5 Tips for Working with Text in Microsoft PowerPoint

Image: wachiwit/Adobe Stock

The best graphics don’t make a presentation. No matter how dense a presentation is, it will always contain important text. With all the great formatting and animation tools, you might want to throw a little party and see how many different and similar fonts you can use. At the risk of spoiling the fun, don’t. The 5 tips discussed 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 64-bit Windows 10 system, but you can use an older version. For your convenience, you can download the .pptx and .ppt demo files. These tips apply to both desktop and web versions.

A note on fonts in general

No matter what application you’re using, there are three types of fonts to choose from: Serif, sans serif, and display. You will need to know them to choose the right ones. It’s fine to choose the default font, which for now is Calibri, a sans serif font. It’s the default for a reason. Figure A shows an example of these three font types.

Figure A

Image: Susan Harkins/TechRepublic. Three types of fonts are available.

Serif is old school: you’ll find it in printed books, newspapers, etc. By old school, I don’t mean to belittle it and say it’s no longer in use, because it’s still popular, but in the right medium – the print world. Serif fonts have small bars attached to the main part of the letter called serifs. This is a classic look and 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 bars. That’s how this guy gets his name: Sans in French means without. 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 displaying on screen.

Display fonts are usually large and make a visual statement. You will use them for headers, titles or to draw attention to a specific point. This means that the design should match the mood of the moment, which can be difficult to do. For example, you don’t want to use the Chiller font on a graduation invitation or obituary.

Now let’s get to the proper application of these fonts.

5 tips for formatting fonts

Choose a sans serif

You might think that with so many fonts available, you should try to use more than one, but don’t. Unless you’re a designer by trade, choose a sans serif font and use it for your body throughout the presentation.

If you decide to add a second font for the main body content, make sure the two are seriously different. If they look too similar, it looks like you made a mistake. In the end, my advice is always the same: stick with one font for the main body of your content.

Figure B shows three quotes and their authors. The body of the first and third quotes is Inherit and the name in italics is Calibri. They go well together, in fact, they’re so similar that there’s no reason to use two different fonts.

Figure B

Image: Susan Harkins/TechRepublic. Using two fonts looks like a mistake, and sometimes you can’t tell the difference.

The second quote, the one on the left, uses Arial Narrow for the quote and Calibri for the name. The problem here is the quote font – it’s not the same as the other two quotes, and it just looks different enough to distract your audience. They will squint and try to figure out why they are bothered 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 left

There is a place for centered and right-aligned content, but the main body of text is not. We read left-to-right (if your presentation is for a language that reads right-to-left, adjust this tip accordingly). Fight the urge to center everything, because centered text is the hardest to read of the three alignments. Save it for titles.

Do not use Justify to distribute text evenly between two margins. Instead, leave the straight edge ragged. Justify 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 the easiest to read?

Figure C

Image: Susan Harkins/TechRepublic. Use left justification and jagged right edges for your main body text.

Avoid vertical text

Just because the software lets you do something doesn’t mean you should. Vertical text is a nightmare, and I can’t see a single reason to use it. You really don’t want to force your audience to wring their necks to read something, do you?

If you’re tempted because of a spacing issue, rework things so you have enough horizontal space. Try to read the name of the second quote displayed in Figure D. Instinctively, your head leans a little to the left.

Figure D

Image: Susan Harkins/TechRepublic. Avoid vertical text.

Avoid clutter

The default font size in PowerPoint is 18, and you can even increase the size if needed. Therefore, a slide may contain less text. That’s fine, but don’t be tempted to cram in more text by changing margins etc. You want white space; white space improves readability.

For example, you can add two or three extra quotes to the demo slide, but don’t. Readability will drop and your audience will be a bit lost while catching up. Not only is it harder to read, but it’s also too much to read at once.

Avoid text on a busy background

It sounds so cool to drop text on an image or chart, until you realize you can’t see all the text. There is simply no way around this problem: there is no color, font type or font size that will completely solve this situation. Move the text. If moving the text around doesn’t work, add a slightly transparent background to the text to block out most of the shaking.

Figure E shows a reasonable solution for dealing with text in a busy slide. I hope you agree that the one without a background is hard to read.

Figure E

Image: Susan Harkins/TechRepublic. Do not position text on a busy slide.

These tips are easy to implement. Your goal is to keep your audience engaged, and most of the time keeping it simple is the best way to do that.