation?
    1. How much information will you be presenting in each slide?


light on dark

dark on light

(The text size, fonts, and colors show the relative differences and are useful as a reference when deciding what you want to use in your presentation)



Body Text:


Select a title size that seems appropriate for you, but make sure that title is larger than the body text and clearly visible.
(For a rough estimate of appropriate size, stand approximately 5 feet away from your computer screen.  If you can read the text, it’s big enough).  You’ll want the title text to appear larger to provide visual separation.

While the body text shouldn’t exceed the size of the titles, they should still be fairly large and easily visible.
(For a rough estimate of appropriate size, stand approximately 5 feet away from your computer screen.  If you can read the text, it’s big enough)


Title fonts can afford to be “fancier”.  Although some fonts are more difficult to read from a distance, the larger size of your titles can help alleviate that problem, and more elaborate fonts can draw additional attention to your main points.

Fonts for your body text should be simple and easy to read from a distance.  Less “busy” fonts are easily readable even at smaller sizes. 



Light colored font on dark back grounds
Dark colored font on light backgrounds

(If you use colors that don’t distinctly differ from your background color, consider using a drop shadow effect to enhance the visibility of your text.)


Light colored font on dark back grounds
Dark colored font on light backgrounds

(Straying from this standard can make it more difficult for your students to read your text, and the smaller size of body text can exacerbate this problem.)

Prepared by the ET Partners Program, IET Mediaworks and UC Davis