It’s too easy to design a horrible presentation. The tough part is putting together one that makes sense, gets your point across AND keeps your audience interested.
What’s the science behind a “good” presentation then?
I can’t even begin to count how many times I’ve sat through class lectures or project presentations where the PowerPoint slides were way too crowded with blocks of text, the foreground-background contrast wasn’t factored in, or the presenter’s voice was so monotonous that half the audience dozed off.
Essentially, you’ve put the entire room in front of a speeding train labeled Boredom, and we’re all pinned to the train tracks by whomever is giving this ill-prepared presentation while we’re all thinking “well there goes 10 of the longest minutes of my life that I’ll never get back”… I think we’ve all been here.
This blog entry sums up what I’ve learned from the infinite mistakes of previous (terrible!) presentations. Here are very useful tips to make your presentation stand out.
Define Your Presentation’s Purpose
This doesn’t need to be stated to the audience (i.e. “The purpose of my presentation is…”) but you, your team member or your project team need to decide what you’re trying to accomplish with your presentation. Choose whether you’re going to persuade, inform, propose, compare, or do a combination of these actions. Answer the “Why are we doing this?” question to guide how you’re going to draft your script.
Make a Hard-Copy Draft
Once you’ve decided on your purpose (and you have supporting documents, research and reliable sources to use as information for your presentation), write down how you plan to organize your presentation. This might be based on criteria that is provided to you by your instructor, your supervisor, an organization, or a pre-set presentation format that is widely accepted as an industry, profession-based, or academic standard.
Typically, presentations will have the following hierarchical organization (in this consecutive order): Cover Page, Introduction, Body, Conclusion, and Works Cited.
Visual Design Tips
TEXT: While you’re writing snippets of your content, jot down your ideas for potential color combinations for font and background that are high contrast (opposite ends of the color wheel such as the classic black font on white background) so you don’t have to waste time clicking on each design option when you’re in PowerPoint. Save more time by deciding whether you’ll be using sans serif or serif font (design note: historically, sans serif font works better for visual acuity.)
The smallest potential font size you should use is 16, since anything tinier becomes an eye strain for people that are further away from your presentation screen. I like using a minimum font size of 18 or 20 to make sure everyone in the room can read the slide content. You can make adjustments to this based on audience, room, and screen sizes.
IMAGES: Imagery is a BFD (big friggin’ deal) in presentations. If a picture is worth a thousand words, you better pick the right pictures or you might be saying “excrement” when you wanted to say “excellent”. The text-to-images ratio on a slide should be balanced (i.e. if you fill half a slide with words, the other half should be photos). Avoid using overly cartoonic or Clip Art-style images if you have a serious topic.
TEXT-IMAGE RATIO: Your audience should never be overwhelmed by a slide completely filled with tiny 12-point text (oh no, you just lost your audience’s attention) nor should they be barraged with quickly flashing epilepsy-inducing .gifs (that might be dangerous). Summarize the point of each slide in brief bullet points to keep your text-based slide content to a bare minimum. Maximize the size of your image and keep your frames simple (black border), or you may lose the effectiveness of your imagery. Text typically occupies 25% to 50% of the slide with the image taking up the rest of the slide, depending on the overall content of the presentation.
PHOTOS: Use clear high resolution photos that fit well with your content. If you’re just grabbing photos off the web, beware of copyright laws since many Google images are copyright protected. Take advantage of online archives that offer free stock photos. If possible, use your own photography or art work. When your image file selections are finalized, be sure to cite your sources!
Double-Check Your Information Sources
Not only is it embarrassing to cite the wrong resource (you meant to type “.org”, not “.com” and you ended up sharing an adult dating site instead of a nature conservation fund as your URL), it also hurts your reputation as a person who can perform reliable research and can keep their facts straight. As a professional that consistently makes presentations or has to provide detailed bibliographies for white papers, it’s very important to cite the right source with the right details. Even if you don’t provide presentations or make decks as your daily work activity, having reliable sources (NOT Wikipedia or a random .com) is the backbone of slide content.
When it comes to using the opinion of subject matter experts via personal interviews, BEFORE you conduct any Q & A sessions with anyone, ensure the interviewee has credentials and/or experience to back up their information. If you have the time, it never hurts to get a second (or third) professional opinion on the same topic.
Spell Check and Grammar Check
PowerPoint or any other presentation program will have a rolling spell check on your work to catch simple typos, but it’s always good practice to keep proofreading your work for those pesky grammatical errors, inconsistent tone, contextual hiccups and misspelled proper nouns. If the program misses the difference between your, yore and you’re (and you’ve used the wrong one for the big bold title of one of your main slides), your presentation becomes less effective once your mistake takes center stage.
Get a Second Opinion / Perform a Mock Presentation
As with any audience-related activity, it’s useful to run through your presentation with someone else who you can trust for an honest opinion about your work. Perhaps your team member, a co-worker, classmate, or even a family member can sit through your presentation or review your PowerPoint and give you their feedback. At times, it’s better to pick a person who doesn’t know much about the topic that you’re discussing so you can see how effective your presentation actually is.
Use a Script
As a seasoned professional that has had to sit through their share of cringe-worthy ad-libbed presentations, I’m disappointed by how many people disregard the importance of a script when presenting their material (in-person or digitally). Unless you have a photographic memory or give the same presentation day in and day out so you know what to say by heart, flashcards and notes will save you from having to grasp for the right words during your big day. Imagine you’re in front of your project investors trying to remember the capital of Iceland where your company founder supposedly made his initial million dollars and of all the days, you can’t recall the city to save your life (geography note: it’s Reykjavik).
Practice, Practice, Practice
In the absence of a real audience, you can be your own critic. Do a few read-throughs of your work in front of a mirror. Use a timer to see how long your entire presentation will take. Did you exceed your time limit? Did you speak too quickly or forget to take breaths in between your sentences? Did you skip lines or say “umm”, “ya’ know”, or “like” to fill the silence?
Take notes on what mistakes you made so that you can correct them on the next read-through. Since you have an audio recorder on your phone or computer, use it while you present and review your work to see where you can make improvements.
And last, but not least, for the love of all that is good in this world of words, please DON’T READ OFF YOUR SLIDES!
I hope this helps you make your own crowd-pleasing presentation 🙂