Powerful Presentations Tip #6: Great Slides Are By Design, Not Default

Many conferences no longer provide handouts as they green their meetings, and I’m all for anything that reduces paper waste. That said, well-designed handouts (not just slides reprinted in handout form) can be a valuable interactive tool to engage participants in notetaking and other written exercises. While I don’t use handouts for all my sessions, I do see them as integral to many presentations and lament others who forget their potential to enhance learning.

If you are going to do handouts, do so with great intention. Design printed materials that will support and supplement the overall learning experience you are trying to create. Use page layout programs like Pagemaker or InDesign so they are more visually appealing and varied than slide output. Always ask yourself: Is what I am creating worth the paper and ink it will take to produce it? If not you might make it a supplemental file that can be viewed online. You can download a one-page primer on standout handouts (designed no less in model handout form) that I originally published in the September 2007 issue of Associations Now.

So what about slides? Three brilliant books already cover this topic better than I ever could hope to do: Beyond Bullet Points by Cliff Atkinson, slideology by Nancy Duarte, and Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds. Clicking on the book titles takes you to Amazon; clicking on the authors takes you to their web sites where you will find lots of free resources. But let me offer you a few tips I think can be helpful right away.

Just as with the other visuals discussed in tip #5, only create slides to support your overall learning objectives and to help create the desired environment for the presentation. Less will almost always be more when it comes to slides, both in terms of your total slide deck count and the amount of info on a slide. That being said, highly technical talks often require far more information to be visually displayed than other types of presentations, so no one rule fits all situations.

Four types of slides are commonly found in my decks: information, illustration, instruction, and ignition.

Information slides convey key facts, details, and supporting points for what I am discussing.

Illustration slides contain images that support assertions I am making verbally, providing a clear example that enhances the understanding of what's being said.

Instruction slides give participants the information they need for exercises/activities I have them do. While I also verbalize such instructions, having them on a slide is helpful for visual learners and those who didn't catch everything I said.

Ignition slides typically are images, words, or quotes that serve as catalysts or springboards for stories or key sections of my talk. They help ignite participants’ interest in what will follow.

These distinctions might not be how you would divide your own slides, but I find them helpful in clarifying my intention for the slides I create: to inform, to illustrate, to instruct, to ignite.

While having some design skills or intuitive visual orientation definitely is an asset, it’s not a requirement for creating good slides. Just as you might tear out magazine pages illustrating home designs you like, you can do the same thing for slides. I have file folders (both in hard copy and on my laptop) containing slides, handouts, newsletters, and other publications containing examples of good design. I use them for inspiration as I create my decks. I regularly check out slide decks uploaded to Slideshare.net (think YouTube for slides) to see what others are doing.

Having coached a lot of presenters on slide design this year and having redone more slides than I would care to remember, let me give you a eight simple reminders:

  1. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Slide programs offer lots of options for animations, sound effects, and transitions, but the best decks use these judiciously. Too many slide decks are filled with annoying sound effects and jarring transitions or animations just because they were there to use.
  2. Only work with the top 70% of your slide. While the recommended percentage may vary, the advice never does. The bottom of your slide won’t be readable from the back of a large room, so don’t put critical information there. It’s a great place for conference or company logos though I find having those on every slide an unnecessary visual distraction.
  3. Limit yourself to only a few fonts or colors and try to use them consistently. Magazines typically use a headline font and a body text font. They also sometimes have a different font for certain sections. Good slides do the same, using any differences consistently as a way of subtly helping participants understand the organization of your slides.
  4. Don’t rely on the software’s default settings, particularly with bullet point text. Manually inserting or adjusting line or paragraph spacing can help unite lines of text that are better read together while allowing appropriate white space between points so that the eyes get a breather. And don't let one or two words get orphaned on a separate line because the word wrap kicks them over.
  5. Avoid clip art, particularly the art included with the software. Everyone has it. Everyone can use it. As a result, your deck is not distinctive. Plus so much clip art is juvenile or cheesy. Not all of it. But a lot of it. Look instead to royalty-free or low cost photo sites to get high quality images or take pictures yourself with a digital camera.
  6. Use text reversed out of colored boxes/shapes for emphasis. It’s a simple way to introduce a lot of contrast into a slide and give prominence to a key point.
  7. Don’t use bullet points unless no other design choice will work. Bullet points aren't inherently evil, but they aren’t far from it. Because they are a default software setting they are often overused. If you are talking about four separate points, you don’t necessary need a bullet point or number in front of them. Turn off the bullets on one of your existing slides and see what happens. Often it is just as readable. Or it can be made even more visually appealing by playing with the line spacing or other layout options.
  8. Finally, don’t forget white space. Intentional use of white space creates breathing room on your slide and provides variety and contrast. Play with the width of various text blocks so they don’t cover the complete horizontal line of your slide. Move them around on your slide to create open blocks of space.

These are just a handful of the dozens of pointers others found helpful in our slide design efforts. The bottom line? The best slides help tell stories. They reinforce your key points and enhance participants’ understanding and retention of your talk’s content. Ruthlessly review your deck because any slides that aren't doing just this, just don't belong.