Should you switch to 16:9 slides?; Issue #292 August 6, 2013

One of the big changes in the latest version of PowerPoint is that the default aspect ratio (ratio of width to height) for slides is 16:9. In all previous versions, the default aspect ratio was 4:3. Why the change? Because widescreen formats are becoming more popular for projectors and TVs used in presentations. So should you change your slides to this new format? In this article I want to suggest how to know when to make the change.

This topic was prompted by a question from a fellow professional speaker and marketing expert Steve Slaunwhite. He was preparing for a set of upcoming presentations and asked me what aspect ratio he should use for his slides. His question made me think about what the best approach would be. After some thought, here’s what I suggested to him.

First, ask the organizer of the event or the venue you will be speaking in what aspect ratio the projector or screen will be using. At the upcoming Presentation Summit conference, the organizer, Rick Altman, has already let us know that all the screens will be using the 16:9 aspect ratio. In those cases, the decision is quite easy: Use the aspect ratio that matches the projector or screen.

What if the organizer doesn’t know or you don’t know what projector the room will have? This happens quite often if you are doing presentations at client sites or even in different rooms/buildings in your own organization. As many facilities switch over to the newer 16:9 standard, we are in a period where we will have both ratios in use in many facilities. I have run into this at client sites where one projector is in 4:3 ratio and another is a 16:9 projector and it depends on which one the facilities team puts in your room that day. What do I suggest in that case?

My suggestion is to stick with the 4:3 ratio until you have over 50% of your presentations being done on 16:9 projectors or screens. Why do I make this suggestion? Because it will be easier for the audience. Let me explain.

When a 4:3 ratio slide is shown on a 16:9 projector, there are black bars on each side of the slide because the slide does not fill the entire width of the screen. While this is not ideal, the slide is still full height and the text on it is the tallest it can be. When a 16:9 ratio slide is shown on a 4:3 projector, there are black bars on the top and bottom of the slide because the slide does not fill the entire height of the screen. This makes the text on the slide smaller than planned.

I think that having a more readable slide is better, so my suggestion is to use a 4:3 ratio slide so that, even if the slide is shown on a 16:9 projector, the text on the slide is as readable as it can be and the graphics are as large as they can be (for a research based approach to determining how big a font you should use on your slides, use these tables). When the majority of your presentation rooms and equipment are in the 16:9 format, make the switch in your slides. By the way, when you do make the switch between ratios of your slides, use the latest version of PowerPoint to do so. The previous versions horribly distort the graphics and text, leaving you with hours of re-formatting.

What am I using? I still use 4:3 ratio slides for the reason I stated above. It is still quite rare, outside of conferences, for me to run into a 16:9 projector in a presentation, especially in corporate meeting rooms. As older equipment gets replaced, this will change, but for now, I am sticking with the 4:3 ratio. Use the ideas in this article to help you decide when you need to make the switch.