Last semester, several of my students ran afoul of a perennial problem with PowerPoint. They had created their slide decks on a large screen, but when they connected to the room's projector, it forced a lower screen resolution.

Blammo! -- ugly slides. Text too big, images cut off, broken layouts everywhere. The wreckage was so horrifying, two design students in the audience were forced to avert their eyes.

There are several ways to solve this problem, but here's the trick I use all the time: Instead of showing your slides in PowerPoint, make your presentation deck into a PDF, and show that. PDFs will scale, unlike PowerPoint, and will capture your presentation faithfully, no matter how different the resolution might be.1

Here's how you do it:

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1. Install software that allows you to create a PDF

Several free software packages allow you to create a PDF.

  • LibreOffice is a free, open source office suite (essentially a replacement for Microsoft Office), which has a PDF export feature. There are versions for Windows, Macs, and Linux. (An earlier version was called OpenOffice.) You can use LibreOffice Impress (a PowerPoint work-alike) to create your presentation, or just open your PowerPoint file in Impress to export it to PDF. This is what I usually use.
  • PDFCreator is a free and open source program to help you create PDFs in Windows. When you install it, PDFCreator makes a new printer device. Then you print your document -- in this case, your presentation slides -- to this special printer, and it saves the output as a PDF. This works from any program that can print, not just PowerPoint.
  • On a Mac, it's even easier -- the capability to print to a PDF is built right into the system. This tutorial from MIT shows how to do it (with pictures).
  • Microsoft has even created a downloadable add-in to allow you to generate PDFs from within Microsoft Office.
  • If you happen to have paid for Adobe Acrobat (not just Acrobat Reader), you can generate PDFs with Acrobat.

2. Create your presentation in PowerPoint in the normal way

3. Generate a PDF of your final presentation

Create your PDF by printing to the PDF printer from within PowerPoint. If you're using LibreOffice, just click the PDF button in the toolbar to create it.

4. Deliver your presentation from your PDF instead of your PowerPoint

To do this, just open the PDF in the normal way with Acrobat Reader or other PDF-viewing software.

The trick is to make it display full-screen. In Acrobat Reader, hit Ctrl-L to make it full-screen. In full-screen mode, use the arrow-keys or click the mouse to make the slides advance. (Left mouse button, down-arrow, or right-arrow all advance one slide; right mouse button, up-arrow, or left-arrow all go back one slide.) When you want to exit full-screen mode, hit the Esc key. (Mac users can use Adobe Reader, or see Apple's instructions for using Preview in full-screen mode.)

By delivering your presentation from a PDF, instead of a PowerPoint file, each slide will retain the layout you created for it originally. If the resolution is not the same once the projector is plugged in, a PDF will scale down gracefully, instead of scaling some elements and leaving others full-size as PowerPoint does.

Then you will be free to concentrate on delivering an excellent presentation -- not worrying about the visual mess your carefully-crafted slides could become.


  1. Well, I'm not sure if animation or sound will work. Probably not, actually. But I see that as a feature, not a bug. ↩