Presentation Design, the Definitive Guide

Okay, so “Definitive Guide” is more than a little presumptuous, but hopefully it got your attention. Which is kinda the point; your presentation materials should be designed to get attention, to create a sense of interest, and not to bore the living bejeezus out of the audience. How to do that? Well, there’s a few guiding principles that you need to follow. I’m not going to take all the credit here; a lot of what I’m going to present is derived from the work of Garr Reynolds and Nancy Duarte. Their books, Presentation Zen and Slide:ology, are akin to bibles for a lot of people and if you are going to deliver even one serious presentation in your life you should read them. But if you just want the Cliffs Notes version, I’ll try and summarize here.

Point One – this is the most important (and I mean THE. MOST. IMPORTANT.), the slides support the speaker, not the other way around. People don’t come to your presentation to read what is written on your slides, they come to your presentation to hear what you have to say, to hear your message. Time and time again I sit through presentations where the speaker narrates the slide, either by reading it verbatim, or by describing what the slide is showing. Newsflash – the audience can read the words or follow the diagram themselves. I’ve mentioned this before in this blog, but it bears repeating. Now I’m not saying abandon all slides, just remember why you are using them; as the visual aid to support your message, to help ensure greater “stickiness” so that what you say becomes more memorable.

Point Two – design your slides for the back of the room, meaning build slides that can be seen and interpreted by the guy sitting in the very last row, rather than just by the people sitting in the front row. If you are going to take the time to build slides, don’t you want to make sure that they can be seen/read/understood by everyone in the audience? Building slides that have incredibly dense amounts of tiny-font text or small diagrams achieves the exact opposite of the goal of the slide (supporting the message, see Point One). Either you force the audience to strain to make out the details of the slide (and forcing that much effort into visual comprehension takes that much effort away from auditory comprehension) or you provide incomprehensible support materials because the details can’t be made out no matter how hard the audience tries. Bigger fonts, bigger diagrams. If that means less information on each slide, that’s ok because…

Point Three – include only one idea per slide. Remember: the slides are there to support your speaking and so each point you make needs individual support. This probably means building more slides than you intended, but that’s ok because each slide will be simpler and easier to build. And because they’re simpler, they’re probably going to be easier to read from the back of the room (see how that works?). Sometimes ideas are not simple though and so they need to be supported by complex slides. That’s ok, but if you are going to create complex slides make sure that you are using animation to literally build the slide out as you build the point with your speech. A nice tasteful fade effect is best and it’s really the only time you need animation. Whizzing and swirling and bouncing slides and slide elements just create visual noise that detract from the two most important things – your message, and the slide’s job of support.

Point Four – use fewer words and more pictures. This, believe it or not, is the trickiest thing for amateur presenters to master, but the thing that has the most profound impact on the, well, impact of the slides. Human beings are extremely visually oriented and consume via watching far more readily than by reading. It’s part of why the publishing industry is a $30B industry and in decline while Film & Television is $522B industry and growing. Making the shift from slides that have long lists of bullet points to ones that have diagrams, models, and photographs will (when done well) create a visually compelling tapestry that allows people to understand complex ideas, concepts, and relationships quickly and easily, without distracting from the actual presentation you are presenting. And those long lists of bullets points can still be kept as the speaker notes if they really do summarize the essence of your message.

That’s not it by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s certainly enough to get you started on the path. Keeping these principles in mind as you prepare for your next presentation will hopefully help you make slides that do a better job of supporting your message, and therefore help you do a better job of delivering that message.

Step Away from the Slideware!

By virtue of my role, I attend a lot of conferences, and witness a lot of presentations from a lot of different speakers, few of them professional or even what you would call practiced amateurs. On the whole, these non-speaker speakers generally do a good job, all things considered. All things being the fact that this isn’t what they do for a living, likely isn’t even something they do  very often, and so they don’t have a world of experience. There is one thing however that they all do consistently poorly. Let’s look at an example.

A few weeks ago week I was in Miami hosting three back-to-back conferences. As the attendees arrived for the third conference, one of the speakers came up to talk to me; let’s call him “Bobby” to preserve his privacy. It turned out the Bobby knows I speak a lot, knows he doesn’t speak a lot, and was hopeful of getting feedback and pointers on his session. It also turned out that Bobby was going to be the very last speaker of the conference. Now, last speaker can be a decent slot since you’re the one that gets to leave the final impression. But it can also be a pressure-filled slot since you’re the one that gets to leave the final impression.

Bobby was awesome. He knew his material cold. He spoke with passion and authority. He answered every question seamlessly, and with an honest and not made-up-on-the-spot answer. He engaged the room and made the thirty minutes go by quickly instead of agonizingly slowly. And he never once looked at his slides. Slides that were, I’m sorry to say, painfully awfully terrible.

And this brings me to what speakers consistently do poorly. It’s not making bad slides. It’s misunderstanding the point of the slides.

Too many speakers approach a presentation from the perspective that their speech is there to support the slides when the exact opposite is the truth. People don’t come to a presentation to see what your slides say; they come to hear what YOU say.

When I gave Bobby my feedback he was initially pleased, but when I told him to chuck his slides and go it without them a look of panic settled onto his face. He couldn’t conceive of not having the dense, wordy slides he had built as the very core of his presentation. I cajoled and persuaded and I think I got through to him. Now I’m going to cajole and persuade you. Hopefully it will have the same effect:

  1. The audience came to see you, not your slides. The central component of a great presentation is a great speech. It’s not the visuals on the screen; it’s the messaging you deliver. Make sure you have something worthwhile say.
  1. It’s ok to have slides but remember their role. The slides support your message, provide the visual cue to the “aha” moments in what you are saying. A visual cue is not the script of your presentation, nor is it a bulleted list of the points you intend to make. It is a picture, a chart, a data point, a word. Your slides should be a series of these, and nothing more.
  1. Without that slide crutch, you’re going to have to practice. What made Bobby’s presentation great was that he knew his material. He knew the points he wanted to make and he knew when and how to make them. Because he wasn’t winging it, relying on the words on the slides to bail him out. Because he’d practiced.
  1. Tell the complainers they’ll just have to pay attention. If anyone in the audience indicates they’d like slides, or the provided slides to be denser so they can “follow along”, gently remind them that humans can either read or listen but not both at once. And that they’re really there to listen.

If the President doesn’t need slides when he delivers the State of the Union Address, and Martin Luther King didn’t need slides when he delivered his Dream speech, you don’t need slides when you deliver your presentation. Step away from the slideware and your message be heard more clearly.

CIO Atlanta Summit Recap

As our last event before summer holidays, (no-one really runs events over the summer – all the delegates are all on vacation so it’s the ideal time to rest and plan for the fall campaign) the CIO Atlanta Summit was a great send-off. We were blessed with a great pool of delegates (over fifty local Fortune 1000 IT leaders), and some key strategic partners. The delegates were eclectic (10 different industry sectors represented, with Financial Services at 20% and Government at 16% the most common) and senior, (63% holding a VP level title or higher). It was only a single day event, but what a day.

We kicked things off with a great opening keynote delivered by Jonathan Langley from IBM. His topic was the hybrid cloud, and as Cloud becomes something that more and more organizations being to adopt, this concept of a “hybrid” cloud – one that combines both public and private cloud components – is going to become increasingly common. It just makes sense: the load that needs high levels of security and compliance stays in the private cloud, while the rest can leverage the economies of scale of the public cloud. It was a great way to start, and it gave the attendees some great points to focus on as they plan their own hybrid cloud initiatives.

We closed with a great panel that featured Lee Crump (the CIO of Rollins), Jay Ferro (the top man at the American Cancer Society), Chet Mandair (Good Technology’s very own CIO), and Gautam Vyas (VP of IT for Equifax). A more diverse group on paper you couldn’t collect. But when the topic is “The Evolving Role of the CIO” diversity is key and these gents didn’t disappoint as the conversation was highly interactive, very lively, and immensely entertaining and insightful. The keys, I think, that came out of the discussion for everyone though was that 1) the CIO role is now, more than ever, one of key strategic value to the organization; 2) IT departments must take on a P&L approach (if not responsibility) to break out of operational role ruts; and 3) IT leaders have the responsibility to build bridges with their peers elsewhere in the organization by saying what they’ll do, and doing what they’ll say.

In between we shared lots of stories, lots of insights, lots of guidance, and lots of pitfalls. We had key partners like Rimini Street, ZScaler, Windstream, and Software AG share their take on the challenges of the CIO in 2014. We also had great practitioners such as Vish Narenda, CIO at GE Power & Water, Michael Noel, CTO at Manheim, and Mark Reardon, CISO for the State of Georgia give insight into the struggles they’ve faced, the obstacles they’ve overcome, and the tools and techniques they used to find success.

All in all a great day. If you were there with us, we’re glad you came. If you weren’t were sorry both that we missed you, and that you missed out. As I said off the top, that’s it for us for the summer, but we’re already itching to get things rolling again in the fall. The next time you hear from me on a Summit report, it’ll be the CIO Retail Summit at the end of August. I already can’t wait.

The CDM Media Team and

Thanks to our Collaboration Sponsor, the CDM Media team is now utilizing a fleet of iPads at all of our CIO events, allowing attendees to be more interactive and more social! The iPads come equipped with social media apps, an event mobile app (more on this to come) and, of course, the Box app.

Presentation files are shared with attendees via Box, allowing them to download, preview and share files while onsite and when they return to the office. All attending CIOs and IT executives receive a trial enterprise version of Box.

In the below picture, Victor Perez, VP, Operations and Engineering, NBC Universal, utilizes the app during the CTO Telecom/CIO CME Summit.

Victor Perez of NBC Universal Utilizes at the CTO Telecom/CIO CME Summit

Also, be sure to check out the below video of the CTO Telecom/CIO CME Summit, which was shot entirely with an iPad.

If you’d like to try out Box for business or personal use, get a free trial here.