3 ways to create better presentation slides

When presenters rely too much on slides, audiences get bored. Here’s how to keep your visuals helpful and engaging.

Are you in the habit of outlining your presentation within your slides?

If so, when you plan your slide deck’s content, you can easily fall into a trap.

I’m talking about the tendency of too many presenters to cram loads of content on each slide, and to continue to speak in front of a slide for which the content has already been covered. It’s as if your thinking was “Let’s leave no slide space uncovered. Let’s be sure that a content slide is viewed at all times, whether it’s relevant to what I’m saying right now or not.”

But that would be to assume this is a strategy. I find a lot of clients haven’t given any thought to spacing out their content so that the audience has a prayer of absorbing it. It’s the slide equivalent of talking really, really fast. Jam in the info! Keep going! No pauses to think!

That might benefit the nervous speaker who’s just trying to get through the presentation. Maybe. But it won’t benefit you if the audience can’t take away anything meaningful. Try these three ways to space out your slide content instead:

1. Declutter individual slides.

A good rule is one thought per slide—but not one slide per thought. Think about that for a minute. In other words, some thoughts should be expressed orally, but not on a slide. And no slide should have 3, 5 or 10 thoughts crowded together. Let us consider each of the thoughts in your presentation on their own. This, more than anything, will help you declutter slides. Yes, you may end up with more slides, which is a different issue. But at least, then, we will be able to follow them.

2. Differentiate your narration from the visuals.

A rule of thumb often used in TED talks is avoiding the verbal repetition of the words on the slide—otherwise known as “don’t read it to me.” A common example would be quotations. If you wish to display the utterances of Albert Einstein or Mother Teresa, go right ahead. But don’t also read them to us. Your audience can read, and we’d rather do that while you explain the significance of this quote to your thesis. You may find that going through a draft presentation with this rule in mind helps you to eliminate slides. It also means you can’t use your slides as cue cards, a tactic to which your audience is savvy.

3. Move to a slide without content when you’re done with the previous slide.

So many business presenters hang on one slide until they are ready for the next bit of content—but long after what’s on this slide has been covered. A better solution? A “blank” slide, devoid of content, against which you will simply be speaking. This means your audience won’t have to multitask. Instead, the focus will be on what you are saying, right where you want it.

If you’ve been doing this with black or white slides already, take another step and make your “blank” slide a graphic pattern like the one below. It’s pleasant to view, but won’t compete with your words—and it’s less jarring a switch, visually. Your slide template can easily be adjusted to use one of the full-slide background patterns for this purpose.

If you’re adjusting to this approach, practice is the key, particularly if slides have been your cue cards. Once you’re comfortable with this, however, you’ll find your presentations more engaging and effective.

Take a look at this good example of a clean, clear talk by psychiatrist and mindfulness researcher Judson Brewer, one of the speakers I had the pleasure of working with at TEDMED 2015. You’ll see a good mix of thoughts disconnected from slides, clear technical slides, and “blank” slides that use a pattern that isn’t a big break from the format.

Denise Graveline is a Washington, D.C.-based speaker coach who has coached more than 140 speakers for TEDMED or TEDx talks. A version of this article first appeared on her blog, The Eloquent Woman.

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