What’s the best font for your PowerPoint slides? (A cautionary tale!) [Video]

danger thin ice - warning sign by a lakeDo you ever wonder which is the best font to use on your slides? If so, I’ve a simple answer for you:

Pick a font your
audience won’t notice.

(That is, unless you happen to be presenting to “arty types” – like graphic designers. In that case, pick a font your audience approves of. More on that shortly.)

Most business-people don’t care about fonts

Suppose you’re presenting to businesspeople. Most businesspeople don’t care about fonts, and they tend to be pretty conservative. So by all means just use the default font provided by your software (like Calibri in PowerPoint). That way, your font won’t distract people, and they might even be reassured by its familiarity (subliminally).

Other good choices to help keep your slides very readable (even from a distance) are common sans serif fonts, like Arial or Tahoma:

sans serif font samples

You risk making 1 of 2 huge gaffes

If you listen to some advice about picking a font, you might be tempted to pick a “cool” one, like Gill Sans or Helvetica, or some font you’ve downloaded. But if you do that, you risk making 1 of 2 huge gaffes. The lesser of those 2 evils is to use a font that makes it harder for your audience to read your slides. (After all, any font’s key trait is its readability.)

The even bigger gaffe is choosing a font that’s not available…

The even bigger gaffe is choosing a font that’s not available on the system where you run your slideshow. (That can easily happen when you present using someone else’s computer – like at a multi-speaker event – or if you upload your slides to present through software like Adobe Connect or Microsoft Live Meeting.)

If the font’s not available, in effect you’re playing Russian roulette, because the system simply picks some other font in place of the missing one you intended. So at best, your carefully prepared slides won’t look like you wanted – and they could have text that runs right off the edge!

In the clip below (in just 40 seconds), check out how blogger Pat Flynn of SmartPassiveIncome.com handled that kind of situation like an absolute legend, in only his 2nd public talk:

(For screenshots of how the slide was meant to look and how it actually looked, see Pat’s post here. And in fact, Pat was using Apple Keynote on a Mac, so these font issues aren’t just a PowerPoint or Windows problem.)

At worst, your deck will be gibberish

If something like that happens to you, at worst your deck will be gibberish, which is the case if PowerPoint happens to pick a symbol font (like Wingdings). To see what I mean, here’s a message in a regular font, and the same message in Wingdings:

“PowerPoint can use an unreadable font!”


Picture this scene: You’re standing in front of an audience of VIPs (or any audience really), and when your first slide appears it looks like the gibberish above. In panic, you quickly go to your next slide, but it (and your whole deck) looks just as bad! Imagine the sick feeling in your stomach

Don’t let that happen to you!

Don’t let that happen to you! So above all, pick a font that “travels well”. By that I mean one of the fonts installed on most PowerPoint systems.

Or, as PowerPoint MVP Dave Paradi bluntly put it:

Choose a boring font

As I mentioned at the start, the (slight) departure from that advice is if you’re presenting to graphic designers. In that case, choose a sans serif font that many of them might more likely choose, like Impact or Verdana. But all the same, you should still choose one of the fonts installed on most PowerPoint systems.

Have a copy of your slides in another format (like PDF)

Regardless of whether you’re presenting to graphic designers or a more typical audience (like businesspeople) though, I recommend you also play it safe by having a copy of your slides in another format (like PDF, or by using Save As to save them as graphics). That way, you can still show your slides if the PowerPoint version of your deck won’t run properly for some reason. (It does happen!)

So I say again, for typical audiences: Pick a font they won’t notice.


Have your say

  • Would you rather use (or see other presenters use) fancier fonts?
  • Have you ever suffered a font fail, either as presenter or viewer?


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4 thoughts on “What’s the best font for your PowerPoint slides? (A cautionary tale!) [Video]

  1. Great post. The point I loved the most was to have a PDF version of the slides.

    I’ve also exported slides as separate images and then put those images back into a PPT file. This eliminates the worry that some computer won’t have Adobe Reader or some other PDF viewer. You can even make this file have simple transitions and animations if you create separate slides for each animation or transition. A bit more work, but it could save your behind if needed.


  2. Thanks for this extremely helpful and true post. As a professional presenter / font enthusiast, I have victimized myself many times from choosing to go the custom font route.

    The worst was when presenting at a client summit, the organizers switched computers at the last second (the original had my custom fonts installed) The owner of the new computer had left, so we were unable to change anything. As I’m speaking about presentation design, I’m watching slide after slide look like my toddler had designed them.

    But, I am completely attached to my custom fonts, as they’re part of my personal brand. So, my solution is to triple confirm that I’m able to use my own computer to present. If that’s not the case, I export my presentation as a PDF with fonts embedded. I enable them to be bitmapped if they can’t be embedded.

    As it were, I create the backup PDF even when I am able to use my own computer as extra piece of mind. So far, this has worked well for me!


    • Thank you for sharing your story here, Lea – your “toddler” experience must have been extremely uncomfortable!

      I’m not sure whether it’s still the case, but I believe Acrobat used to have some ability to do simple builds or other animation, and I know it has a full-screen mode that’s very well-suited to presentations. Have you ever used features like that to do builds in the PDF version of your slides?


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