You’re the lead vocalist of an up-and-coming local band. As you and your bandmates take the stage for your first major gig, the crowd is electric. The set begins with your most popular song. You belt the opening hook flawlessly. But then, through the stage monitors, you notice something—the drums drift off beat. The audience notices too. Their dancing diminishes as the groove falters. The band finishes out the song; but without a solid rhythmic backbone, it doesn’t have the same impact.
Think of a presentation deck like the drummer to your rockin’ presentation skills. It needs to support your talking points, not distract from them. It provides a foundation upon which you can embellish. In music, the beat often sets the mood. During presentations, your slides do the same—serving as a tool to emotionally connect with your audience. In order to achieve this, the design must be cohesive from opener to finale. But we can still get creative in between!
One point at a time
Before you get started, it’s always a good idea to draft up a rough outline. Think of the main points you want to cover, and type out a list. This way, you’ll have a game plan before you jump in and start designing. It’s much easier edit a short document than to revise dozens of individual slides!
While crafting your deck, keep one thing in mind: simplicity. Present one point at a time, with intent and clarity. Have you ever tried reading while listening to someone speak? Chances are, you found it incredibly difficult to process both streams of information. The human brain isn’t wired to work that way! We want the content on the screen to work in harmony with the presenter.
The question, then, is how do we achieve an effective visual balance? Let’s take a look at the building blocks of a presentation deck, and how to best use them. Slide design can be broken down into three basic elements: words, backgrounds, and images.
Words, words, words
When it comes to words, cut down the copy! Make sure it’s viewable from the back of the room. You might want to follow Guy Kawasaki’s 6/60 rule: no more than six words per slide, no lower than 60 point font size. This keeps the focus on you, and distraction to a minimum. (If you’re not presenting in person or the deck is intended to be emailed, this rule is flexible since you won’t be there to embellish.)
Keep typography clear and consistent. Choose type that complements your message; for example, don’t use Comic Sans in a business presentation (well… as a general rule, don’t ever use Comic Sans.) When using two typefaces, make sure they contrast well—similar type will clash. Use contrasting formatting for different elements too. As an example, headlines are typically bolder and larger than body copy.
Keep backgrounds in the background—they should never clash with the foreground of the slide. You can’t go wrong with a solid color, but make sure it’s not overpowering (use a lighter tint if necessary.) Low-opacity photos, muted textures, or subtle gradients can add a little more atmosphere. When in doubt, fade it out.
Images, data, and graphs… oh my!
Choose your images carefully. Avoid cheesy photos or clipart! If an image doesn’t complement the content of the slide, don’t use it. Images are a great way to connect with your audience on an emotional level, so be intentional with their use.
Warning: stay far, far away from stock PowerPoint graphs. We want our information to be easily digestible, and understood at a glance. Distill data down to the necessary parts. If you must use charts or graphs, keep them extremely simple—and use a consistent graphical style. Otherwise, try to dramatize your data—meaning illustrate it visually. In either case, ask yourself: what do I want my viewer to take away? Focus on that singular point.
One More Thing: Color
A designer once wrote, “Slide design can be broken down into three basic elements: words, backgrounds, and images.” Don’t worry, they didn’t forget about the importance of color. You see, it applies to all three of these elements: from type and backgrounds to the tone of images.
Choose a unified color scheme for your deck. If you’re stuck, Adobe Color CC or Colourlovers are great resources. Alternatively, create your own palette by grabbing colors from a photo. Remember to use color sparingly—only when a slide needs strong impact—or you’ll risk creating visual fatigue. Like images, colors communicate emotionally; be intentional with your choices!
As a general rule, cut down distractions: unnecessary animations, copy, clipart, and so on. If it doesn’t directly support your message, throw it out. Keep these basic guidelines in mind while working on your next deck, and you’ll be well on your way to presentational rock-stardom. Good design is all about communication and connection. If your slides are concise, easy to understand, and visually compelling they will go a long way toward driving your points home.