A Few Tips on Building Slides

April 14, 2018

in front of an audience

I’ll be conducting a fair number of presentations and workshops this year, and I’ll be in the audience for many more. And, although I’m not the world’s most seasoned or polished public speaker, I feel like I’ve learned a lot about speaking and teaching over the last few years that could help out others.

One of my favorite parts of speaking is building slide decks. Yep, I’m one of those sickos that actually enjoys spending time in Keynote, shuffling things around, styling content, editing the hell out of presentations. During all that time in Keynote (or PowerPoint, if a conference organizer is especially masochistic), I’ve learned a few principles that make for better decks and, in turn, better all around presentations. These principles have been reinforced by sitting through far too many shitty talks that didn’t take them into account.

Hopefully some of these tips will help when you’re preparing your own presentations. Disagree with any of them? Email me and let me know—I’m always looking to improve my own presenting skills.

Keep Things Simple

You should always strive for the simplest slides possible, in every aspect. Keep the content simple, keep the design simple.

Too often, speakers (me included) try to cram too much into their slides—whether it’s words, pictures, examples, hashtags, Twitter handles, logos, or branding and design elements. Don’t do that. You’re just distracting—or worse, confusing—your audience.

theme selection in keynote

People rag on the default themes in Keynote, PowerPoint, or Google Slides. But I find some of them wildly useful. As a Keynote user, I nearly always start from one of two themes: the Black or White ones. They are brutally simple and make for a wonderful foundation for presentations. Still, I think they could be simpler.

One of the first things I do is go into the master slides and delete a bunch of them. By default, both themes come with 12 slide variations. Although some of these can be useful, I’ve found most of them make for distracting slides. I prefer to whittle things down to about six variations:

  1. Title & Subtitle, which is used for the presentation title to kick things off.
  2. Title Center, which can be useful for sectioning the rest of the presentation, especially in workshops.
  3. Title Top, for headers on content slides.
  4. Title & Bullets, for when I do want text on my slides.
  5. Quote, for quotes, duh. I love using quotes to reinforce points or add a bit of humor to a presentation.
  6. Blank, which probably gets the most usage, to be honest.

simpler themes in keynote

I do think branding and style can be important for presentations, so I will customize the look and feel of those master slides. But don’t go overboard. Usually, this means updating the typeface (I love Avenir Next), adding background colors if needed, and updating the quote variation to look a lot better.

I’ve seen a lot of conference-provided themes that are almost universally complete garbage. They try to cram too much branding—logos, hashtags, dates, graphics, etc. If you run into these, push back and say you’ll use your own. If the organizer insists, use the colors from their themes, the title slide, and just build on completely blank slides for everything else. Don’t let terrible branding get in the way of good ideas.

The theme of simplicity should always carry over into the content of the slides, too. Don’t try to fit too much text, too many images, or too many branding elements on your slides. If you find your slides feeling cramped, break up one slide into a few. You can always go through them quickly, so don’t worry too much about having a ton of slides. If they’re simple and easy to follow, then you’re good.

Focus on Hierarchy

Although “less is more” is a good mantra for creating slides, sometimes you can’t get away from including a lot of content on a slide. That’s where hierarchy comes into play.

Hierarchy is organizing things to show levels of importance, usually using color, size, or position. Think of headings and paragraphs in an article like this. I use different size headings for the title, sections, and body of the article to make it easy to scan the article and understand what it’s about. The same principle should apply to your slides.

Use text size, color, and placement intelligently to make sure your audience can easily scan and follow along. A few simple guidelines:

  • The bigger something is, the more important. The eye is drawn to bigger elements on a page or screen, so if you want someone to notice it, make it bigger. This applies to slides, but not all areas of life 😉
  • More contrast equals more importance. Darker text on a light background or lighter text on a dark background draws the eye. If your copy is grey and your heading is black, people will notice the heading first.
  • Position matters. English-speaking people (I’m in the US) read from top-to-bottom, left-to-right. Our eyes naturally go to the top left of a screen or page, so keep titles or important stuff there. Use the other space to reinforce that information. Use mostly left-justified text, too, for the same reasons and because it will help aid dyslexic audience members.
  • Placement matters, too. Every element on a slide is related to every other element on that slide. Use this to denote importance. If you leave a lot of space around an element, that can make it stand out.

hierarchy is a good thing

Use hierarchy to lead the audience around your deck. Focus their eyes—and, therefore, their attention—using these basic principles.

The Less Text, The Better

Although it may not seem like it from the length of this article, I firmly believe that the less text there is, the better—especially in presentations. People aren’t there to read a bunch of slides, they are there to listen to you. They want to hear a story, learn some new ideas, or be motivated. Forcing them to read a ton of tiny text on your slides actively works against all of that.

If you find yourself including a ton of text in your slides ask yourself, “Is a presentation the right format for this idea?” It’s OK if the answer is no. Sometimes ideas are better conveyed through articles, books, tweets, videos, or songs.

If you still have a lot of text and want to give a presentation, edit the hell out of your slides. Cut everything that’s non-essential, and then cut some more. Replace text with images, or explain your ideas verbally. Just get away from massive amounts of text. Your audience will thank you.

Keep Things Big

One of the side effects of using a lot of text is that the text ends up being small. And, depending on the size of the venue, when text is too small, it’s unreadable. The last thing you want during a presentation is everyone ignoring what you’re saying just to squint and struggle to read your slides. Keep your text as big as possible on your slides.

bigger text is better

The same goes for any imagery, as well. Whether it’s a picture, illustration, icon, logo, graph, video, or GIF—try to keep them as large as possible so that people can easily parse what it is. I’ve found it helpful to split images onto their own blank slides, leaving any contextual text on the slides before or after the image so that people can quickly understand that content.

Keep Contrast in Mind

You will encounter a wild variety of venues. Some good, some bad, but all different—especially in regards to what projectors and screens they use and their lighting setups. All three can have a massive impact on how your slides display.

Horrible projectors with low resolution, old, yellowing screens, or too bright of lights in the room will result in slides that are hard to see. Especially for people sitting near the back of a room. You need to make sure all of your slides have enough contrast to be understandable no matter the environment.

Contrast is the difference between the lightest and darkest elements. For our purposes, that’s generally the text or images on the slide backgrounds. You want high contrast between the two so that they don’t blur together. Part of the reason why I suggest working from a simple theme like white on black or black on white. That’s about as high-contrast as you can get, so it’s hard to go wrong.

contrast aids comprehension

One situation where this can be difficult is when displaying code on screen. A lot of designers and developers use a dark theme: a dark background with colored text on top. It looks great on your laptop screen, but doesn’t translate well to the projection screen. I’d recommend either:

  1. Using a light theme, with a light background and dark text or…
  2. Drastically bumping up the size of the text in a dark theme

I understand the draw of dark themes for code. They’re gorgeous. I still use them a lot. But just make sure you buoy that lack of contrast with bigger text to keep code understandable for your audience.

Use Images Wisely

Speaking of images (or animations and videos): use them wisely. It can be tempting to put a bunch of timely, topical GIFs and memes into a presentation to illicit a laugh, but that can sometimes work against you. I definitely include funny GIFs on occasion, but I try to make sure they are in service to the point I’m making.

Always use imagery to reinforce your main message, not distract from it. And try to make sure the images are universally understood. People come from a diverse set of backgrounds, and not everyone understands what you understand. Even though you love the movie What We Do in the Shadows, not everyone will fully grasp the hilarity of Rhys Darby lecturing that they’re, “Werewolves, not Swear-Wolves.”

Also, strive for timeless slides. It can be very tempting to put in some topical images, but how do you think that will hold up down the road? If you’re sharing your deck with the audience or uploading it to something like Slideshare, it can stick around a lot longer than you think. Make sure that—when revisiting your deck a month, or even years, down the road—your audience isn’t left scratching their heads.

Finally, try to be diverse and inclusive in your use of imagery. If you’re using images of people in your presentation, use images that represent a mix of genders, races, ages, and cultures. Try to keep any prejudices (intentional or not) out of your presentations—you don’t want to exclude audience members through your use of images (or text, for that matter). Representation on stage absolutely matters, so take that into account. If you’re struggling to find diverse imagery, check out some of these resources:

Be Consistent

One of my biggest pet peeves is an inconsistent slide deck. By inconsistent, I mean one that doesn’t have consistent use of type, sizing, structure, color, and design. All of those elements can be used to reinforce your messaging and, especially in the case slide structure, aid audience comprehension.

For the most part, you want the overall structure of your slides to remain the same so that viewers can quickly understand content as you jump from slide to slide. That’s why I cut out a lot of those default slide variations—the fewer the variations, the less mental overhead for your audience. Your slides don’t have to be identical, but you should work within some constraints to simplify things for the audience.

Plus, if you keep things consistent between slides, when you do break out of that consistency, the audience will be surprised. You can use this effect to your advantage to better make points in your presentation, creating memorable moments for your most important ideas.

Ask Organizers About Technical Considerations

A quick, but important, tip. Always communicate with organizers so that you fully understand the technical requirements for your presentation. The better prepared you are, the fewer things that will go wrong (although something nearly always goes wrong).

A few things to check on:

  • Slide size (Standard 4:3 vs. Wide 16:9)
  • Is audio supported?
  • Is video supported?
  • Will animated GIFs work?
  • Will you be using their machine or yours?
  • If theirs, are you using non-standard fonts that need to be installed?
  • Keynote, PowerPoint, Google Slides, etc.?
  • Are emojis supported? (I ran into this issue just the other week)

And definitely make sure you can access your slides multiple ways: save them on your machine, back up to something like Dropbox, download them to a USB, and export them as a PDF on all of the above. Just cover your bases.

Edit, Then Edit Some More

Finally, the most important: edit the hell out of your presentation. Once you think you have your deck done, make multiple passes and cut out as much as you possibly can.

Your presentation should be about your ideas and your speaking. The deck is only there to reinforce both. Far too often, speakers use their deck as a crutch to prop up an ill-conceived talk. By editing your content, you force yourself to refine your ideas into a more cohesive, impactful talk.

Once you’ve edited things down, ask a coworker, friend, or family member to go through it. See if they can understand things or if there are any weak points. Perform in front of them and ask them not to hold back on feedback.

Then edit again.

Again, I’m nowhere near the world’s best speaker. But I’ve done this a lot and received enough feedback to know generally what works and what doesn’t. Hopefully these tips can help you out and, again, if you have any more, send them my way.

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