PowerPoint Basics for Historians, Part 5


Part 5: The Case for Cinematic Design

The previous post in this series explained how to use images more effectively in PowerPoint. Today’s post makes a recommendation about style.

Every good presenter, deliberately or not, cultivates a style. Your style is not simply a sort of decoration on top of your communication; you communicate through and with it. (Even the disdain that some academics affect toward style is itself a style—one that communicates specific things about what matters and who is worthy of their time.)

With this in mind, I’m going to make a recommendation today. It will not please everyone, and it’s probably not what’s best for everyone. You may, in fact, think it’s silly. But I’m going to recommend that when you design your PowerPoint template, you consider taking design cues from documentary film. I’m calling this approach “cinematic design.”

Why is this approach useful? In the first place, cinema provides an easily emulated model for clean, effective visual style. This is not simply about looking pretty! As always, good PowerPoint design is about communicating effectively. Cinematic design, in particular, is a way of thinking about how PowerPoint slides can make your class more immersive and more layered.


First, think back to Part 1 of this series, which covered basic design principles. I argued for consistent and “clean” slides, with plenty of empty space, so that the audience’s attention will be focused exactly where you want it to be. I also argued for the importance of images and of a storytelling-based flow. I was arguing that the effective use of PowerPoint aims at absorbing your audience’s attention and imagination—drawing them not merely to but also into your argument.

As it happens, filmmakers are very good at doing that.

There’s a lot to say, but let’s keep it simple. Above all, documentary film almost always does two things differently from the default PowerPoint templates.

First, film makes the image, rather than the word, central to its visual design. (In a typical classroom, remember, you’re supplying most of the words yourself—you’re the narrator, as it were, except that you’re embodied and interactive.)

Second, the default color of the empty screen in a film is black (or darkness), not white (or any bright color).

A projector screen is not a piece of paper. Paper reflects light dimly. In contrast, whether it’s actually backlit or not, a projector screen is glowing, often in a semi-darkened room. A white or light-colored background in a PowerPoint presentation is thus an eye-straining blaze of light. It’s the opposite of the negative space you need around your text and images.

In contrast, a well-designed documentary film, combining these two principles in one, almost always looks something like thisplacing small amounts of text over either a black background or a photograph:

(These are three still images from Errol Morris’s 2003 documentary film The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara.)

How closely should you hew to that look? Should you actually place text over images? Well … hold that thought. For now, do consider a light-on-dark default for text on the screen rather than a dark-on-light default, and do try to make images central to your design.

Now, what about that second element I mentioned—layering? This is where the visual language of documentary film is a lot more sophisticated than we usually realize.


Let’s consider the ways a modern documentary film establishes the relationships between text, image, and speech. Audiences need to grasp these relationships intuitively; there’s no time to puzzle them out before a scene changes.

Some of the ways a film establishes these relationships are obvious. Convention tells me, for example, that when I see a short phrase in large letters in the middle of the screen, I’m probably looking at a title—either the title of the entire film or the title of a chapter within the film. If it’s not a title, I know, it must be some other kind of central information, data around which various other aspects of the film coalesce. I don’t have to think about this consciously at all.

These are, unsurprisingly, title cards from Roads to Memphis (2018) and Late Blossom Blues (2019):

If, on the other hand, I see information in smaller letters in a corner of the screen, I know this text is probably a metadata note—perhaps a bit of attribution or location information. And if I see small text centered near the bottom of the screen, I may assume it’s a crucial but separate layer of content. For example, this is where a filmmaker will almost always place the translation for any words spoken in another language. Or this might be where a film would identify an interview subject or a geographic location, if that information seems necessary rather than optional.

Consider these stills from The Trial of Ratko Mladić (2019):

In a very simple way, these three different locations for on-screen text provide three different potential layers of meaning on top of the film’s photography and sound.

This basic visual “grammar” of text placement, with minor variations, is nearly universal in contemporary film. But does it apply to PowerPoint slideshows? Can you imitate film conventions to make your presentation more immersive and layered? I believe you can—to a point. Here are some ideas.

Cinematic PowerPoint Design

Establishing Slides

The simplest way to draw students into a place-based narrative is to give them some relevant scenery to look at while you talk. This may include a big-picture view: a map, a landscape painting, a panoramic photograph. The still image labeled “The Hague, Netherlands” earlier in this post is such an establishing shot from a documentary film. Below is one I use sometimes when setting up a lecture on the Gilded Age in the United States:

You’ll note that my (rather too cluttered) slide actually does several things at once: It helps my students visualize the late-nineteenth-century urban environment with a bird’s-eye view of New York City; it introduces the term “Gilded Age”; and it gives me an opportunity to discuss an early critique of Gilded-Age culture under the aegis of explaining the origin of the term. Yet in the order of my presentation deck, this slide fits precisely where a simple establishing shot would be in a movie about Gilded-Age New York. “Here we are in New York City,” it suggests to my students, “in a time of steamboats but also of Brooklyn Bridges. Keep that in mind.”

Artifacts and Portraits

You can also follow the lead of filmmakers by illustrating your lesson with pictures of artifacts to discuss, or with portraits of individuals who appear in your story. Here’s a slide from the same Gilded Age lecture that actually does both of these things. I put up this slide while leading my class in a discussion of an excerpt they’d read from Booker T. Washington’s autobiography:


You can build an entire presentation using slides only in these two ways, setting the scene or showing an artifact for what you say as a lecturer or discussion leader. But if you’re going to use PowerPoint in a more traditional way, with text outlines, then perhaps you should consider placing contextual images in the backgrounds of your slides.

Dark Background Images

There’s no reason an image has to sit in the foreground of your slide. If seeing fine detail isn’t crucial, why not place it in the background?

A detailed discussion of how to do this effectively would take some time. For now, just bear in mind that images can be easily darkened and sent to the back of the slide (I discussed how to do this in Part 4).

To demonstrate how this works, here’s yet another slide from the same Gilded Age lecture, where I placed a photograph of the former Penn Station in New York (around the time it was built by the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1910) behind a text outline discussing the business practices of turn-of-the-century interstate corporations:


Background images like this add considerable contextual and immersive information to your lecture without getting in the way of the propositional content you need to communicate. But be careful! You want to make sure your slides don’t become too “noisy.” Make sure there is always plenty of contrast between your text or foreground images and the images behind them.

Lesson and Chapter Titles

Finally, don’t be afraid to imitate the conventions of film by inserting simple title cards into your presentations. For example, I give every lecture an overall title, which I display on the screen at the beginning of class while handing back graded papers and doing other administrative preliminaries. It can also be useful to indicate when I am shifting from one major topic to another in what would otherwise be an abrupt way. Here are some examples:

All right, you may think, but why does it matter?

It matters to you, I argue, for the same reason it matters to a filmmaker: you need your visual style to help integrate distinct modes of communication as one story. While you are speaking, an image is being displayed, text is explaining something about that image, your students are writing notes or asking and answering questions, you’re moving the discussion toward material written in a book, etc.; and all of this is happening with reference to at least two different places in time, between which you and your students are moving repeatedly. Your visual style provides clues to the ways these elements fit together.

And filmmakers, including historical documentary filmmakers, have already developed a very powerful set of conventions for providing these clues.