Presentation Design Masterclass: Document setup

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Hello! Welcome to the second module of the Nicework Presentation Design Masterclass. If you missed the our last module, “Before you begin”, you can see it right here. It covers some important points that will help you plan for success before you even open up PowerPoint. Go read it! We’ll wait.

Today, we’ll be talking about how to start off on the right foot, by setting up your PowerPoint document in a way that will streamline your design process. We’ve also built a free downloadable checklist to help you make sure that no important little details slip through the cracks, so make sure to grab it once you’ve read through the post.

Are you in the zone? Then let’s begin.


Screen size


The difference between 4:3 and 16:9

4:3 and 16:9 are the two most common aspect ratios used for on-screen presentations. An aspect ratio is the proportion between the width and height of the screen – 4:3 is squat and square, and 16:9 is longer and flatter.

4:3 is the standard, most commonly used size for presentations, and also the default aspect ratio in Powerpoint. When creating presentations that are going to be widely distributed across multiple platforms, 4:3 is your best option. SlideShare, iPad displays, most projectors and older TV screens all work with this aspect ratio.

16:9 is the aspect ratio that is the international standard size used for digital TV and widescreen TV. It is used for widescreen presentations, and is often better to use if you plan on incorporating video into your presentation.

When to choose which one

When choosing between these two aspect ratios, it all comes down to what you’re doing with the presentation and where it’s going. Wherever possible, you should find out the size of the screen you’ll be presenting on and use that as a guide.

It’s not the end of the world if you can’t get that information, but keep in mind that if the presentation is presented on a screen with a different aspect ratio, it may end up squashed stretched or letterboxed (displayed with black bars on either side to make it fit).

Otherwise, there is a general rule of thumb. For multipurpose presentations that will be circulated, stick to 4:3. For presentations that have a lot of media content such as videos and animation, stick to 16:9, which also gives you more space to play with your design.

Master slides


Why master slides are useful

Master slides are templates that work behind the scenes in your presentation document, dictating the basic layout of each type of slide – for instance, what will your title slides look like? What will the structure be of a slide with a lot of text? Which fonts will you use at what sizes? (We’ll be talking about fonts in more detail in the next module.) Once your master slides are set up, you can do the bulk of your slide design with the click of a button.

Master slides establish a consistent style throughout your presentation, typically affecting the following properties of each slide:

  • Background colours/images
  • Title slides/dividers
  • Font styles for headings, subheadings and body copy
  • Custom bullets and numbering
  • Placement of elements that may have to be on each slide, such as a copyright disclaimer or company logo

When creating a presentation, you should always start by creating your master slides. The storyboard you built in the first step of your planning process should give you a fairly solid idea of which templates you will need, depending on your content.

This step is a comparatively small amount of time to invest, compared to the time it can save you when you roll out the bulk of your content. Master will slides also help you keep the design consistent, if you need to hand the presentation over to someone else to add or check content.

What to put on your master slides

PowerPoint supplies users with a fairly comprehensive set of detailed slide masters – the options you are given when selecting a slide layout from the drop down menu next to the “New Slide” button. Although these default slide templates are painfully generic and uninspired, they do give a good idea of the bases you need to cover when creating your own. Luckily for you, you don’t even have to look at them, because we’ve done it for you!

1. Title slides:

This template is great for creating all heading slides/dividers that can be used to segment your presentation. These are generally quite minimal in terms of the design, featuring only a heading, sometimes a subheading and a large background graphic.

2. Copy slides:

It’s always a good idea to plan two versions of content slides – one for slides minimal amounts of copy, and one with space for a lot of text. Even though it’s the designer’s rule of thumb to put as few words on a slide as possible, we know that’s not always realistic – so hope for the best, but plan for the worst.

3. Graph and table slides:

It’s always a good idea to consider the appearance of your graphs and tables before you start. We’ll be going into a lot more detail with graphs in a later module, but for now, start thinking about what colours your are going to use, what kinds of charts you like, and how they are going to be laid out on the slide.

4. Image slides:

If you are using an image that takes up a full slide, will you use it full screen or in some kind of frame? If you need to make a slide with four images on it, or twelve, what will that look like? Start thinking ahead now.

How to set up master slides

1. Under the View menu in PowerPoint, select “Master” and then “Slide Master”.

2. Here you will see the default master templates we were talking about earlier. You have two options – if you want to start from scratch, you can delete all those templates and create new ones using the “New Layout” (NOT “New Master”) button in the toolbar at the top of the page. Otherwise, if you’d prefer, you can modify the defaults to build your master slides.

3. In your slide masters, you will see that there is one main master slide with several sub-layouts below it. Any content you put on that main slide will appear on every single slide in your presentation, so use it sparingly! If there is nothing that needs to be included on every single slide, it is easiest to just leave that main master slide blank.

4. To add text boxes for text, images, graphs and other elements, click ‘Master Elements’ in the toolbar at the top of the page. Here you will find a list of all the placeholders you can choose from.

5. For content that you want to be able to change on each slide (that is, most of your content), you MUST use placeholders. If there is anything that has to be on every slide, like your logo or a disclaimer, you can insert it into your master slides just like you would normally.

6. Once you are happy with the placement of all your elements on your master slides, you can start customizing your design by adding in images, defining background colours, choosing fonts, etc.

7. When you are done with your master slides, click the button in the top right corner that says ‘Close Master’. This will take you back to the standard presentation view.

8. Want to test your master slides out? If you click the drop down menu next to the “new slide” button, and there they are, ready to use.

9. Go forth and conquer your presentation.

Speaker notes


Best practice for speaker notes

PowerPoint’s “speaker notes” function is the evolved version of ye olde presentation aid, the cue card.

Best practice for your speaker notes will completely depend on the content of your presentation and who will be using them. However, here are some general tips to consider:

  • Don’t write out your entire presentation verbatim in your speaker notes. As with cue cards, this makes it very tempting to just read to your audience instead of really engaging with them.
  • Further to that point, some people prefer to set up their speaker notes as a concise bulleted list. You can also use bolding and line breaks in the speaker notes section to remind yourself which words to emphasise, and when to pause.
  • If you’re creating the slide deck for a presentation that you won’t be presenting yourself, you can use the speaker notes to let your speaker know when to click. Obviously this is not an issue when your deck is very basic, but it is helpful on slides with animation, video or music that is set up to play on click.
  • Because these notes will only every be seen by you, you can include reminders to yourself as well – “Relax! Speak slower! Make eye contact! You are a presentation rock star.” Nobody has to know.

Text on your slides vs. speaker notes vs. cue cards vs. notes in your brain

The text on your slides and the text in your notes needs to have some consistency in terms of the key points you are highlighting, but they don’t need to be identical. Keep both sets of copy clear and concise so as to not get overwhelmed, but elaborate on the points using the knowledge you already have to keep your audience engaged.

Setting up your speaker notes

In PowerPoint, you can set up your speaker notes very easily. All you need to do this is start typing in the box underneath each slide that says ‘Click to add notes’. It’s a good idea to drop in rough speaker notes while you are designing your slides, rather than creating your notes and your deck separately. Remember, the visuals and text on your slides should be inextricably linked to what you’re saying.

When it’s time to present, go to the “View” menu and click “Presenter View”. This view will show your slides to the audience on the projector, while displaying your slides, speaker notes and a bunch of other helpful information on your laptop screen. Useful!

If you don’t want to keep coming back here to check that you’re following the right setup process, you can download this handy little printable checklist we made for you. You’re welcome!

If you found this post and worksheet useful, and are enjoying this series of posts, keep an eye out for the next module early next week. We’ll be discussing fonts – which ones should you use? How many should you use? Why are fonts important?

We’ll see you then!

Published by Ross

Ross grew up on the wrong side of the Jukskei. He studied at Vega and was awarded the Top Student prize at his graduation. After working as a freelancer for four years, he founded Nicework with Ben Vorster. He has a penchant for Scandinavian wood furniture and really nice shirts. He is open to bribery- all iPads are welcome. He also likes chocolate cake and is happily married.

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