"There are no boring subjects just boring story tellers," says David Hieatt of Hiut Jeans when we ask him about better presentations.
We’ve all been there.
It is absolutely soul crushing to see.
Whether it’s at a conference event, a training workshop or an internal meeting, the person who’s presenting has either put zero effort into their slides or they’ve just missed out on some really obvious ways to improve their presentation.
And then it dawns on you: if I’m thinking this about their slides.
Then are they thinking the same thing about my slides?
Don’t worry, we’re here to help. As well as having seen literally thousands of slideshows across loads of different industries and any kind of meeting format you can imagine, we’re also pros at presentations ourselves.
In fact, Steve, one of our co-founders even ran an event where the whole evening centred around great slideshows.
In this post, I’ll share the exact system that I use for designing slides and walk you through it step by step. Along the way, I’ll give you some easy to use ideas for how you can level up your presentation slides and also share some advice from experts like Rob Fitzpatrick and our very own Steve Dimmick.
Side note: While I’ve got your attention, have you considered adding a live audience vote to your next presentation? It’s a brilliant way of keeping them engaged, making your presentation more memorable and generally adding value. Surprise, surprise, being a live survey tool, we can help you with that. Find out more and get started for free here.
Ready to talk slides? Let’s go!
In this post:
Consider your goals
There are two major mistakes that almost everyone makes with their presentations and I’m going to deal with them before we even get into how to design better slides.
The first major mistake is that people don’t think about what they need to give and get from the presentation they’re going to deliver.
What do I mean by that?
It’s easy: an audience of school children who have come to hear you talk about your experience of being a marketing executive don’t care about your company’s corporate strategy. So don’t spend the first ten minutes of your presentation talking about it!
I cannot tell you the number of presentations I have watched where people have done this exact thing or variations of it.
It’s just so easy to avoid.
"You know that pop up that says proof of humanity? Tick that box. And you do that by stop talking about perfect you are. Vulnerability is strength," says David Hieatt of Hiut Denim on this exact topic.
Before you even think about what you’re going to put on your slides, ask yourself the following questions: who am I going to be speaking to?
You don’t need to get overly specific. But think about the kinds of people who are going to be in the audience.
So you’re delivering a presentation to procurement managers about your new software product. Great! Do they already know what your product does? Have they got experience of using similar products?
These things matter.
Equally, if you’re delivering a presentation to marketing executives about customer discovery, it’s highly likely they’re already subject matter experts. Make sure that you think about where they may have specific gaps in their knowledge on the subject.
The saying ‘you’re playing to the wrong audience’ is never truer than when you’re actually planning to present to an audience. Make sure you know who they are.
Don’t know who’s attending? Give the person who organised the presentation/workshop/event a quick buzz on the phone and ask for their input. They’ll be more than happy to give 10 mins of their time if it means the difference between you delivering a standout keynote or a pumpernickel-dry tour of your various ‘ramblings’.
BTW – don’t be the person who admits that they haven’t put any thought into their presentations. It’s an instant turn off to the audience and you’ll lose their attention right away.
The second question you should be able to answer before designing your presentation: what do I need to get and give here?
A presentation is a wonderful opportunity. It’s a moment when you can create huge value for your audience but also where you can receive payback from them in the form of business leads and respect in your industry.
Too many presenters neglect this and focus purely on the message they’ve been asked to give.
To avoid this mistake, be clear in your own mind (or even better, at the top of a piece of paper with a pen) what the outcome you want for your attendees is and the outcome you want for yourself is.
Want them to come away with a solid understanding of how they can solve a specific problem that everyone in their industry faces in the next 12 months? That’s a brilliant outcome.
Are you looking to upsell attendees your event a service? What’s the service? Why do they need it? How does it align to your goal for them that you just defined above.
Write it all down. Make sure that what you produce at the end of your work aligns to that.
Save yourself hours: sketch out your structure first
The second major and entirely avoidable problem that people run into when they’re designing a presentation is that they don’t have a clue where they’re going with the thing.
How does this happen?
I have watched countless people design presentations directly in their slideshow software. Whether it’s PowerPoint, Keynote, Google Slides, Prezi or whatever new tool comes around, they will never help you solve this fundamental issue: you’re probably not as sure about what you need to say as you think you are.
The result is that people end up with poorly defined messages in their slides. And more than that it’s you end up wasting people’s time and your opportunity.
Avoiding this problem is incredibly simple. Here’s how you do it:
Instead of diving right into your slide show software, open up a text document. I like to use Dropbox Paper because it is a simple browser based text editor with barely any formatting options so it keeps my thoughts clean and in order. You can use whatever you’re comfortable with.
At the top of the document, write the title of your presentation
Below that write the answer to the two questions above – Who am I going to be speaking to? What do I need to get and give here? Here’s what my document looks like at this stage:
Then, with all of that in mind, turn on bullet points
Type your major messages, one per line – you can probably deliver 1 major message in 5-10 minutes. So if your presentation is 30 minutes long, you can deliver 3-6 main messages. Here’s what I added to my document as an example:
Below each major message, press ‘Tab’ so that you get a sub-bullet point
Now write the important supporting points for each of your major messages, one per line – there’s no rule of thumb to how many you can do here. Try to keep these points to a single sentence though. After doing that, here’s what my document looks like:
Ensure that every line furthers your audience’s understanding of the major messages.
It really is that simple to design a presentation’s narrative. And now, even better, you’ve got a draft of the exact slides you’re going to need.
Order your slides with simple text
Now’s the moment of glory. It’s time to start designing.
Well, it’s almost time to start designing.
Before you do that, open up your chosen presentation software (I have a strong preference for Keynote – but I realise that it’s Mac only so use whatever you prefer) and paste in each of your major points onto a new slide.
I prefer to have only a title on each slide and there’s good reason for that as we’ll discuss later. Here’s how that might look for a presentation on developing a strategy for business growth through surveying customers:
Notice that I have used the default settings for design. I have not changed so much as a font size.
That is the goal.
Now that you have the major points, you can begin to add in slides between each of those. I usually indent the slides in my slide navigator (the bar on the left hand side of the screen) to ensure that I don’t forget the major points in my presentations.
At this point, it wouldn’t be a bad practice to just do the exact same step as above for all of the points you made a sub-bullet points in your text document. Here’s my slides after I did this:
Advice from Workshop Survival Guide co-author Rob Fitzpatrick
We asked Rob Fitzpatrick, Author of The Mom Test and more relevant to this post co-author of The Workshop Survival Guide what the biggest missed opportunities were when designing slides for lectures/topical presentations as well as for smaller workshop settings.
Here’s what he said:
“The biggest missed opportunity for lecture slides is in hiding the important stuff. This can happen in so many ways.
With weak slide titles
- Bad titles are placeholders which carry no information, such as: ‘Sales 101’ or ‘The secret of sales’
- Good titles carry the most important message: ‘Begin every sale by learning, not pitching’ or ‘The best salespeople talk the least’
With too many low-value slides taking time and focus away the crucial ones, which hides the gold amongst the weeds.
With slides which are too focused on story-telling, narrative, jokes, and flavor at the cost of clearly presenting the learning outcomes.
On the other hand, the biggest misses for workshop slides are:
Writing them in a way which forces the audience to ask a series of predictable clarifying questions, wasting both the attendee's time and your attention while you answer questions which could have been preempted with a better slide.
Failing to use a gradual reveal of instructions, which causes folks to "jump ahead" and distract themselves before you're finished with crucial foundations such as forming groups or fully explaining the exercise”
Rob’s brilliant advice is a great taster of his work with Devin Hunt on their book The Workshop Survival guide which I fully recommend you read if you’re designing a workshop. More information on the book including links to buy it (do it!) are here.
Bonus: Here is an amazing slide show that Rob and Devin created to help people make better slide shows (Inception!)
Obvious design mistakes that are easy to avoid
So now that we’ve got the basic structure of our presentation (you did follow the steps above, didn’t you?), we can get to doing some design.
Most people enjoy a bit of design work. But, the reality is, most people also go overboard with design when actually it doesn’t need much doing when it’s done well. Visual design of slides is about maintaining the audience’s attention while you’re talking rather than making you look edgy or cool.
So here’s a couple of things you can do to better support your presentation with easy to implement visual design tips.
One idea per slide
Look, you’re not having to pay a printer here. Slides on a piece of software are free (and if you’re using software that charges you by number of slides, why are you doing that?!).
Keep every single slide helpful and clear by making sure that you only include one idea on each.
To illustrate this, here’s an example of what not to do from my presentation above.
There is no reason for this to not be two slides. Remember: the goal here is to use slides to support the content of the presentation. You don’t need the slides to talk for themselves – that’s what you’re there for.
Every time you include more than one idea on a slide, a person listening to you has to spend an extra chunk of time digesting the content of your slide. And that means that they’re not listening to you.
Instead, use a sequence of clear, straightforward slides each with a single message on it.
Bullet points make people yawn
Probably the most common advice people give about slides is to remove bullet points.
Here’s some contrary advice: occasionally, bullet points are great. They can help you break a complex subject down into an easily digestible series of ‘information nuggets’
But they so often go wrong too. Here’s an example of a slide where that has happened:
Don’t do this. It is incredibly distracting.
If this looks like some of your presentations in the past, I can give you an instant fix. Cut all that bullet pointed text out of your slide.
Then paste it into your presenter notes. It doesn’t matter whether you’re using the software’s own presenter notes, or you’ve got some kind of script going on in a document.
Here’s what I do:
Then when I’m presenting, if I get lost, I can refer to my presenter notes. Most software packages for slideshow making have something like this in them.
Don’t right align text – it makes it more difficult to read
It baffles me every time that I see it, but it happens with alarming frequency: people who right align text in a language which is meant to be read left to right.
Example? Right this way:
I have literally no idea why people do it.
Why is this so bad?
Well, when you left align text, in a language which is meant to be read left-to-right, your eye always has a reliable place to go back to when it moves down one line. That’s because everything is neatly lined up in a straight column on the left hand side.
Right aligning text removes that completely and decreases comprehension significantly for the majority of people.
Instead, when you right align text as in the image above, you are asking a person to read to a predictable point (i.e. a straight right hand end) and then have their brain process a move downwards and to find the start of the next line at the same time.
This might not sound like a huge problem, but many people will have a difficult time reading your slide.
Brains are weird but it’s easier to change the alignment of your text than to ask your attendees to redesign their brains.
Advice from doopoll co-founder Steve Dimmick
This advice comes from Steve Dimmick. Steve’s a co-founder at doopoll but used to run Ignite Cardiff – an insanely popular event (selling out in minutes every time) where presenters share an idea they’re interested in with automatically timed slides.
Do your research
Present something different. Something nobody knows about. Not just a spin on someone else’s work
If you don’t believe in what you’re presenting, why will your audience?
Mess up fearlessly
People almost never get a talk perfect. Only you know what you plan to say; so don’t freak out if you miss something or get things out of order.
Use big text
How frequently have you been to an event where someone has put tiny text on their slides? My experience is that the aesthetic of small text appears particularly attractive to people who grew up in the 90s.
But it’s really poor design and not very considerate of your audience. Consider the following slide:
Even in a room of only 5-10 people, the bottom text is difficult to read. How big is that? 20pt.
And then the next line up? That’s probably ok for a room of 10 but when there’s 20 people in the room, the back row is really going to struggle to read it. That text is set in 60pt type.
The top line? SIMPLE because it’s flipping massive. To be honest, I have a preference for a larger font size. This one is 110pt.
If you’re struggling to fit text onto your slide at 110pt, then you’re probably putting too much text on the slide.
Use a simple font
Everyone hates on Comic Sans. But look how simple it is:
And using a simple font is such a basic way to improve things in your slideshows.
Because it provokes such vitriolic reactions, you could try a different font to Comic Sans. I really love any of the following:
- Futura (Extra bold is my favourite. Like my personality ;))
Whatever you do, don’t use a font that will make it difficult for a person to read your slides from a distance.
Here is a slide which uses Brush Script. It is the worst. So hard to read.
There’s no need to use an image
How many times have you seen this in a presentation?
Too many to count.
Are images bad? No! Not at all.
In fact, images are a fantastic way of communicating a message as long as they are well chosen images.
If you must include an image, make it a single, good image.
Generally, clip art is not a good fit for a serious presentation. A photograph tells a much better story.
Avoid cliched images like white people shaking hands in a business deal. Asides from being horrifically exclusionary, it doesn’t do anything to move your audience to a place of enhanced understanding.
Here’s an example of a slideshow that I did for a presentation on ‘emotional resilience for entrepreneurs’.
The message I was getting across in this slide was that when things get tough, it’s natural and OK to cry. What’s a good image for illustrating this? A beautiful high impact photo of a pool overflowing into an ocean!
It’s visually interesting, grabs the audiences’ attention and makes the text that I overlaid 100% memorable.
If you’re in any doubt as to whether your image is a good one, just leave it out. Let your audience’s brains do the work. They’ll be better at imagining what you’re talking about than any image you can show them.
Simple typography can help you illustrate points very well
Typography is often a better choice than an image. Take our slide above with the handshakes as an example.
It looked rubbish because it didn’t communicate the idea which was (referring back to my notes on who I’m talking to):
"They know that they want better revenue and lower customer acquisition costs, but to date, all the strategies that they’ve used to achieve that have been superficial. They probably won’t have implemented a customer survey strategy before but they’ll definitely be interested because the outcomes for companies that do this are clearly aligned with their own interests."
A handshake does nothing but make people expect your presentation to be another stuff corporate presentation. Attention diverts to their phones.
Instead, look how we could use a simple bit of typography to convey the message of business growth through surveying customers:
That took me about 1 minute to design.
All I did was separate the word ‘grow’ into a new text box and then make it a much larger size? Why does that work? Because LARGER = GROWTH.
Sure, I added a simple splash of colour for balance. That rectangle doesn’t do anything than make the reader’s eye focus on the great big GROW underneath it.
Here’s an example of another slide I designed for a presentation for an event. I was telling a specific story about how the tables had turned in a country’s history.
To do that, I grabbed a line from my speech.
Then I pasted it upside down (because, you know, reversal), and inverted the colours of the background and text to show how different things were pre-post the ‘economic reversal’.
Simple typography is one of the best tools you can use for communicating a point.
Here are some more examples from other presentations I have designed. These are all from presentations where the storytelling is the main point and so they support the narrative.
This one was about Billy Beane and the Oakland A’s – the subject of the amazing Moneyball. I was trying to convey that Billy Beane’s repetitive advice was ‘just get on base’ and that everyone was fed up of hearing him say it.
This one’s from a presentation about the tragic story of how the Dalmatian language died out when its last living speaker was killed in an explosion as he was walking down the street one day.
Pretty straightforward but putting the word BANG in massive type and adding a brightly coloured explanation mark amplifies the idea significantly.
How to choose colours for your slideshow
All through my life, people have asked me whether I can see colour correctly. I still do not know. But I have worked hard to get better at picking colours over the last 5-6 years.
Previously, I used the colour #ff00cc for every single thing. What does that look like? EXTREMELY bright.
Colours don’t need to be complicated or incredibly bold.
In fact, there are good reasons why you should tone it down. That neon pink I used to be so fond of, for example, wasn’t able to be projected by a normal projector. It messed with my slides.
Also, it really hurts peoples eyes to see colour combinations like this.
I won’t bore you with a bunch of research about colour theory here (mostly because it’s still a bit of a mystery to me.) but I want to give you a couple of useful tips for picking colours that I have learned and used myself for the past several years.
Steal from other people
One of the ways that I got better at picking colours was by picking them directly out of other people’s work.
How do I do this?
I installed a colour picker on my laptop. I use Sip but you can use whatever you prefer.
Then I generally go to Behance and scroll for a while.
When I find something I like, I grab the major colours from it for my own presentation.
Every slideshow builder will have a place where you can put in hex codes (the six digit sequence which tells a computer what colour to display).
Then I use that for designing my colour palette.
Alternatively, if you don’t have time for that, here’s a link to Tobias van Schneider’s swatches page. It contains a whole bunch of really nice colour combinations that you can use right away. For example:
Don’t use too many colours
Nice and easy: As a rule of thumb you don’t need more than 3 colours on any one slide.
And it’s even better if you can have 2.
Doing so will help you really focus the audience on your slides.
If in doubt, use black and white
I can’t get more basic than this. If you have any doubts about your ability to pick and use colour, just let your message doing the talking with black text on a white background.
It is a classic and is perfectly acceptable.
Would your slides be better with funny images?
Honestly, and I want you to know that I mean this with the best will in the world, you’re probably not as funny as you think you are.
It’s not personal. It’s an objective reality.
Here are some relevant questions to ask yourself whenever you want to include a funny image:
- Is this image here to serve me or my audience?
- Could the same effect be accomplished with a neat bit of typography?
- What would the effect be if this went down badly?
BTW – men think they’re funnier than women, but actually it turns out to be proven wrong by research. Or not, depends which study you read.
Rules are there to be broken
Sometimes it’s better to break the rules
As an example: this is a slide I designed for a presentation I gave at an event on the theme of friendship.
This image for example, is made to make people laugh. There is a comic element to the image that fits perfectly with the text on the slide.
You instantly get the message: I don’t have that many friends as an adult, but also, that doesn’t feel too sad.
The image supports the point perfectly.
And BTW – this one did get a lot of laughs, but that wasn’t the point.
Bring the audience into the presentation with a live poll
We’re almost done with our presentation. But I just want to throw a curveball here.
Your presentation is probably quite good if you’ve followed all of the things that we just shared in this article.
You’ve covered off the structure and message, and your slides should now look relatively simple but ultimately very good.
But I wonder if you’ve given a thought to how the audience might be wanting to interact with you. After all, they’ve got valuable insights to contribute and talking to them for 20 minutes or 30 minutes at a time, you can expect a little boredom to seep in.
One way to avoid that boredom and keep their attention firmly fixed on something useful (how often have you lost your crowd to social media or emails?), is to bring them into the presentation with live voting.
A real time survey at your event can help maintain an audience member's attention by constantly bringing them back into the conversation and giving them something useful to do with the phone in their hands.
Engaged audiences will enjoy your carefully planned event more, leave feeling that it was dynamic and tell their colleagues that they should attend the next event you hold.
Using doopoll you can:
- Make it super easy for your audience to join your live survey – with doopoll there's no app to download!
- Display real time results on a big screen designed for live event usage
- Add questions as you go without needing participants to refresh their screens
How to make this work for you
- Create a simple survey to use at your event – doopoll's question editor will have you up and running with your completed survey in less than 2 minutes.
- Put the presenter view of your survey on the big screen at your event – this is designed to be highly legible and will show the results in real time as your audience votes
- Give your audience the instructions to join the survey – the presenter view has a 'Vote Link' slide on it that should mean you don't need to do anything more than show the slide. Remember that there's no app to download - just open a browser window.
- Add new questions in response to the conversation happening on the stage – audience members will be notified that there's a new question to answer and will be able to take part in real time.