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.

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