You’ve probably heard a lot of repetitive advice about how to make presentations effective. Number of slides, number of bullet points per slide, font size, all that stuff. My advice is a little different: it’s the things I’ve learned that nobody ever taught me.
Don’t Label Slides
The most important part of every slide—the headline—is usually wasted. How many slides have you seen with titles like Q3 Revenue Results or Team Composition? Most slides have titles that are just passive, nondescript labels. This is just terrible.
Don’t label: describe, interpret, explain! A slide’s title should help the slide deck stand alone if the audience reads nothing but the title. And a reader should be able to scan the titles and get a coherent sense for the story of the entire slide deck. (If you can’t do that, either your titles are lame, or your overall organization is weak.)
So, instead of Q3 Revenue Results, title the slide Q3 Revenue Grew 30% or whatever. Don’t force people to read the entire slide to learn what it says! Make the titles compelling and valuable. The title should be the takeaway.
Use The McKinsey Pyramid Principle
Writing compelling, valuable, descriptive titles is an example of using the McKinsey Pyramid principle. This is the single most important way to convey the right level of detail to all audiences. This principle, in brief, advocates delivering the answer first, then giving an opportunity for people to dig deeper if they want.
This is really hard for a lot of people to do (including me). Seriously, it’s really hard. People who’ve spent weeks researching to draw conclusions that will be consumed in 18 seconds find it nearly impossible to put the takeaways up front. Nonetheless, you have to do it if you’re going to be an effective communicator. You cannot drag people through all the background and conclude triumphantly with the answers. You will never get to the conclusion if you do that. You have to deliver the conclusion and be ready for people to drill into the details, if and only if they want to.
Remove the First-Level Bullets
Take a look at the following two slides.
The slide on the left has no unbulleted text. It has first-level bullets, with nested bullets underneath it. As a consequence of the way most slideshow programs format the space between bullets, it not only leads to a really cramped and hard-to-read slide, but it also encourages putting too much text into each slide.
Please don’t do it like the slide on the left. Do it like the slide on the right. If you don’t have any hierarchy, it’s fine to have a single bulleted list. But if you need a level of sub-indentation, make your top-level text unbulleted. Avoid nested bullets. Next time you see a slide like this, try to mentally take a step back and see if the slide would have been better without the unnecessary structure.
Avoid Most “Slide Builds”
Fancy slideshow programs have a bunch of features like transitions, effects, and the feature I’ve come to dread the most: builds, or “stepping slides.” These are slides that progressively add items to a single slide, making it appear one item at a time. From long experience, I’ve learned that this is usually a cause for regret.
Here’s just one scenario I’ve seen play out in real life many times: someone asks “hey, can you go back to that previous slide?” The speaker rewinds, but the initial view of the slide doesn’t have the content they wanted, so they have to advance the slide a bunch of times to make it show the content the question was about. And then they accidentally fumble, and advance one bullet point too much and go to the next slide, and then have to rewind and try again.
There are other ways I’ve seen this turn into a fail. Among other things, I find that I’m usually a lot more nervous and less skilled at speaking to a slide that’s gradually appearing, because I’m not sure I remember exactly what comes next, and I speak to content I haven’t shown yet, and so on.
It’s often better, in my experience, to break apart those “stepping slides” into one slide per bullet, each without the distraction of the other content. Sometimes a slide that builds one point at a time is a good thing, but more often it’s a bad thing.
Use Lots of Whitespace, Pictures, and Graphics
It’s oft-mentioned that if you put too much text onto a slide, the audience will stare at the slide instead of listening to you speak. This is so true, and it’s a great reason to break apart long slides. I actually like to turn slides with many points into many slides with one point each, as I mentioned. But then the anxiety sets in: that slide looks so empty!
That’s okay. First, a generous amount of whitespace, and large font sizes, is a great thing. Embrace that. Next, fill the space with a picture from a free stock photo site like Unsplash or Pixabay. You’ll be amazed at the way audiences glance at the slide, appreciate its feeling and vibe, and then turn to you instead.
I also like to use graphics to replace text as much as possible. Instead of talking about things, I like to demonstrate them with charts and diagrams. Think of it this way: if you have to explain a chart with text, you probably haven’t made the chart clear enough. So, perhaps, show a chart of revenue growing 30%, and then add text with detail about international vs. domestic and all that stuff.
In many cases you can also use color to help orient and frame what’s going on. For example, I’ve used a thick colored border along the left edge of slides to indicate what “chapter” of the deck we’re in. I once built a business presentation using color-coded sales, marketing, product, and so forth on a table-of-contents slide. Then I introduced each section with a full slide of that color, with white centered text labeling what section it was. And finally, each slide within that section had the thick lefthand border of the same color. I’ve used that technique a few times to good effect.
A slideshow is, above all, a document that should help you use multimedia to tell a story. You should be narrating the deck, and the deck should be reinforcing your narrative. The deck should also carry your message for you if you’re not there to deliver it in person, as for example when it’s forwarded on to someone else.
Focus on the story. Give the story room to breathe. Lead with the takeaways, waste no words on passive elements, and don’t cramp the audience’s mind.
For more advice on presentations, I can’t recommend too highly the following books by Nancy Duarte: Resonate and slide:ology.