Making Presentation Slides Suck Less

A few tips on creating slides that are easier to create as well as much more understandable and enjoyable to view for the people in your audience.

Have you ever had trouble squeezing information – a message house, organigram or flowchart – onto just a single slide? Worse than that, have you ever had to watch someone present a chart you can’t even read?

This article will give you a few tips on creating slides that are easier to create as well as much more understandable and enjoyable to view for the people in your audience.

Be Logical About the Logistics

Think about the factors that influence your presentation from a logistical standpoint:

Time. The more time you have for a presentation, the more you can deep dive into the information – and the more you risk boring your audience. You’ll have to keep things lively and entertaining (read more about this later). The less time you have, the more general you have to be with your message.

Space. It really helps to know where you’ll present. If you can picture yourself comanding the presentation space, it’ll help boost your confidence. And you can imagine how the audience members will see you so you can adapt your presentation accordingly.

Others. No group of people is completely homogenous. But if you can guage how familiar your audience is with your topic, that will help you talk about things without going over their heads or becoming a sedative.

Tech. If you are presenting using your own equipment, all the better. You can test things beforehand. If you’re bringing your computer, be prepared with all possible adapters and even a copy of your slides as a PDF on a DOS-formatted USB stick just in case. If you’re to present using someone else’s computer and equipment, have your slides saved in various formats on stick and also in the cloud.

You. If you’re well-prepared and know what the hell you’re talking about, that’ll give you the confidence to be spontaneous enough to make each member of the audience feel like you wrote your talk just for them. If you’re more of the shy sort and can’t rock the rhetoric, you’ll have to create a slide deck that tells your story.

Be Kind to Your Audience

Use slides to visually aid what you’re saying. They’re like the icing on the cake of your arguments, ideas and proposals: if you leave off the icing, there should be plenty of substance left. But offer someone standalone icing and you’re left with something waify that might give them a tummy ache.

In other words, slide decks used in presentations are way different from documents that people are supposed to read through on their own either on a screen or as a printout.

Do not create a slide deck for show that is trying to be a reading document. If you want your slide deck to speak for itself once you’re out of the equation, create a separate copy of your slide deck and feel free to add all the text you need to get your message across.

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

If you’re presenting slides to an audience, it means some people will be too far or too distracted to read the small print.

By leaving out the small print – meta-information you often see in headers or footers on slides – you have more room for the important stuff.

Leave out:

The date. People can check their smartphones if they suddenly need to recall what day it is.

Your name, job title, division, ect. You can briefly explain that stuff at the beginning of your presentation or leave it for the end.

The slide number. Do you really want your audience to know if you’re almost done with your presentation? Slide numbers don’t help much anyways if you need one minute to explain an idea illustrated on one slide – and three minutes for a different slide. And when you use lots of animations on single slides or across many, slide numbers become pointless anyway.

Divide and Conquer

In its most basic form, a presentation structure has three parts:

  1. The introduction: where you introduce yourself and your topic.
  2. The body: where you communicate your main message(s).
  3. The summary and conclusion: where you repeat your main points, put things into perspective, and leave 'em wanting more.

I usually create a rough outline in a text document before starting on the slides. Then I use slides as dividers like this:

By focusing on the presentation skeleton at this point, you can roughly estimate whether you have too much or too little to say. Plus, dividers help audience members understand where they are in the presentation.

You can add flesh to that basic skeleton later.

The Three-Second Rule

How you know if you have too much information on a slide? Use the Three-Second Rule:

If it takes longer than three seconds to get the gist of a slide, you’ve got too much information on it or you’re not highlighting one thing at a time.

So what kind of information am I talking about? Text. Leave as much text off a slide as possible. You want your audience members to listen to what you’re saying and see what you mean – not be distracted by trying to read something off of a surface which is almost always way more than an arm’s distance from them.

So you can usually leave out things like slide headings and sub-headings. That frees up space for things that make people’s peepers pop: structure, texture, color, and movement.

What about bullet points? You can use a slide of bullet points for your agenda and and for your conclusion, as long as there are no more than four bullet points per slide and each contains a very short phrase. Still, use bullets sparingly, if at all.

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Bullet Points

Check out this list of stock photos that don’t suck if you’re pinching pennies.

Avoid Shiny Aliens

Ever seen these little men or use them in a presentation yourself?

They’ve invaded Google image search results for generic terms like “success”, “teamwork” and “strategy.”

Avoid them at all costs. They just look plain lousy.

Even if you really suck at drawing, a handdrawn stick figure scanned and added to a slide makes it look hand-crafted.

I use the Evernote’s Scannable because it’ll automatically crop images and up the contrast.

Make a Move

There are two basic ways to animate slide presentations: using transitions (animations between slides) and using slide effects (object animations on a single slide).

But Keynote’s “Magic Move” effect is will help you do both. And it’s a godsend. It will automatically animate the position and size of objects on one slide with differing positions and sizes of the same objects on the next slide.

I use “Magic Move” for:

  • Showing a change or progression
  • Explaining a complex visual
  • Highlighting something or focussing on something important

“Magic Move” takes quite a lot of processing power at runtime. And if you’re animating too many objects and properties at once, you may get the “Pinwheel of Death”.

That’s Entertainment

To present comes from the Latin presentare and praeesse, meaning “to show, to be in front of”.

Keep in mind that your slide deck is “that which is being shown”, “that which you are in front of”.

By limiting the information on slides to content that the eye can consume within three seconds, you leave the stage floor open for your interpretation, your message, and your showmanship.


Published: Jun 23, 2016

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