Presentation tips: Slides are free!

Photo of presenter with slidesI’ve been to three conferences in as many weeks, and all three of them included presentations that crammed way too much information, in teeny tiny type, onto a series of unreadable slides. I was fascinated — in a watching-the-car-go-off-the-bridge kind of way. These presenters were not newbies. They were people who give dozens of talks a year.

Ironically, some of the most riveting presentations at the conferences had just a few slides. A couple had no slides whatsoever. You could feel the room perk up as the presenter, instead of fumbling with the remote control device or peering at the screen, looked directly at the audience and spoke passionately about their topic.

This sent me back to my own slide decks to see where I fall in this continuum.

How much is too much?

How do we know when our slides have fallen prey to clutter? Alarms should go off when:

  • You shrunk bullet points to a type size smaller than 24 points.
  • You stuffed more than 6 bullet points on a slide.
  • You squished two or more charts onto a slide. (Need to contrast trends? Combine them in one chart.)
  • You’re using a slide presentation format to create text-heavy handouts for people who are not attending your talk. (Handouts are a separate, and very different, document; see Resource #4, below.)

These criteria are pretty generous. Most designers and readability experts would advise even fewer sentences, fewer bullet points, fewer words, and larger typefaces.

2 ways to make your slides better, fast

Most of us want to use at least a few slides in our presentations. How can we make them informative rather than painful? Here are some bare bones strategies for taking cluttered, wordy slides and turning them into clear, concise images that support your talk:

  1. Cut to the chase. Put the most important point — a key question, or a conclusion  — on the slide. Move everything else to your speaking notes. If the takeaway is that when more sharks swim in the pool, more people get bitten, put a simple graph showing that trend on the slide. Caption it “More sharks = more bites.” With that slide on the screen, you can talk about the supporting details (the size of the pool, how they chose the swimmers, and how this leads into your next point/slide).
  2. One thing at a time. There is no economic advantage to squeezing several points or multiple charts onto one slide. Slides are free, and you can click through them at any rate you want. Instead of spending six minutes talking while people in the audience try to decipher the fine print on your crowded slide, split the information into two or three readable slides and spend two or three minutes talking about each.

More information about presentation design

At this point, you’re either arguing with me and insisting that you absolutely need to put 100 words on each slide or you’re ready to give your next audience a break. If you’d like to aim for more readable slides (and enjoyable presentations), I’ll close with some great resources from people who know far more about this that I do:

  1. Ten Secrets for Using PowerPoint More Effectively – a professional presentation designer’s tips
  2. Talks: Fewer Words, More Understanding — an explanation of how slides can distract rather than inform an audience
  3. How Many Words Should Your PowerPoint Slides Contain? — some interesting observations about making slides for certain types of material and audiences.
  4. Slide Design Tips: Presentation Vs. Handout Slides — valuable information for producing handouts for both print and electronic distribution.