4 slide design tips to elevate your next presentation

Simple, clear visuals and supplemental text elements enhance your message rather than overwhelming your audience. Consider these suggestions for your next talk.

A terrific presentation depends in large part on smart slide design.

To create great presentation slides, consider the human attention span.

Picture yourself arriving at the last presentation you attended. You were probably one of many and could melt into the crowd; you were interested but preoccupied. You had a phone in your pocket, a to-do list in your head and your next meal on your mind.

The presenter was vulnerable. In the next few moments, she could captivate you—or lose you with a barrage of information.

Studies show that humans don’t multitask effectively; instead, we switch our attention rapidly between tasks. Multitasking gets in the way of productivity, decreasing efficiency by as much as 40 percent.

MIT neuroscientist Earl Miller explains: “People can’t multitask very well, and when people say they can, they’re deluding themselves.”

Couple that with our collective shrinking attention span, and it’s hard to connect with a crowd and make an impact. Despite being distractible, we’re also predictable, and there are several reliable ways to capture and keep our attention.

Let’s focus on using layout and design to grab your audience’s attention and guide it through your presentation story, so your message is broadcast clearly. According to Nancy Duarte, in her book “Resonate,” the best slides communicate a single idea and are highly audience-specific, have a consistent visual style and arrange the elements thoughtfully. Thankfully, you can test most of this with a tool called “the glance test.” These lessons apply whether you’re designing PowerPoint or Keynote slides or presenting slides from the back of a napkin.

The ‘glance test’

People can’t multitask effectively, meaning audiences cannot simultaneously read your dense, bullet-riddled slides and listen to you and understand what you mean. Thus, your slide should function like a billboard.

We call this “glance media.” The audience should be able to quickly (in three seconds or less) grasp the meaning of the slide before turning back to the presenter.

Think of your slides as a radio transmission: There’s the signal, and then there’s noise. Your signal/message is susceptible to interference, which can distort the communication and diminish the audience’s ability to discern meaning and intent.

The “glance test” helps you quantify slides’ effectiveness by calculating their signal-to-noise ratio. It focuses on:

  • singularity of the message
  • audience relevance
  • clarity of visual elements
  • data presented
  • helpfulness of diagrams
  • arrangement
  • animation(s) used

Before you present, evaluate each slide using the above criteria. If an attribute diminishes the slide’s clarity, fill in the “noise” bubble; if the attribute augments the meaning, fill in the “signal” bubble. Total up each column—the higher the signal, the clearer the slide. Rework any items that contribute to the noise.

To create slides that pass the “glance test,” focus on these aspects:

1. Slides that communicate a single idea

Remember your ultimate goal: making information easy to digest and understand. Trying to say too much will confuse your audience. Restraint is crucial:

  • Know your big idea—the goal of the presentation, the controlling idea, the gist, the takeaway, the thesis statement. Every bit of content should support this larger mission.
  • Limit yourself to one idea per slide. Break up complicated, multifaceted concepts on separate slides, and direct the audience to focus on key messages and data. If the information doesn’t support your big idea, kill it.

2. Slides your audience cares about

Every piece of information you’re presenting should speak to your audiences’ needs, concerns and fears. You want to build trust, establish emotional connections, and anticipate their questions and their resistance. Keep a persona slide, and refer to it as you’re editing the others.

3. Simple slides with a consistent visual style

When you strip out extraneous elements (excess text, graphics, animation) audiences learn from those messages more effectively, so put a premium on simplicity. Rather than adding elements to a slide for aesthetic purposes, ask yourself whether there’s a good reason to include a given element. If not, then it shouldn’t be there.

Stick to a consistent visual style throughout. Use the same typeface (or two), the same color palette, and photographs shot in the same style. That way, audience members don’t have to process new or unexpected visual elements, and they can focus on your message.

4. Thoughtful arrangement and layout

In creating your slides, pay special attention to how you arrange elements. Doing so haphazardly can obscure your meaning and confuse the audience. Key on these elements:

  • Flow: Think about how viewers’ eyes will move around a slide. They might notice the biggest and brightest elements first, then move to other elements.
  • Contrast: Human eyes are drawn to things that stand out, so use contrast (size, shape, color, proximity) to focus the audience’s attention.
  • White space: Include a healthy amount of open space around a slide’s items of interest to isolate the important elements and sharpen viewers’ focus.

Your presentations should appeal to your audience, communicate simply and clearly, and offer slides that inform and move audiences to action.

Catrinel Bartolomeu is head of editorial for Duarte. A version of this article first appeared on Duarte.com.

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