One of the biggest mistakes professionals make when preparing a presentation is to begin by opening up Microsoft PowerPoint, its Apple-product cousin Keynote, Google Slides, or another presentation software. These programs are not suited for crafting content. When used in this way, slides become the document on which speakers script their presentation and then lifelessly read it to listeners. To achieve a dynamic and conversational final product, start with the Sandwich Structure Method for outlining presentations. (Link to that blog post.)
Next, determine if presentation software would be a useful tool for curating key text and visual aids to supplement your Sandwich Structure Outline. American business culture seemingly demands a slide deck with every presentation and that mentality has permeated academia, government, and non-profit sectors as well. However, many of the most powerful speeches have been delivered without a single presentation aid. True, many occurred before the advent of presentation software around 1990, but the same can be said of many important speeches of the 21st century as well.
In some contexts, such as table-top briefings or client pitches where a speaker is presenting to several listeners at the same table, using presentation software would be awkward at best. Worse, it could hinder the process of building rapport with audience members, making them less receptive to new ideas or calls to action. In other contexts, and especially in technology-mediated presentations, slides can be a useful tool to help hold attention of listeners and explain information.
If you plan to use slides, create a written list of slides you need to design based on your Sandwich Structure Outline. Note where these slides dovetail with the outline, noting where you should include slides for your title, introductory material, signposting (preview, review and transitions), main points, and supporting points.
As you create slides based on your written list, here are four guiding principles:
- Presentation Aids Should Supplement, Not Replace the Presenter
If a listener can get everything he or she needs from the screen or a handout, then you, the presenter, have reduced your value and utility. If the slide deck says it all, why not just send it to everyone to read offline? If you read a presentation from your visual aids with no additions, audience members can tune you out and not miss a thing. At this point you have effectively made yourself obsolete and created competition for the attention of listeners. Worse yet, you likely insulted your audience members by assuming they need someone to read text for them and by wasting their valuable time.
Instead, use presentation aids to elevate the presentation. They should help listeners understand and remember your message. For example, if you are discussing the buying trends over the last five years, the numbers could get overwhelming if presented only orally. A simple, well-labeled, and descriptive line graph would provide the means for audience members to see and grasp your point immediately. If you are establishing your credibility as an architect, it would make your case more memorable, interesting, and believable if you showed several images of plans you drew, and buildings constructed using them. Images complement the verbal aspect of your speech and both work together to make your presentation more memorable.
If you decide to use presentation software, think of it as a relatively easy and effective way to curate visual aids. There is always the possibility that you might run into technological difficulties (and Murphy’s law says you will), but when such programs work as intended, they are a fantastic way to project graphs, charts, diagrams, photographs, pictures, and audio-visual clips for a large audience to see.
- Presentation Aids are for the Audience, Not the Speaker
Avoid making the mistake of using slides as your notes. You certainly may take a Sandwich Structure Outline or other materials to the lectern to speak from, but these materials should never be available to listeners on a screen or on a handout. And if you must provide a client or listener a stand-alone report that your presentation is based on, create a different set of slides for your oral presentation. Rest assured, the presentation you speak from does not have to be the same as the handout or written report you provide listeners. On the contrary, it can be useful to think of presentation aids as a supplement to a written document that is meant to breathe life, through videos, pictures, and stories, into the facts and data on paper.
When selecting presentation aids to include in your next speech, ask yourself: Does this presentation aid provide something that could not be conveyed with words alone? Is there a story that would come alive or a piece of information that would make more sense if paired with a presentation aid? If you answered yes, include it. If you are including the presentation aid because it will serve as a prompt for what you want to say, leave it out.
- Presentation Aids should be Simple and Sophisticated
The most used website globally is Google. The logo is rendered as large text of the site name (often artistically rendered to honor a person or occasion) on a sea of white with a search box beneath it. Speakers would be well served to use it as inspiration for their own slide design guidelines.
Consider how the use of color impacts the ability to read content. Putting yellow, orange, or red text on a white slide renders the text virtually invisible. And white text on a black or dark background is also very difficult to read. Black or dark text on a white or light background is standard fare and a best practice for inclusion because it is easy to read. And, if you need to print slides, this format will save you a lot of toner.
Each type of presentation software has its own selection of templates and slide themes. Check with your organization regarding a preferred or required presentation software. If you are choosing one, remember that it should be appropriate for the situation (your purpose, the audience, the situation). Picking something “cute” might be fun for a friend’s birthday party or the boss’s roast, but should not be the standard for everyday business (unless you are in the business of cute).
The second dimension of composition is words on the page (or slide as it were). Ideally, text should be used for labeling visual information or for signposting. If you must include a list of key ideas, a common rule for composing text on a single presentation slide is the 5×5 Rule: Have no more than five bullet points, and each point should be just five-words long. This rule of thumb discourages both cut-and-pasting as well as using slides as speaking notes rather than as a tool to help to listeners understand and remember.
The 5×5 Rule is a guideline rather than a hard and fast policy. Not only can it be broken, but if it will make your slide more effective, you are encouraged to carefully and thoughtfully break it. Think carefully about how to make your slide effective. If, for example, you wanted to quote five sentences from an external reviewer’s report of your organization, you would NOT place that text on a slide and then instruct your audience to read it while you talk. This forces a choice between you and the visuals, often leading to an unintended third consequence of the audience deciding to tune out. Instead, you could read the first sentence aloud. Then, paraphrase the next four sentences, providing enough time in your paraphrasing for the audience to read the rest of the paragraph. By guiding your audience through the presentation aid, you can use the information to its fullest potential while also maintaining the attention of your audience.
Lastly, protect white space. Like the homepage for Google, you want your slides to be crisp, simple, and singular. Avoid filling them up with too much stuff. Less is more when it comes to visuals.
It goes without saying that the presentation aid should hang together as a cohesive whole. There is rarely a reason to infuse a different design scheme, font, color, animation, etc. into the middle of a presentation. It would not coordinate with the rest of the presentation and would serve only to interrupt the flow.
- Presentation Aids, Like All Parts of a Presentation, Need to be Rehearsed
Let’s cover the basics of successfully incorporating presentation aids:
Whether you are using presentation software, a poster, a prop, or other material to supplement your speech, you must practice with it. Start incorporating your presentation aids during your early rehearsals so you can use them confidently, fluidly, and automatically. There is nothing worse than fumbling through a demonstration or finishing a presentation only to realize that you forgot to advance your slides or display the objects you intended to show. If you don’t rehearse, it is easy to get flustered or forget in the moment when nerves are running high.
For virtual presentations, make sure you do a technical rehearsal using the videoconference platform several days ahead of time. You need to get comfortable sharing your screen, advancing your slides, and interacting with the audience. Note that some features (like slide animation, video clips, and breakout rooms) do not function in every videoconference and webinar platform; you may need to reformat slides or use different functionality to achieve your goals. It’s best to identify this well in advance, and not during a technology check completed 15 minutes before you start your presentation.
Don’t let slides become a distraction
You certainly don’t want to advance a slide too soon, but the opposite problem is more common: speakers keep a visual aid displayed past the point of usefulness. In the case of presentation software, this means leaving text or an image on the screen after you move on to another point. When a visual doesn’t sync with the spoken word, listeners can become distracted. Good practice is to advance to a relevant slide or add a black placeholder slide to help focus the attention of listeners. For virtual presentations, you can even turn off the screen share function until you are ready to display your next image.
Make sure presentation aids are expendable
We all know from personal experience that technology will fail at some point. Perhaps you forget a power cord for your laptop, or the internet connection is unstable, or your client’s IT security firewall does not allow use of your organization’s videoconference platform. No matter how conscientious you are, at some point, something can and will go wrong with your virtual platform or presentation aids.
As important as a presentation aid and videoconference platform might be to your speech, it is important to consider what you would do if you did not have it. Make sure you have a contingency plan for giving the speech without the presentation aid (that may mean sending your listeners a PDF of your slides and talking them through via a teleconference call). After all, the show must go on. The hallmark of expert speakers is the ability to proceed with grace and confidence in the face of technological failures such that audience members may never know there was a problem in the first place.