But enough about me, let’s talk about slide design which is what the last part of this series is all about. Presentation slides are like a glass of wine you drink to a meal. A great meal can very well stand on its own and you don’t necessarily need a glass of wine to go with it, but a great wine can make a great meal all the better. A bad meal on the other hand can’t be saved by a great wine but a great meal can easily be spoiled by a bad wine. Did I lose you with that analogy? If you’re a great speaker, you can probably get away with not having any slides at all. But the combination of a great speaker and great slides is hard to beat. If you’re a terrible speaker then great slides can’t save you but if you’re a great speaker, bad slides can easily ruin your presentation.
Why you should have slides
Different people prefer different ways of learning things. Some people are auditory learners, others are visual learners and some are even kinesthetic learners. When you stand in front of an audience and talk without slides, you’re only targeting the first group. Using slides, you can reach out to the second group which means you can reach a much broader audience. There is a whole field of educational theory that deals with this subject, called “multi-sensory learning”.
Of course that’s not the end of the story. A visual learner will react well to images, shapes, colors and diagrams. Slides that are just walls of text (which seem to be the norm these days), don’t work so well.
What should and shouldn’t be on a slide
When I had to give my first presentation, I was absolutely clueless about what to put on my slides. So I looked on the internet for reference and found bullet points wherever I looked, tons and tons of bullet points. And I found words, plenty of words. “So that’s how you make presentation slides” I thought and I proceeded to make my own slides look just like the ones I had found on the internet. I gave my presentation and people neither especially liked nor hated it. I was pleased with myself.
Of course now I realize that I missed a great opportunity back then, an opportunity to get my point across. I’m sure nobody remembers anything of what I said back then and my slides are in part to blame for that. Bullet point slides are the status quo, everybody uses them and yet they’re terrible. It’s hard to accept that and it’s even harder to resist using them, especially because they’re so damn convenient. But you should resist using them and you should resist the urge to put text on your slides. Say what? That’s right, I said it. Don’t put text on your slides.
I have a toddler nephew who is now starting to speak and he has a bunch of picture books that my sister reads to him. Picture books are great because there is a direct correspondence between the text and the pictures. If it says “the ducky swims across the pond” in the text, then sure as hell there’s a picture of a duck swimming across a pond on the same page. That’s precisely how you should think about your slides: they’re an illustration of the things you say. Of course since you’re most likely dealing with an adult audience, your slides can be a lot more abstract and you don’t have to illustrate everything you say, but the concept stays the same.
That said, I often put words on my own slides. The emphasis however is on “words”. I never have paragraphs of text on my slides and science forbids no bullet points either. Words are powerful and sometimes a word can be more effective than a picture. Let me give you an example: in my latest presentation, I talked about how complexity is often made from simplicity. To illustrate that concept, I used a slide that had just the word “complex” on it. But the letters that made up the word “complex” were themselves made up of the word “simple”. In this particular example, a word basically doubled as a picture.
So you should put on your slides things that illustrate the story that you’re telling, but not the story itself.
How to make your slides pretty
Let me start off by telling you that I don’t believe slides need to be pretty to work. Take a look at Matt Harding’s presentation on how he got people to dance with him. His slides are essentially made up of (poorly drawn) stick figures and yet they work really well. On the other hand, professional looking slides can make you look professional (the opposite is true as well).
If you have any artistic talent, then making pretty slides shouldn’t be too hard for you. I for one don’t think I have much artistic talent, I just usually know when something looks bad. My slide designs are therefore mostly a product of trial and error. Fortunately there’s an art- and a craft side to designing stuff and while you can’t really learn the art side, the craft side is actually quite learnable. Again, I’m not a professional designer, but here are some of the things I’ve learned talking to designers and studying designs that I liked:
- Start with a color scheme; that is a set of three or more colors. You will need a background color (white, black and dark grey all work well), a foreground (text-) color (usually black or white) and a color for things you wish to highlight. The highlighting color should stand out strongly against the background- and the foreground color, so pick one that, compared to the background color, is on the other end of the lightness spectrum. Three colors tend to work great, but having four or more colors will give you greater freedom. If you’re not especially color-coordinated, you can go to sites like Daily Color Scheme for guidance. Once you’ve picked your color scheme, you stick with it. That means you only use those colors and nothing else. That will give your slides consistency. Also, if you use a color for highlighting things you always use that color for highlighting and for nothing else.
- Pick a font, one that looks nice at 30pt or more. Sans-serif fonts tend to work better on slides than serif fonts, but the choice is yours. Comic Sans does not really qualify as a font (it’s more of an insult to humanity) which is why you shouldn’t use it. Now here’s an important piece of information: fonts like Arial, Times New Roman or Calibri are specifically designed for on-screen reading. They’re also optimized for smaller font sizes. In some cases they will work on slides, but usually they won’t look so good. So what I suggest is that you use fonts optimized for printing. You can find a list of 25 great looking free fonts on Vitaly Friedman’s blog. Alternatively, you can invest in some commercial fonts. They can be quite pricey, but usually you’ll get a lot of bang for your buck. My favorite commercial fonts are Univers, Frutiger and DIN. Of the font you pick, you should get a bold or black and a regular (non-bold) or light version.
- Use high-quality photos. You can just “steal” photos from other people’s websites, but that can get you into trouble. So if you find a photo that you wish to use, just ask nicely and people will often be more than happy to give you permission to use it. Alternatively you can use stock photos which you can either buy or even get for free. Just be sure to avoid meaningless and stereotypical stock photos like the infamous business handshake. Instead, try and find pictures that somehow illustrate what you’re trying to convey. Oh, and don’t use cliparts, ever.
- You can use Photoshop or other image editing tools to isolate parts of an image and to place those parts on a new background. This can be quite a bit of work, but as backgrounds can sometimes be distracting, isolating images can be extremely effective.
- Compose every slide like you would compose a photo. Divide each slide into thirds, horizontally and vertically, and place pictures, words or diagrams near the 2/3 line rather than at the center of the slide. This is roughly the golden ratio and it tends to look more interesting compared to centering everything.
When to use animation
I used to be completely opposed to using slide transitions and animations. In fact, I would often export my slides to PDF and present them in Adobe Reader. I have since changed my mind about this and in my last presentation I actually used quite a bit of animation. Animation, just like audio or pretty pictures can be helpful. But when you overuse animation, it can also become extremely unhelpful. Think of it as a text marker: if you selectively highlight a few words in a long paragraph of text, then that can be extremely helpful. If however you highlight every single word in that paragraph, then the opposite is true. Whenever you use animation, it needs to have a meaning. There is a big difference between showing an audience a diagram and growing it in front of their eyes using a simple animation. In the first case you’re presented with a lot of information all at once, in the second case you can watch as the information is laid out for you. Both cases have their place and it’s up to you to decide when to use which. Animation can also be helpful to grab people’s attention, for example when there is very little change from one slide to another and you don’t want people to miss it. In any case, animation should be the exception and not the norm.
How do I know that my slides are good
Here are two indicators: a) somebody who hasn’t attended your presentation cannot look at your slides and fully understand what’s going on and b) for every 60 minutes of presentation you have anywhere between 100 and 150 slides.
- NASA – Why the moon? These are very pretty slides and while they have a fair amount of text on them, they still work well.
- Vanksen Group - Viral, Buzz & Influential Marketing: These slides are far from being perfect (they have too much text on them), but they’re relatively good.
- Also look at the examples from part one and two of this series.