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A great deal of the visual impression of your presentation comes from the background you choose, so choose it carefully. If you can’t find a template that suits your material, there are lots of graphic tools in PowerPoint and Keynote to create your own background. You can also invest a few dollars in images from a vendor such as or

There are two important things to remember:

Choose a background that complements your talk, one that is relevant to it, not a background that contradicts or confuses it.

Work with the background—don’t just randomly pile stuff on it.

Below-left you see the actual opening slide as the presenter created it; on the right, she added a nice background image that she bought for $3 at, and we used an interesting and relevant font (Apocrypha) instead of the default Arial. You can see what a dramatic difference it makes, and you can imagine the difference in the audience’s immediate perception.


You will learn in the next section that all I did with the type in the way of design was to add contrast—a contrast of the size of font and a contrast of color.

And don’t be afraid to put your name on the introductory slide—your audience wants to know who you are.


Hmm, a presentation about purchasing a home on a background of the open ocean. My brain, all through the speaker’s talk, will be constantly trying to process the connection between the ocean and a suburban house.


Here’s a guideline to remember: If it looks hard to read, it is. This example is hard to read even on your computer, so please consider how much more difficult it will be on a screen in a large room. Besides making the text difficult to read, this irrelevant background does nothing to clarify the topic.

I realize that it’s often hard for new designers to allow empty space on the slide, but you must learn to let it be there. Random shapes or images can actually make it more difficult to place and organize text effectively.

Part of the ubiquitous problem of inappropriate backgrounds and their use is that many free PowerPoint templates disobey this very guideline, leading many to think it’s perfectly okay to put a lot of wimpy text on a busy background. Take this free template, for example:


The text is directly on top of the distracting (and irrelevant) background; you assume that since a “designer” created it this way, it must be okay. Never assume that. This slide (and most templates) gives you five levels of bullet points, as if anyone in the entire room could ever read past the second one. Heck, you can’t even read past the second one. Use your own common sense.

But templates are getting better. If you have an old version of PowerPoint, it would behoove you to upgrade so you can get the new templates that are included with the application, and then download some new ones from either the Microsoft site or from the many sites that provide PowerPoint templates. Choose the templates with a consciousness about the purpose of your presentation; choose a background that supports your message.

See Chapter 15 for some sources for good templates.

The more complex the information, the simpler the background

Occasionally there is no way around the necessity of putting a lot of data on one slide. Just keep in mind that the more text, charts, graphs, or images that you must put on the slide, the simpler your background must be.

It’s not necessary to have exactly the same background on every slide in your deck (see Chapter 8 for more on that topic), so if you’ve got a graphic theme you really like that ties your slides together, you can get away with eliminating parts that are not necessary when you have a lot of data on one slide.


It’s not hard to find the irrelevant and unnecessary items on this slide (left). Make a habit of really seeing the individual elements so you can make decisions about what can go and what should stay.

When is a busy background okay?

A busy, complex background can be perfectly great if the data on that slide is large enough and bold enough to be understood—and if that background is relevant. When you see a busy background that works (it doesn’t confuse the message, you can read the text, etc.), ask yourself why that is? Put it into words; the more often you put into words what works and what doesn’t work, the easier it is for you to automatically create better slides.

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