One of my very good friends, Ross Fisher, states that every great talk has three core components: the story, the supportive media, and the delivery. One could argue that all three components are equally important for impactful presentations, but I find that many have trouble with their supportive media. Sometimes they try to cram too much information onto a single slide. Other times they unwittingly use distracting fonts or employ random, low quality pictures that draw attention away from the speaker’s key message. The good news is that this can be fixed. Here are four tips that I use in creating my supportive media and can hopefully help you with developing yours.
Tip #1: Don’t Kill Your Audience with BulletPoints
If you learn nothing else from this post, remember this tip: DO NOT use bullet points in your presentation. It is impossible for the audience to read and listen at the same time. A person can task switch, but cannot multitask, therefore if they are reading your slides, they are not listening to you. Instead, try to find a single image that encompasses the main message of your slide, then use your actual voice to fill in the blanks. Pictures can be very impactful and indeed “worth a thousand words.”
Relatedly, I would recommend, whenever possible, to use high-resolution images. There is nothing worse than having to look at fuzzy images while a presenter speaks. At first glance, it may seem difficult to find high-resolution images that are free, but here’s a list of sites (in my descending order of preference) that offer just that:
Tip #2: Empty Space is Your Friend
One of the keys to finding the perfect picture for your message is to look for pictures with a decent amount of empty space, especially if you intend to use words on your slide. This is truly one of those “less is more” concepts. Empty space can help to emphasize visual aspects of your slides in a very powerful way. The more ‘stuff’ on a slide, the more diluted and less effective the message of your graphic will be. Take the two images below, for example – while the first isn’t terrible, the second is less visually cluttered and the key message is easier to comprehend at a glance.
Tip#3: Boost Your Signal
You’ve heard of separating signal from noise – pro tip: you wan’t more signal, less noise. And with respect to slide design, if it doesn’t help to get your message across, then it’s noise. This is a simple one. As presentation guru Garr Reynolds says in his book Presentation Zen: “amplification through simplification.” There should be nothing random on a slide; if it’s there, make sure it’s there for a reason.
Tip#4: Redo Data
If there’s one thing that bothers me most in presentations, it’s this: the insertion of data tables in slides. Often times you’ll see snapshots of random tables taken from article PDF filled with rows of numbers, p-values, and confidence intervals, occasionally accompanied by the quote, “As you can clearly see from the data.”
NO! NO I CAN’T CLEARLY SEE FROM THE DATA! BECAUSE I’M TRYING TO LISTEN TO YOU TALK!
Don’t do this. Please. Don’t just take screenshots of PDFs and put red boxes around them and expect your audience to understand what you mean. Instead, try to redo the data in an aesthetically pleasing and simplistic way so that the audience can appreciate your message. If you feel like your audience really needs to see the raw data, try using a handout, sending them an email, or putting up an accompanying blogpost so that they can look at it in a more appropriate context.
These are just a few of the tactics I employ to improve my presentations, and a full discussion of slide design is well beyond the scope of this post. (Shameless plug: if this kind of stuff interests you, come to #TTCAlcatraz and sign up for Haney Mallemat’s Keynotable preconference sessions.) But try using a couple of these things on some of your old presentations or when developing new ones. By using deliberate practice and dedicating yourself to constant and never-ending improvement, you too can vastly improve the quality of your presentations. You need to work at it. Commit to using these principles every single time. Only then will you be able to realize your presentation skill potential. Aristotle may have put it best:
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.”