Lessons in presentation design

by Intersectionist

Some notes I’ve collected on presentation design over the past few months:

  •  If it’s a good handout, it’s generally a bad presentation. Slides are for quickly communicating small chunks of information, not for reading in detail. Your audience is there to listen to you. If you want them to read information, send them an email or Word document. Better yet, optimize your information for each context: make a presentation version that only includes the minimum amount of information that will support (not just restate) what you’re saying, and then provide a printed document designed to read.
  • The hard part is not making it look cool. The hard part is figuring out what story you’re telling, and cutting out everything distracts from it.
  • Great design for presentations takes time. You can’t expect to toss a presentation to the “graphics guy” the night before and have a substantially better product. The value designers bring is not mainly aesthetic techniques, but an ability to clarify information and visually tell compelling stories.
  • Get rid of the agenda slides. That structure is for you, not the audience. Don’t tell them every step you’re taking; surprise them! If your storyline is clear, they’ll be able to follow along without an agenda spelled out.
  • Slides that repeat you will fight you. If your slides just restate you (or worse, if you read from your slides), your audience will have to choose which one to pay attention to. Make it easy for them.
  • Cut, cut, cut. Get rid of anything that doesn’t directly support your main storyline and the point at hand. What doesn’t make you stronger kills you.
  • If you really must present complex information, break it up into several easily digestible slides (perhaps with a conclusion statement slide at the end).
  • If you have access to a Mac, try Keynote instead of PowerPoint. It’s perhaps not as powerful, but its interface is much better designed, and we found it does a better job with the visual elements that we think matter the most for presentations (especially good typography). As you may have gathered, I don’t think you generally need powerful features. You need a clear message, empathy for your audience, and courage to cut unessentials. But if complex animations help tell your story, I’ve found Keynote to be powerful enough for virtually anything I wanted to do.
  • Before creating your presentation, ask: Who is the audience and what will be their experience during the presentation? How can we create a presentation that supports and complements the speaker, rather than competing with the speaker?
  • Don’t forget your audience! The problem with most presentations is that people simply neglect to think about what it will be like sitting in the audience. Empathy is the most important element of effective communication.

If you want to see presentations done right, see Duarte. Or Steve Jobs. Or basically anything from the TED Conference.