I can’t tell you how many BAD presentations I’ve sat through. Let’s just say — a lot. My major pet peeve centers around what your presentation slide background looks like.

Now before you start your protestations (i.e., executives from organizations) — I totally understand you might have to stick with an approved slide background. I truly feel sorry for you. I was an executive for 20 years and for all internal (and many external) presentations, I broke the rules. No one ever took me to task — ever.

But here are my thoughts (in no special order):

1. “I have to have my logo on each slide!”

No you don’t. Maybe your company requires you to have it there, but if you really looked into it, you probably don’t need to.

Most of the time, you will need to begin (and end) the presentation with your logo, but for all intents and purposes, the inner slides will only need the information you’re presenting. Now if you need to send/distribute the presentation, that’s another story — see #5.

Slide real estate is at a premium and the inclusion of a repetitive logo on each slide (and the accompanying buffer around it) is a WASTE OF SPACE. Remember — the object of each slide is to be open, simple, and uncluttered so the audience can focus on the message. Repetitive logos, slide numbers, dates, and titles are not required.

2. “I have to have my company’s colors on each slide!”

No you don’t. Think of FedEx – purple and orange – imagine a background of purple and orange. OMG. Your job is to present a message to your audience — not hit them over the head with each slide. We’ve already dispatched the logo, let’s work on the background colors.

When you work with a number of colors, shapes, or repetitive images, you are muddying the message. It’s as if the audience is wearing 3D glasses and the movie isn’t 3D. When you have a number of colors, shapes, lines, or gradations, it just makes it harder to see the font on the screen. Especially if the gradation moves from light to dark — try placing a phrase in black on a background that has a gradation from white to black. You won’t see some of the letters — making it hard to read — equals lost message. It also looks juvenile.

3. “The audience can’t see the words on my slide when I project on a screen!”

This happens ALL the time. Why? All projectors, screens, and room lighting are different — so you need to compensate for these changes. What I do is always work with a white background — you can never lose with white. It brightens up the screen, takes advantage of any projector bulb’s shortcomings, and keeps people’s focus on the screen. In addition, colors look brighter.

You can also use a black (or dark) background. But I find it tends to darken the whole room and adds a somber edge to the experience. Steve Jobs used a slightly-graded background for his presentations — but he had perfect stage lighting. Try it — you might like it. One caution — if you like to use images, sometimes their background is white — so you’ll have to do some Photoshop magic to make the background around them transparent. That’s why I stick with white.

4. “I have to stick to the ‘Powerpoint-approved’ template!”

No you don’t. Honestly, they suck. They stick with boring fonts, the leading (space between each line of text) is not the best, and their choice of bullets . . . terrible. The only way for you to personalize the presentation (to your subject) is to start fresh and choose your own layout. Once you lock it in — stick with it — it will then be easy for you to replicate again and again and again.

In addition, you don’t want your presentation looking generic or like another person’s presentation. Candidly, when I see a canned ‘Powerpoint-approved’ background presentation, I think two things:

  1. This person has no idea what they’re doing. They’re whole presentation is suspect.
  2. This person really doesn’t care about the look and feel of their presentation. They’ve rushed it.

5. “Projecting and printing are two totally different deliverables!”

So they can look different. In fact, they can look like two totally separate deliverables. Why?

  1. One is for projecting on a screen in front of an audience with commentary from you. The audience is focusing on you and using the slideshow as an accompaniment to bolster your message.
  2. The other is for silently reading at one’s desk. Two different deliverables. You do need a logo or copyright on each page because the presentation might be pulled apart and distributed to other people. Also, it’s frequently printed on white paper, so the use of complex and colorful backgrounds (and fonts) might interfere with the final printed product. In addition, if you have to email it, eliminating most (if not all) images will dramatically affect the size of the emailed file.

I run into these five mistakes at least once a week and it’s a train wreck when it happens. In fact, I see a presenter (who is an accomplished academic and speaker) who sabotages their own presentation by making all five of these mistakes.