A few days ago I attended a lecture on international business presented by a charming and charismatic speaker. I was interested in the topic, in a comfortable and friendly environment, yet the experience was mediocre at best. Why? Because the slides that the speaker shared with us were abysmal, incomprehensible and seriously detracted from the presentation.
If you’ve been to any seminars, workshops or professional conferences, you know just what I’m talking about. Speakers like to use Powerpoint or equivalent tools — I certainly do! — but incredibly few have even half a clue about what works when it’s projected on a screen in front of an audience and it’s a problem.
I’m not going to publish a screed saying that no speakers should use Powerpoint because that’s an extreme position that I don’t support. In fact, being able to have your key point, illustration or demonstration on screen while talking is a gift to your audience. But making it comprehensible? That’s what I want to talk about instead.
Rule One: Use High-Contrast Colors and Simple Designs
Presentation tools have tons of cool themes that look really good on your screen when you’re building your presentation. Yup, those flaming letters and that complicated background photo look wicked when you preview it, but when it’s projected onto a large screen it’s confusing, detracts from the information on the slide, and can render an entire presentation unreadable.
Simple solution: pick simple, high-contrast color schemes. This means, for example, that black text on a strong red background (as the speaker used a few days ago) are terrible and should be avoided. Black on a very faint pink background? Maybe. If you experiment with a projector, however, you’ll find that light text on a dark background is typically easier to read than vice-versa, depending on room conditions.
Here’s an example before and after. On the left, the purple on black looked really cool on screen, but will be completely unreadable when projected. On the right, same slide, with a far more contrasty, far more readable:
Just as importantly, pick a design that’s simple and free of clutter. Sure, there are fun templates that make your slides look like a scrapbook or a cool computer display from a futuristic sci-fi film, but they’re a distraction for the audience. If you really, really can’t resist, use them for your opening or closing title slides, but the main slides should be free of distractions. Your audience will appreciate it, trust me.
Rule Two: Less Stuff, Bigger
There’s no rule that is more annoying to see violated than the minimum density requirement for information shown to an audience. This proves to be true in just about every medium, not just public speaking, but seems to be most commonly violated in this setting.
Here’s an easy rule of thumb: don’t put lots of stuff on your slide.
When you’re viewing it on your computer screen, it’s also easy to sneak in an extra bullet point, one more pithy quote, or a few more lines from the example output you want to explain. Problem is, it’s completely different when you’re in the 17th row in an auditorium and it’s projected on a screen.
Here’s an easy way to remember this: if you have text that’s smaller than about 24 point, it’s probably too small. I endeavor to never get below 36 point on my slides, personally, but sometimes I let smaller text creep in (and typically regret it later).
Rule Three: More Slides, Less Stuff Per Slide
Another rule that the speaker violated in the talk was that they thought they’d be efficient by having supporting material for multiple concepts on a single slide. You know what I’m talking about, it’s the slide with the financial results presented as three separate graphs, it’s the montage of products or users, it’s busy, busy, busy and ultimately confusing.
The best presentations have a single concept per slide and no more.
Heck, Tom Peters, the guy I studied to learn how to become a better public speaker, typically has one-word slides. Nothing else, just a single word. Awesome.
If you want to make more than one point, have more than one slide. It’s okay. There are no rules that say thou shalt not have more than 10 slides!
This also means that if you are finding that you have so much information that you need to choose a smaller typeface (remember rule two?) then what you need to do instead is spread it across multiple slides. It’s okay. In fact, your audience will appreciate it!
Rule Four: Don’t Read Your Slides
This isn’t really a rule for creating presentations but more of a public speaking tip, but you’ll cut me some slack, right? With precious few exceptions, you should never have full sentences on your slides and you should certainly never face the screen and read them. Heck, everyone in the audience is looking at the slides anyway, so unless you’re auditioning for a new voiceover job, you’ll do better to give them a few seconds to absorb the content if you must have full sentences or paragraphs of material, then proceed with your presentation.
It’s also boring to see/hear a speaker read their slide to me. I can read, thanks, and I read way faster than you are going to read it to me. Instead, I want to know why: why did you use this material, what’s profound about it, why should I care about what you’re showing me?
Rule Five: Sexy Transitions are a Distraction
Yeah, the latest generation of presentation tools (notably Apple’s Keynote) have some super-cool transitions that make for really great demos on your computer screen, but when you’re in front of a crowd, the reality is that the more attractive the transition, the more that’s what they’ll remember. Do you want to be “that guy who had the cool slides” or “the guy who made some superb points and knows his stuff”?
Resist the siren song of shiny – SQUIRREL! – and stick with the basic transitions for your presentations. I suggest this rule for the same reason I encourage you to skip complex slide designs: you want people to focus on you and what you’re saying, not your slides and their appearance.
Better Slides = Simplify
Let me summarize all of these points up for you, dear reader: simplify, simplify, simplify.
That’s really what makes great slides and a dynamic, compelling public presentation. It’s about the ideas, it’s about your charisma and ability to engage your audience, it’s not about your slides. Ever.
I hope this is helpful. Want to learn more? Turns out there are some pretty darn good books on the market about how to create compelling presentations, and it’s time well spent learning from the pros. Just search Amazon.com for “powerpoint presentations” or similar.