After years of sitting through way too many banal, sleep-inducing PowerPoint presentations, I finally could not take it anymore and dashed off this missive which I originally wrote for my students. I believe there are seven crucial presentation design habits that will help you develop more engaging and memorable presentations. These habits are focused on the design of the visuals themselves, however, the links in the reference and resource section below provide some good resources for gaining insights on planning, preparation, and delivery.
1. Begin by sketching your presentation on paper
Use pencils, scissors, and magic tape (the kind that you can remove and re-apply easily) to sketch your presentation. Cut up pieces of paper and put each idea on a separate piece of paper. You will restructure your work many times. Starting out working in PowerPoint, Keynote or Prezi will restrict your creativity, save that for the last step, it will save you valuable time. An important part of the sketching process is working within the structure and timing limitations of your presentation format. Another option is to use 3×5 cards and post-it notes. You’ll eventually work out a system that’s best for you, however, jumping straight to PowerPoint, Keynote or Prezi is not going to save you time, if you start by fiddling with your ideas, rather than the placement of objects on the screen, you’ll be better off.
2. Place only one idea per slide
Good presentations are storytelling. When a slide contains more than one idea, you confuse the story you are telling. When you practice your presentation, make sure each of your slides only communicates one idea. Will your audience understand clearly what each slide is about? Got too many ideas on one slide? Break it into separate slides. More slides and a greater variety of images will contribute to audience engagement. Imagine if your favorite television show used long takes in which nothing changes? The visual variety will keep the audience more engaged and more receptive to your ideas. If your presentation includes video or audio, integrate them into your presentation so you can seamlessly move in and out of them during the presentation, it’s distracting to watch a presenter switching between the presentation and a browser to click on a YouTube link. Both Microsoft PowerPoint and Apple Keynote support the seamless integration of audio, video, and animation files that play automatically when a slide appears, so use this feature to avoid unnecessary distractions and keep the audience focused on the idea at hand. There are plenty of ways to acquire media files for seamless integration.
3. Avoid bullet points and excessive text like the plague
If your audience is reading text they are not listening to you! There is nothing more boring than someone reading aloud text you can see on the screen since your audience can read faster than you can talk. There’s a difference between the notes and prompts you to refer to during the presentation and the slides your audience sees. Your audience does not need nor want to see your notes, they want to see compelling, relevant visuals. Both Microsoft PowerPoint and Apple Keynote support the display of presenter notes (with timing and next slide information) on one screen and slides on a second screen when working with two monitor setups. This eliminates the need of using bullet points in the presentation to remind you of the key points you are making.
4. Keep slide design simple and primarily visual
Avoid transition effects, especially those with sound effects. Don’t use tacky clip-art. Use images relevant to your topic. Do not put any unnecessary text on your slides, this will distract from your story. In some situations a simple title at the start and contact information on the last slide is appropriate. You should never use your slides as stand-alone handouts since this leads to slides that don’t work effectively as visuals and handouts that are practically useless. In the words of Edmund Carpenter,
Each medium, if its bias is properly exploited, communicates a unique aspect of reality, of truth. Each offers a different perspective, a way of seeing an otherwise hidden dimension of reality … A medium is not simply an envelope that carries any letter; it is itself a major part of that message. (from “The New Languages” in Explorations in Communication, 1960).
Your handouts (probably best done as a written essay and/or list of resources) and your slides (images that evoke ideas and enhance your presentation) are working in two very different ways, each is a very different medium with different strengths and weaknesses, don’t cross the streams.
5. Use large, easy to read type (if you need to use type)
For any text you do use on your sides, make sure the text is large enough to read from the back of the room. And since you’re going to be using as little text as possible, there’s plenty of room for large text. One short phrase is the most you should ever need on a slide. Sometimes there may be a good reason to have a little more text on a slide, but make sure it really needs to be there, like an important quote or text excerpt that you want to take a moment and let your audience read.
6. Avoid complicated charts or diagrams
Don’t put up very complicated charts or diagrams, these may work well in a book, web page, or tablet app, but they rarely work well in a live presentation. If you need to share a complicated chart or diagram, it might be better done as something you share on the web. Remember the one idea per slide rule above, as well as the next rule. If you need to present a complex diagram, break up the salient sections on various slides in order to emphasize the particular aspect of the data you’re talking about, consider how to break things up into chunks in order to keep it to one concept per slide. This will also help with the pacing of your presentation and help keep your audience focused and alert.
7. Never forget you are telling a story
Make sure your speech and images work together to take someone on a journey. The narrative structure applies to presentations! Your process and experiences have a dramatic arc, with twists, turns, and reversals like a good story. Long explanations are appropriate for a book or web page, but when you’re speaking in front of an audience with a time constraint, you need to work in the essential story elements of conflict along with some humor, and a resolution, and with that, your audience will walk away happy. And of course, to tell a good story, it helps to rehearse with a friend and incorporate their feedback in order to deliver the best presentation you can. If you’re a seasoned presenter you know that it’s important to vary the tone, volume, and pace of your speech with dramatic pauses at the right moments to better engage your audience, watching TED talks will offer some good models of presentation styles. If you’re new to presenting, have a friend videotape you and watch yourself. It may be shocking and revealing, but the feedback will be invaluable in helping you work through your own body language and delivery style.
References and resources
- Presentation Zen: Simple ideas on presentation design and delivery by Garr Reynolds, an essential resource
- The cognitive style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within by Edward Tufte, a classic must-read essay
- The culture of the deck by Liz Lawley, blog post
- 20 world class presentation experts share their top tips by Mark Fidelman, Forbes, article
- 10 tips on how to make slides that communicate your idea by TED staff, article
- How to Give a Killer Presentation by Chris Anderson, Harvard Business Review, article
This post was updated on October 28, 2020 to correct some typographical errors and add some images.