The best graphics don’t make a presentation. No matter how graphically heavy a presentation is, it will still contain important text. With all the great formatting and animation tools, you might want to throw a party and see how many different fonts and the like you can use. At the risk of spoiling the fun, don’t. The 5 tips covered in this article will help you produce elegant and easy-to-read content.
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I’m using Microsoft 365 desktop on a Windows 10 64-bit system, but you can use an earlier version. For your convenience, you can download the demonstration .pptx and .ppt files† These tips apply to both the desktop and web versions.
A note on fonts in general
Regardless of which app you use, you have three types of fonts to choose from: Serif, sans serif, and display. You have to know them to choose the right one. It’s fine to choose the default, which for now is Calibri, a sans serif font. It’s not the standard for nothing. Image A shows an example of these three fonts.
Serif is old-fashioned: you find it in printed books, newspapers and so on. With old school I don’t want to demean it and say it’s out of use, because it’s still popular, but in the right medium – the print world. Serif fonts have small dashes at the body of the letter called serifs. This is a classic look and is best used for formal or traditional content. You will find few uses for serif fonts in a PowerPoint presentation.
Sans serif fonts do not have small dashes. This is how this type got its name: Sans means without in French. On screen, this type of font is more readable not only on laptop screens, but also on mobile devices and tablets. You probably already know that a sans serif is the best choice for textual content when displayed on the screen.
Display fonts are usually large and make a visual statement. You use these for headlines, titles, or to draw attention to a specific point. This means that the design has to match the mood of the moment, which can be difficult. For example, you don’t want to use the Chiller font on a graduation invitation or obituary.
Now let’s move on to properly applying these fonts.
5 Tips for Formatting Fonts
Pick one sans serif
You might think with so many fonts available that you should try to use several, but don’t. Unless you are a designer by trade, choose a sans serif font and use it for your body during the presentation.
If you decide to add a second font for the main text, make sure the two are seriously different from each other. If they’re too similar, it looks like you’ve made a mistake. Ultimately, my advice is still the same: stick to one font for the main body of your content.
Figure B shows three citations and their authors. The body of the first and third quotes is Inherit and the italicized name is Calibri. They go well together, in fact they are so similar that there is no reason to use two different fonts.
The second quote, the one on the left, uses Arial Narrow for the quote and Calibri for the name. The problem here is the quotes font – it’s not the same as the other two quotes, and it just looks different to distract your audience. They will squeeze their eyes shut and try to figure out why they are being disturbed by the slide instead of listening to you.
You can try to match the tone of each quote to a specific font, but don’t. Matching a font to the message is difficult even for professional designers.
Align content to the left
There’s room for centered and right-aligned content, but the main text isn’t. We read from left to right (if your presentation focuses on a language that reads from right to left, adjust this tip accordingly). Fight the urge to center everything, as centered text is the hardest to read of the three alignments. Save it for titles.
Do not use justification to divide text evenly on two margins. Instead, leave the right edge frayed. Justification is hard to read. If you have paragraphs (and you probably shouldn’t), avoid indenting the first line to create more readable content. Figure C shows some examples. Which do you find easiest to read?
Avoid vertical text
Just because the software lets you do something doesn’t mean you should do it. Vertical text is a nightmare and I can’t think of any reason to use it. You really don’t want to force your audience to stick their necks out to read something, do you?
If you’re tempted by a space issue, rework things so you have enough horizontal space. Try to read the name before the second quote that appears in Figure D† Instinctively, your head tilts a little to the left.
The default font size in PowerPoint is 18, and it’s okay to go even bigger if you need to. As a result, a slide can contain less text. That’s okay, but don’t be tempted to add more text by changing the margins and so on. You want whitespace; whitespace improves readability.
For example, you can add two or three more quotes to the demonstration slide, but don’t. Readability decreases and your audience will be a little lost while catching up. Not only is it harder to read, but it’s too much to read in one sitting.
Avoid text on a busy background
It seems so cool to put text on an image or image, until you realize you can’t see all the text. There is simply no way around this problem: there is no color, font, or font size that will completely fix this situation. Move the text. If moving the text doesn’t work, add a slightly transparent background to the text to avoid the bulk.
Figure E shows a reasonable solution for dealing with text in a busy slide. I hope you agree that the one without the background is hard to read.
These tips are easy to apply. Your goal is to keep your audience engaged, and usually keeping things simple is the best way to do this.