The Two Most Important Questions in Presentation Design

Just a few short weeks into my first “real” job, I got the worst presentation advice I’ve ever gotten. Many of us have heard this familiar adage:

Never more than 5 bullet points, never more than 5 words per bullet point.

Now that bullet points have become somewhat passé, the more modern take on this old dictum is the “photo slide”: a full-frame photo coupled with a single stat or quote usually pared down to a caveman-like dearth of syllables. This minimal approach can be great for some types of presentations, but falls short on many occasions: its just not possible to go into a board meeting with nothing but pretty pictures and pithy quotes.

A far more useful rule is this advice from Albert Einstein:

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not one bit simpler.

Extreme brevity can be just as harmful to a slide as extreme verbosity, and the right balance varies quite a bit by the purpose of your presentation.

Before crafting a presentation, you should sit down and ask yourself two important questions:

How dense does the information in my presentation need to be to completely convey my message?

An Inconvenient Truth vs. The iPad Keynote

The easiest way to think about information density is by example. A great example of a high information density presentation is Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. In contrast, Steve Jobs’ famous product launches, like the iPhone and iPad keynotes, are great examples of low information density presentations.

The difference in these two cases is not the richness or effectiveness of the presentation, but rather how much data needs to be conveyed in order for the audience to believe and act on the message.

Appealing to Reason vs. Appealing to Emotion

Ultimately, information density is often determined by how you want your audience to process your message. If you want to appeal to your audience’s sense of reason, then you’ll likely need to walk your audience through the facts in the same way that Al Gore guided his audience through the scientific rationale that frames the global warming crisis. On the other hand, if you want to appeal to your audience’s sense of emotion, then you need to create an emotional experience for your audience and too much data can detract from that.

NOTE: The most successful presentations appeal to both reason and emotion, as both Al Gore and Steve Jobs have done, but it is useful to pick a primary trait before crafting your presentation.

How large is my audience?

The size of your audience will effect everything from the visibility of your slides to the impact of your body language. In practice, I’ve found that the big inflection point in audience size is around 10 people.

The vast majority of presentations are made to small audiences: groups of ten people or less. Given the frequency and informality of these types of presentations, it’s tempting to put less time into preparation than for a more formal presentation to a larger audience. However, presentations to small groups give you the opportunity and responsibility to engage your audience as active participants. It’s essential that you be prepared to field questions, handle interruptions, guide the discussion, and walk the audience through complex topics.

Once an audience grows beyond ten people, presentations tend to take on a more formal quality. From a purely physical standpoint, some members of the audience will be further away from you, and from a conversational standpoint, there will be more of a one-way flow of information. As a result, you’ll need to be extra careful to ensure that your presentation materials are clear, legible, and complementary to your talking points.

Designing Presentation Materials

As you consider the size of your audience and the density of your content, use the following framework to help determine the optimal format for your presentation materials:

Choosing your format

When to Skip the Slides

If your audience is small (less than 10 people) and your message doesn’t require any dense, structured information, then you should consider skipping the slides altogether. Slides add an air of formality to your presentation and they can inhibit feedback. For most informal business meetings, such as brainstorms and status updates, you’ll have a more intimate and more compelling conversation with your audience by forgoing the slides. If you need to present some of your message visually, opt for a whiteboard instead of slides.

Slides as Visual Aids

Inexperienced presenters tend to treats their slides as a teleprompter. As a result, there is a mountain of presentation advice urging presenters to “not read from the slides”, “use larger fonts”, and “cut out unnecessary words”.

This advice assumes a very real design trade-off that tends to get glossed over: for large audiences, properly designed slides are visual aids, not standalone documents. It’s a recipe for failure to try to project a single deck in front of an audience of 50 people while also designing it to have sufficient content to standalone.

If you are presenting to a large audience, then fully embrace the idea of slides as visual aids that simply can’t survive without you. If you do that, you’ll have a much easier time designing effective slides.

When to Use Handouts

If you are presenting a complex topic to a large audience, then you may need to provide materials that can exist outside the delivery of your presentation. These materials might be provided as a takeaway for the audience or as an online resource for people that couldn’t attend the presentation.

Avoid, at all costs, the temptation to have your presentation slides serve double duty. Instead, develop a handout that has sufficient content to fully convey your message. My preference is to design, from scratch, a document that combines clear, brief prose with the charts, diagrams, and other visual aids you’ve already developed for your presentation. In a pinch, it is possible to create a useful handout by annotating your slide deck.

Standalone Slides: Less Evil Than You Think

Is there ever a case where a single set of slides can serve as both visual aids for a live presentation and as a standalone document? Many presentation gurus discourage this because it comes with a set of challenges that often lead to poor results. But, in practice, slide decks are an ingrained part of business culture and there are cases where it makes sense for slides to serve double duty.

Writing good standalone slides is a topic of another post, but I’ll leave you with a few guidelines:

  • If you’re presenting to more than 10 people, you’re out of luck. Standalone slides require denser content than visual aid slides which means smaller fonts and more fine details. These won’t project well to a larger audience so you’ll need to create visual aid slides coupled with a standalone handout.
  • If you are presenting to a small audience, then have no fear. If you carefully balance the needs of your materials, it is possible to create a good deck that projects well and can be used standalone.
  • Talk like a copywriter, not a cave man when writing standalone slides. Text needs to be brief, but it also needs to be understandable. Reduce word count with clear language, not by simply deleting all the prepositions.
  • As always, a picture is worth a thousand words. Use charts and diagrams to communicate complex ideas in a way that is easier to consume than raw text.
  • If a slide is getting too dense, thats a sign that you need to break you’re idea across multiple slides.

In the right circumstances and with good forethought, you can create standalone slides that enhance your message during your live presentation and capture your message when viewed by themselves.

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