We spent the weekend on the road, and there was never a good time to write.

And so, as last week’s column was about how to seem more literate, it seemed only reasonable to move from writing to PowerPointing. Luckily enough, the column that follows, first published late in 2006, covers the ground quite nicely.

– Bob

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Question: Since people have been stupid as long as there have been people, why do so many of us blame PowerPoint? When someone writes stupid sentences, do we blame MS Word?

PowerPoint is no different from speaking — if someone’s point is foolish, either will make the fact more public. So the first rule of good PowerPointing is the same as the first rule of speech: First, think.

Many bytes have been expended providing other PowerPoint guidelines. Some have provided marvelous self-referential warnings — dull and poorly constructed presentations explaining how to avoid creating dull and poorly constructed presentations.

Most of the “rules” are, by the way, contextual. For example:

PowerPoint Rule: Never use anything smaller than a 16 point font. It’s terrific advice, when you’re building a presentation that will (a) be projected in a large room, (b) to an audience that has not received printed copies of the presentation, and (c) won’t have access to a version that can be scrutinized later on.

Let’s start over. PowerPoint and its competitors are more than packages for developing presentations that will be projected in a large room. They’re general-purpose communications tools. Presentation software and word processing software differ in one important respect: Presentation software enforces a discipline of telling a complete story on each page.

That, in fact, is the only hard-and-fast rule of using presentation software correctly: Make each page tell a story.

A few other thoughts and notions:

Respect the tool. Presentation packages provide sophisticated facilities for helping you achieve consistent formatting. Take advantage of them. Use the Title placeholder to contain slide titles, the built-in, automated slide numbering feature instead of manually placing slide numbers at the bottom of each slide, and tab stops or separate text boxes instead of the space bar for fine positioning. Among the advantages: When you change templates, your slides will require less clean-up.

Don’t use clip art to liven up slides. Inserting clip art of a detective with a magnifying glass onto a slide whose title is “A closer look,” is something less than highly original. It was hokey the first time and hasn’t improved since.

Do use illustrations to tell your story, instead of simple bulleted lists. A list of bullets is a fine way to present a handful of parallel ideas. A graphic gives you the opportunity to show their interrelationships as well.If, for example, your bullets present the sequence of seven steps you’ll follow to complete an assignment, place seven boxes on the screen, positioned diagonally from upper left to lower right. Connect them with arrows — right-angled ones that descend from the bottom mid-point of each box to the left-side mid-point of the next one. Label each box with one of the steps.

Have too much to say about each step for this format to work? Create a row of seven block arrows across the top of the slide and label those as the steps. Below each position a rectangle and put bullets in each to explain the specifics for each.

Use small fonts for fine points. Complex slides will sometimes require 10-point type. That’s okay, so long as you provide print-outs to your audience. They can read the big-fonted labels on the screen to keep track, and the fine-pointed details on the printed page.

Don’t just read your slides, except when you do. When a slide contains more than three bullets, say, “I want to focus your attention on a few points on this slide,” and then do so. If it contains a complex graphic, all of which matters, say, “This slide is complicated. Let me walk you through it.”

Sometimes, stop referring to your slides altogether and just talk to your audience. Your presentation is there to assist you, not to imprison you.

Use agenda slides. The first occurrence lets your audience know what to expect. Repeat it at transitions, bolding the upcoming topic. Doing so helps your audience keep track.

Never, ever apologize for your slides. If a slide contains a typographical error, your audience might find it mildly distracting. By apologizing you interrupt yourself, which is much more distracting.

Here’s what matters most: Excellent PowerPoint presentations are, before anything else, storytelling. Good presentations have a narrative flow. Each slide follows naturally from the one that precedes it and leads naturally to the next one.

It’s like any other form of communication. If you want to be effective, don’t just blurt — plan.

“Bob, you always sound so literate. What’s your secret?”

I’m sure someone named Bob received a compliment like this. I haven’t, but I’m not dead yet so it could still happen. In the meantime, here are a few of my … well, if they aren’t my secrets for sounding literate, exactly, they’re techniques I rely on.

Think geometrically: No, no, no, no, no. When deciding whether a rectangle, triangle, or rhombus is best for enclosing text on a PowerPoint slide, choose what you like. I’m suggesting you organize whatever document you’re creating like a geometric proof.

As you might recall from your high school days, depending on which high school you attended and what shape your memory is in, geometric proofs begin with stated assumptions (axioms) and proceed with inferences drawn from the axioms and from previously stated inferences, until the geometrician has reached the desired conclusion.

When you write to make a point, you should also take care to make sure each point you make flows clearly and logically from the previous points you’ve made, stating and explaining each transition without asking your reader to figure out the connections.

Put yourself last: We’re talking about lists, not cafeteria lines. If you and several colleagues worked on something, for example, you don’t say, “I, Sam, Merry, Pippin, and Gandalf destroyed the ring of power.” You say, “Sam, Merry, Pippin, Gandalf, and I.”

It’s better writing, and better manners.

Choose the best word. A friend used to talk about the pointlessness of worrying whether to say “happy” or “glad.”

Guilty as charged. Here’s why: “Happy” has childlike overtones. “Glad” doesn’t, but still isn’t as adult as “pleased.”

Except that “worry” is the wrong word too (see?). I evaluate the two words to choose the one that fits the situation best.

Second example, for something more negative. Do you think it’s awful? Disastrous? Poorly done? Putrid?

Will the result be disappointing? A calamity? Horrible?

English provides a wide range of overlapping but distinct alternatives for most situations. Take advantage of it.

But don’t show off. There are underused words you can and should take advantage of. On the positive side of things, I put “phenomenal” in this category. On the negative side there’s “wretched” — a word I’m quite fond of, but that rarely belongs in business writing.

Speaking of choosing the best word …

Avoid “thing.” Whatever “thing” you’re talking about, in the English language you can almost certainly find a word that nails down what you’re talking about more precisely than the most generic noun in the language. Well, one of the two most generic; “stuff” is just as generic, and almost always just as avoidable.

They also aren’t interchangeable — things are discrete and countable where stuff is continuous. And, stuff has a slight overtone of messiness, too.

Sludge is stuff. A vat of sludge is a thing.

And another thing …

Avoid “there are.” There are usually better ways to start making a point. For example, “You can usually find better ways to start making a point.”

Get “that” and “who” right. When you’re talking about a person it’s always “who,” as in, “Harry is the employee who best exemplifies what I’m talking about,” vs “Netflix is the company that best exemplifies it.”

Get “less” and “fewer” right. When you’re talking about stuff, use less. When you’re talking about things, use fewer, as in, “With the new quality program we’ll have fewer defects.” Now, now, don’t be skeptical. It’s just an example, to distinguish fewer from, “With the new program we’ll have less waste.”

Avoid duplication and redundancy. Not really. Sometimes, “Saying this is redundant and duplicative,” does help emphasize a point more than just one or the other. I’m talking about phrases like, “We have to plan for the future.”

Not that this is a bad period of time to plan for; certainly it makes more sense than planning for the past or present. But “We have to plan,” (or, “We have to develop a plan,”) sounds just an increment more literate and makes the same point.

Make paragraphs short. With more than five or six lines in a paragraph the human visual system has a hard time keeping its place in the text. Reading content with long paragraphs is fatiguing.

Short paragraphs are, in addition to being more courteous, also selfish. With short paragraphs, those reading your dulcet prose are more likely to read it instead of skimming.

Keep the whole thing short. As short as possible, that is, and no shorter. KJR, for example, adheres to a strict length limit and I work hard to keep it within