Ingredients for a good presentation deck

Presentation slides are something given such import and focus with millions of humans around the world labouring over the construction of these carriers of content on the daily. It is so engrained in our lives that almost any gathering, and certainly work meeting, you’d be feeling naked without ‘the deck’. From celebrating a life at your family member’s wake, to outlining your plans for world domination, it is an opportunity to convince, compel, win hearts and minds with an idea or story, and is expected in almost every setting. Like wearing trousers, there would be a noticeable sense of exposure, or lacking if rocking up to ‘the big meet’ without visual aids. So why is it, with a Keynote or PPT such an instinctual expectation – essentially part of our professional nervous system – they are so often horrible?

I have been creating, and delivering presentations and pitches for a long time, so it is something I notice quickly when sitting through someone else’s. It really shouldn’t be hard to stick to the principles of great presentation building. Putting delivery to one side, the mechanics of your slide deck really can be broken down to some basic fundamental rules to ensure your audience remains engaged, and that their toes don’t curl because information is being displayed so impenetrably.

I was pitching to work with a great organisation recently and felt motivated to share some of the content along with thoughts on what I feel makes or breaks a good visual presentation; mainly because I have this insight rattling around in my head and it’s nice to feel useful to people, or at least not be alone in aiming for a ‘levelling-up’ in how the world communicates with each other, even in this perfunctory corner of creative communication. The focus of the content is something I profoundly believe in  (making the case for design thinking and embedding user-centred co-design practices in all realms of project development whether it be service design, product design, or authentic brand development and strategy), but this just felt like a decent opportunity to reflect again on the value of presenting information well, with clarity, simplicity and impact, and in fact these same principles extend out into every communication design format as well.

Flicking through the gallery above you will see excerpts from my presentation document (with some proprietary information slides removed), and you should see the following five rules at work:

  • Rule one, quite conveniently here – since it is the subject of the case study presentation – is to put your audience at the centre. Put yourself in their shoes when choosing how to assemble your content. What do they really need to know/see? Where will they be viewing this? How large will the screen be? Will you be in the room or not? How big is the space, and what kind of viewing distance or range will people have? How long do you have to talk and expand on information? All of these questions need to be answered before you even open your slide-building tool of choice.
  • Rule two, which addresses a lot of the above considerations, don’t place content below a minimum size, especially text (which varies depending on viewing distance from a screen of course), this is usually in the range of 24-32pt text. If you have too many words, break it over more slides, or simply cut because there is no point cramming in that ‘simply must have’ content in ever smaller rows of text if nobody can read it.
  • Rule three, following directly on, don’t put too much into any one slide. Edit, edit, edit. Let your key information or thoughts breath and land without distraction. If you have paragraphs and paragraphs of text-based info to report, perhaps an actual report in document form is the appropriate medium, not a slide show. Literally no-one is going to have patience for you if you stand there and read off a screen. This should be obvious because, what is the point in even being there? The content of a slide deck is not a script for the presenter – your audience could just read it for themselves in their own time. The slide deck is a visual aid to support your expansion on a topic, not a replacement for, or duplication of your efforts. It is also kind of a bad look, that you maybe don’t have the authority or expertise on what you are saying… because if ALL of the information is up there, I could literally be a monkey in a bow-tie and deliver the same show.
  • Rule four, it is a visual platform. Take time to select appropriate, and engaging imagery to support the concepts you are discussing. Also, it helps to break up the monotony of words on screen, and the words you are saying. Studies show that within half an hour of leaving a presentation, most people with have let go of 50% of what went down. A day later this drops to 25%, and by the end of the week about 10% remains. Similarly, only around 10% of text-based content will be retained in the  first place, whereas a combined visual element to the text bumps the likely-hood of remembering key points to 65% or more, and for a much longer timeframe. I always like to use break slides too, to help compartmentalise areas of information, and get a breather between sections (if a more complex presentation), but also to create some rhythm, a bitesized sense of progression, and some visual punctuation.
  • Rule five, (kind of a back-to-fronter as it could be rule one) you are telling a story. Even when that story is a quarterly sales update, you should follow the arc of any traditional narrative; to have a beginning, middle and end, with the requisite peaks and troughs of emotional or sensory punctuation…. In other words, set the scene, establish your characters (key findings), set them amidst their struggle/or purpose, take us along on their journey encountering their pitfalls (big numbers, big moments, evocative images/graphics), and bring us home with their resolution, tying-up what they set out to accomplish (recommendations/ projections/ etc.)…

Limiting your slides to short key messages, facts, top-line figures, with accompanying graphic elements, and being prepared to speak confidently to your audience beyond the onscreen content rather than reading off your slides is going to go such a long way in getting people to engage, or ideally enjoy their time with you, which will lead to maximum impact.

How you prepare your delivery and  ‘what to say’ is a whole other thing and we all have preferred methods for that, but personally I don’t believe in a super rigid script. I know, it is often insisted ‘stick to the script’, but this really applies more to situations of extreme emotive, legal or political sensitivity. Of course having specific, and well-rehearsed details, info points and structure is essential, but for sure if you actually know intimately what you are delivering, and care about it, it should be possible to take the queues from your on screen key messages and comfortably riff on the background detail or context. Especially in those moments of vertigo where you might have a psynapse misfire and lose your place, or forget a piece of your planned speech (happens to everyone). So developing comfort with this approach is practical, but on top of that there are huge amounts of trust and buy-in to be earned from listening to someone speaking naturally, genuinely, and not obviously running line-by-line through a pre-fab script.

I may return to edit this somewhat, but in the mean time here endeth the sermon.