I’ve never felt confident in my ability to create visually compelling presentations. I’m a words person with spatial confusion, which I believe is the exact recipe for boring slides. Add to that the fact that I’ve worked in big companies that tend toward information-packed slides with tiny fonts and lots of charts, and you can see why I’m semi-obsessed with collecting tips and best practices for better presentations. Here are some good ones:
- Make your slides the last thing you do, not the first. This tip comes from Aaron Weyenberg at TED, who notes that the slides are an enhancement layer to the talk, not a standalone. He says, “The presentation needs to stand on its own; the slides are just something you layer over it to enhance the listener experience.”
- Define the story you want to tell, for the whole AND for the parts. If the slides are the icing on your presentation cake, then you’ve already written your story when you start working on them. Make sure you do the same sort of planning for presentation components like infographics, so that they remain true to their intended purpose and support your overall goals.
Constantly check back with the core narrative of your presentation. Are the choices you’re making around words and visuals supportive of the story you’re trying to tell? This can be especially critical if that story is not yours, but rather your audience’s. Consider the work that Erin King of Collective Next does, where her team visually scribes their clients’ ideation discussions. In an interview about this process, King describes why coming back to the core narrative is so crucial:
It creates a human connection—they feel like “you heard me, you manifested my idea.” The visual we create will often make even more sense to them than the way they saw it in their head; they may have had a concept but needed a visual to bring it to life.
For the love of God, use less text. Weyenberg supports this one as well, noting that if you do need to use text, try to progressively reveal the words or ideas to prevent the audience from reading while you speak.
- Use color to draw attention to key text. People are more likely to read and pay attention to text that stands out from its neighbors. Color is a great way to accomplish this.
- Analyze, don’t summarize. The most valuable content you can provide will offer insights. A book report isn’t totally without value, but it’s not going to get people talking either.
- Focus people on the relevant parts of images. I like this tip a lot; it has to do with using blurring or masking to focus people on the key part of an image. Weyenberg of TED says, “I do this a lot when showing new page designs, particularly when I don’t want the audience to see the whole design until I’m finished talking about individual components of it.”
When you can, show instead of tell. There are many different types of visuals that can be added to a presentation or post to clarify the words used. Carefully selecting the right one will help make your story more compelling. For example, can you use a screenshot instead of describing what you saw?
- Reinforce important points with both words and visuals. As this report from HP shows, information is most likely to be retained when it’s presented in multiple formats. If something in your presentation is truly critical, consider saying it with both words and images.
- Lay off the effects. This tip comes up over and over again. Programs like PowerPoint and Keynote permit animations and other effects that can seem like a great way to engage audiences, but overuse can be very distracting. When in doubt, leave it out.
I’m a long way from being my most visually compelling self with my presentations, but with tips like these, I think I’m improving.
What are your best tips for making visually engaging presentations? What pitfalls tend to trap you?