Just off flight. 6 pm. Get to the hotel at 7:30. Hit the gym. You’re all set for tomorrow’s meetings — or so you think. But unbeknownst to you, rolling into your phone, through cables deep beneath some incomprehensibly expansive ocean, a message, arriving with its deceptively chipper ding: “Hey, they want to see a presentation tomorrow — can you put something together?”

So much for staying on top of your game. Marketing is at the headquarters campus on the opposite coast and is now closed. You’re not a graphic designer. You’re not a writer. But here you are. First, don’t panic. You may not be able to create visually stunning infographics in Photoshop, but there are some basic things you can do to make any PowerPoint presentation engaging, powerful and successful.

Don’t Panic: How to Create Last-Minute PowerPoint Presentations

1. What Is Your Story?

Before you start writing, Step One is to clarify “what is my story.” What is the essential point or message of your presentation? It can be tempting to confuse information overload and too much data with an effective means of conveying your story. Remember, it’s a presentation, not an article people will be reading.

These finer points and metrics that back up and illustrate your story can be talking points, so put them in your Notes field of the slide. Approach your presentation as if it were a story — what is its beginning, middle, and end? Your slides should be more of a prompt than something people in the room will actually read. You are the storyteller.

2. Your voice is your greatest asset

Presentations shine when the speaker speaks — meaning that you are using your words as the highlight of the presentation. Sounds simple, right? Too many speakers, however, simply read their slides to the great boredom of the audiences. So, as you’re creating your presentation think of what you’ll say as you think of what to write. That will put the focus where it belongs — your spoken words — and keep your slides short and sweet. Which brings us to…

3. Keep it lean: less really is more

To begin with, your mantra should always be, simplicity. When you walk into a room in someone’s home that’s messy or cluttered, what stands out (aside from the mess)? Probably not much. The same principle holds true for presentations: the more you pack onto a PowerPoint slide, the less engaging and easily understood it will be.

A great rule of thumb is to try to adhere to one headline or title that encapsulates the main idea of that slide and use no more than three supporting bullet points. Once you’ve written a slide, step back from it — close out of it for a few minutes even. When you come back to it, ask yourself whether you have one idea on that slide. If your answer is no, it’s time to pare it down.

Likewise, try to keep the presentation itself lean — do you know any human who wants to sit through a 50-slide presentation? Review the document as a whole, and ask yourself questions:

  • Are there any redundancies or slides that could be combined — or even deleted?
  • Are there slides that could simply be talking points, and thus eliminated?
  • Are there redundancies of language that could be tightened up?
  • How long to you have to pitch the presentation?

4. Can I Sell This?

Once you’ve completed a draft of your presentation, ask yourself, “Can I sell this?” To answer this question, you must know your audience. A room full of C-level executives will want to know very high-level ideas and concepts that hit at the main point; sales teams out in the field will need to know more detailed, logistical information and results.

Nevertheless, your presentation should still be very streamlined. If you feel you absolutely must put in all the latest and greatest figures and numbers, put them into the Notes field and talk to them. A streamlined presentation will automatically be a visually appealing one — slides with dense paragraphs will only have your audience snoozing by lunchtime.

And finally, search online for examples of winning presentations and borrow from those. A good place to start is “20 Great Examples of PowerPoint Presentation Design” from HubSpot. Try to be as objective as possible and look at your presentation as though you are the customer — would you buy it?

And of course, practice, practice, practice!