The Ingredients of an Effective Slide


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Consider the purpose visual presentation.  Why do we use slides?  For many people, the goal of a PowerPoint or Keynote presentation is to put all of their content on the slide for the audience to see/read.  But people can’t read and listen to someone talking at the same time.  Think you can multitask?  NPR says it’s time to think again.

The problem is that when an audience is shown a slide, we look at it, read the information on it, and then go back to listening to the presenter.  Unfortunately, since the audience has already read the presenter’s points on the slide, the audience gets ahead of the presenter.  The presenter then spends the remainder of the presentation trying to play catch up to what the audience already knows from reading the slide.  The audience feels the presentation is a waste of time because the need for the presenter is gone.  Have you ever been forced to sit through a presentation like this?  It’s torture!

Before you begin creating a slideshow, it’s important to ask yourself a key question: Am I just putting putting all of my presentation content/information on a slide?  If so, create a handout in Word or Pages and distribute the handout for people to read.  Contrary to popular belief, a handout is not a visual presentation and does not go on a slide.

Yes, you are allowed to hand out physical copies of a document or email a digital copy to give to your audience.  In this case, no presentation is required.  If your “presentation” is really only about distributing information in handout format, don’t call a meeting.  The need for a presentation doesn’t exist in that case; there is no need to waste anyone’s time.

A visual presentation is not a handout.  It’s more like a movie, TV show, or commercial. It’s a 100% visual medium that should be used to enhance an audience’s understanding of certain content.  In Slide:ology, Nancy Duarte examines the ingredients of a great slide: background, image, text, and color (Source).

Let’s take a closer look at these four ingredients using the “Slide Design” slide above (well, and also below).

The most obvious element of the slide is, of course, the image.  Some people think “image” means slapping a tiny piece of clip art from the 1980s in the corner or using a corny stock photo.  You’ve seen beautiful photography.  You know what a high-quality image looks like, and you know what it can do for a viewer.  When you see a powerful, glossy photo on the cover of a magazine in the supermarket checkout line, you stop and look.  Images are powerful!  When’s the last time a piece of clip art stopped you in your tracks?

Garr Reynolds tells us that faces matter when using images.  This means an actual human face in a high-quality photograph… not a cartoon, clip art face.  In his article “Eye gaze and the power of faces,” Reynolds explains that faces “can be effective for getting a viewer’s attention. This is especially true for mediums such as posters, magazines, and billboards, but can be applied to multimedia and large screen displays as well” (Source).  Faces include human as well as animal faces.

Images of nature also have the power to stop us in our tracks.  Consider the cover of National Geographic.  They know what they’re doing!

The point of a visual presentation is to be truly visual, so think about the visuals you see every single day.  Consider billboards, television and print advertisements, movies and TV shows, magazine covers, and signs.  All of these mediums use and apply universal principles of design, so you should, too, when you’re creating your visual presentations in Keynote or PowerPoint. Don’t be a slide sloth.  Your audience is sick and tired of seeing the same crappy old PowerPoint.  You owe it to them to select powerful images and to apply the picture superiority effect to those images.

Data is also visual and can be considered your slide’s primary “image.”  Learn more about effective data on a slide here.

After the image, the second ingredient you likely notice is the text.  Most people open Keynote or PowerPoint and start with text.  Some think of text as the only ingredient on a slide.  Sadly for audiences, text is only one of the four ingredients of an effective slide, and the more text on a slide, the less effective the presentation.

Since templates in both Keynote and PowerPoint emphasize text in their templates, go template-less!  Start with ingredient #1: the image.  After applying the picture superiority effect and making the entire slide the image, you can then focus on adding relevant, meaningful text.

How much text should you put on a slide?

Your slide should pass the three-second rule of glance media.  Consider billboard advertising.  If an automobile driver can’t process that billboard in three seconds, he or she a) won’t digest or act on the advertisement and b) will probably wreck the car trying to read more than three seconds of information.  Think of your audience as those drivers.  If it takes them more than three seconds to process your slide, you’re wrecking their chances of processing and acting on the material you’re presenting.

Put a single word or a short phrase on the slide.  Your audience will quickly understand the main idea or point of the slide and go back to listening to you.  With one main idea per slide, you’ll have your audience paying attention to your presentation as opposed to daydreaming, playing on their iPhone, or falling asleep.

You should also work to select the best font for your presentation.  Each font has its own personality and meaning.  Some insanely overused fonts include Comic Sans, Arial, Gil Sans, and Times New Roman.  Since over 25% of my students each month use Chalkduster, I am personally sick of it.  I also really, really hate Curlz.  Two great websites to find fonts to fit the design of your slides are DaFont and Font Squirrel.

Next, consider background.  Notice in the slides I create that my “background” is not premade by Keynote or PowerPoint.  Premade templates come from the devil, and only slide sloths commit the deadly sin of using premade templates.

Nancy Duarte asks us to consider background as the container for our other ingredients.  Backgrounds should be as simple as possible so that the other ingredients of the slide can stand out.  Garr Reynolds concentrates quite a bit on backgrounds in his Top Ten Slide Tips.  Even though it is the third ingredient, background is extremely important and often overlooked or forgotten completely.  For his first tip, Reynolds suggests we keep our slides simple (Source).  He says, “Your slides should have plenty of ‘white space’ or ‘negative space.’ Do not feel compelled to fill empty areas on your slide with your logo or other unnecessary graphics or text boxes that do not contribute to better understanding. The less clutter you have on your slide, the more powerful your visual message will become” (Source).

Imagine a visual presentation that leads to engagement and retention as opposed to daydreaming and sleeping!  The empty space or white space of a background allows the audience to more clearly process the image and the text.  This allows for faster, easier, and more digestible slides that lead to retention.

Finally, consider the colors on the slide.  The text’s color here is black.  The image is very colorful and includes colored pencils in a variety of shades.  The background color should also be considered.  It is an off-white, eggshell color.  Color on a slide is important because it can convey meaning and emotion.

Garr Reynolds explains, “The right color can help persuade and motivate. Studies show that color usage can increase interest and improve learning comprehension and retention” (Source).  You don’t have to be a graphic designer to know about and to use color effectively.  Playing around on Pinterest provided me with great resources on color including The Psychology of Color and a website on color palettes called Design Seeds.  Kuler is another great source for color palette creation.

Colors should work well together.  Consider using colors with high contrast.  It is difficult to read dark purple text on a black slide.  It’s impossible to see bright yellow text on a white slide.

It’s also important to consider selecting a color palette and using that same palette on each and every slide in your slideshow.  This can create unity and flow from slide to slide.

Once you know and practice playing around with the four ingredients of an effective slide, you can begin arranging those visual elements on your slide.  Nancy Duarte’s Slide:ology is an amazing study in the ingredients as well as those elements of arrangement: unity, flow, proximity, whitespace, contrast, and hierarchy.  Slide:ology is definitely a must-read for budding presentation designers!  You’ll also want to check out Garr Reynolds’ Presentation Zen and Presentation Zen Design.

How are your slides looking lately?


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