5 Tips For Creating Great Presentations

5 tips for great presentations

PowerPoint and I go back a ways. I started my career as a PowerPoint designer in Boston in 1998. It was at an investment bank so the content was, well… rather dry. A few years later, when I got a job at an ad agency as an Interactive Designer and began doing web design and Flash animation I declared, “I’ll never do PowerPoint again!” Little did I know how wrong I was.

Fast forward a few years and there I was at the epicenter of PowerPoint, doing presentation support for none other than Bill Gates. I was one of a five person team that supported a hand full of senior execs. My last year there was also Bill’s last year at Microsoft, and I had the good fortune of supporting most of his speeches that year.

After Microsoft, I moved on to a Big Data Analytics startup where I did a lot of presentation support ranging from custom decks for the sales team to product mock-ups with tons of animations that replicated UI/UX. And yes indeed, even today I am still “doing PowerPoint,” but have come to appreciate the tool in a new way and really enjoy the art and science of storytelling through presentation design.

I thought I’d share some of the insight I’ve gathered over the years on how to make great presentations, but first off, a few words about PowerPoint itself.

Don’t shoot the messenger! 

Poor PPT is much maligned. I can’t tell you how many designers I’ve met who scoff at the mention of it and avoid it like the plague. This is understandable as the whole “Death by PowerPoint” meme has its origin in real life experiences that we’ve all had. How many times have you been stuck in a boardroom or conference center watching a mind numbing series of bullet points slowly animate in? I know some time has been taken off my life thanks to this polite form of torture.

In the early 2000’s, Edward Tufte, the pioneer of information design championed the idea that PowerPoint can inadvertently obscure the message you’re trying to make, when he famously declared in Wired magazine that “PowerPoint is Evil.” Likewise, Peter Norvig, the Director of Research at Google, adapted Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address into slides to make the same point.

In the midst of all the hate being thrown at PowerPoint, Talking Heads front man David Byrne released his “Envisioning Emotional Epistemological Information” which used PowerPoint as an artistic medium. People seemed surprised that PowerPoint could be used this way. I remember thinking of Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” when I heard this. Hadn’t we already established that anything could be used to make art? If Duchamp could write “R.Mutt” on the side of a urinal as artistic expression, was it really that shocking that David Byrne used PowerPoint as a digital art platform? It’s super easy to use, after all. You can drop objects and text anywhere on the canvas, click and drag them around without needing to navigate application layers, and animate them in surprisingly sophisticated ways through full screen projection in any aspect ratio you’d like. The potential in these features are endless.

It’s precisely because of these features – along with the Master Slide template design capabilities that make PowerPoint a great communication design tool. I suppose some of the blame it gets for dumbing down content should lie at the feet of the early product designers, as their introduction of the bulleted text format within the UI has become ubiquitous with how people approach slide creation. This is what Tufte and Norvig warn us will dumb down the content of any presentation. Despite their well-documented warnings, people tend to just reiterate the form they’re used to: bulleted text slides with a title at the top and maybe an image on one side. Creating an outline may be a great approach for brainstorming your initial slide content, but not for the actual content delivery.

Okay, so enough pontificating. Onward!

Here Are My 5 Tips For Creating Great Presentations:

If any of these steps are beyond your means, I strongly suggest you hire a presentation designer to get you there. Remember, PowerPoint doesn’t kill people. People kill people with PowerPoint.

Tip 1. Set Your File Up Correctly

Design the file for your specific presentation environment. How will you be presenting? Are you passing out hard-copies to a small group? Will you be presenting online as a webinar? Will you be presenting on a plasma screen in a conference room or perhaps projecting onto a large screen in a conference center? What aspect ratio will the screen be? These are all things you need to consider when the file is initially set-up so you can maximize the content area by utilizing every available pixel. Likewise, the type of fonts you can use is influenced by these parameters. Printouts and certain projection scenarios might allow for the use of a thin font face, whereas large room or hard-to-see screens will require thicker characters for legibility.

Also, make sure your file is set up correctly by utilizing the Master Slides. I’ve been passed many decks made by talented visual designers who did not know how to use the Master Slides. This results in files that look good at first glance, but are cumbersome to edit. Templates that are set-up correctly allow for a much more efficient authoring experience. If you skip this step, you’re shooting yourself in the foot.

Tip 2. Practice “Immediate Useful Communication”

I practice a technique I call “Immediate Useful Communication” when designing websites – especially the home pages. Often times, people look for a pithy, cool lead-statement like “Revolutionizing Retail Experiences” but end up with a sentence that really doesn’t communicate anything. I like to examine the home page experience from this perspective: what does all the visual information the user is exposed to – through both words and graphics – immediately communicate? This technique holds true for presentation design, too. To create a great presentation, start by distilling your message down into a clear title that states what you’re about share in the most succinct and brief way possible. Avoid using “form for form’s sake,” like crafting a title that’s trying to be cool but communicates little. Do this for every slide title (if you have them).

Tip 3. Design for Your Audience

Are you a technology company with a product that services multiple industries? Remember that as a technologist, you have a certain way of communicating – a particular vocabulary – that is unique to your culture. Likewise, your potential customers have their own. Healthcare, Government, Education, they all have their own language. Make sure you’re not using terms that your audience won’t connect with, and as best as you can, understand their specific business objectives, challenges and the nomenclature that go with it. Craft your messaging in accordance with who they are. Even within a single industry, you may need one presentation that’s geared towards the C-level – that focusses on the high-level value proposition – and another for the folks who want to get into the weeds with you and understand details.

Likewise, the over-all temperament of the presentation should be a fit with your audience. Language and visual choices create a personality. Will your audience appreciate a funky style, or be turned off by it? Will your audience appreciate a conservative style, or be turned off by it? Know thy audience! And if appropriate, don’t be afraid to ask them while you’re presenting, if what you’re sharing is making sense.

Tip 4. Design Your Messages and Visuals with an “Economy of Form”

I have been a life-long student of the creative process. Besides being a visual designer, I was a theater major in college and am a musician who has released several CDs over the years. I love looking at the dance between form and content that we undertake in all of our creative endeavors, looking for the formula that creates the highest quality. Here’s what I think is the design principle that applies – not just marketing, but to all forms of communication and art making: it’s what I call “an economy of form.” Let all content creation be driven by necessity.

picassoPicasso described effective art in this way: “It is like a bridge. What would be the best bridge? Well, the one which could be reduced to a thread, a line, without anything left over: which fulfilled strictly its function of uniting two separated distances.” From “Picasso on Art – A Selection of views by Dore Ashton” Page 67.

Rainer Maria Rilke shared this insight about art making: “A work of art is good if it has arisen out of necessity.” – From “Letters to a Young Poet” Page 9.

Tufte points out in his writings and seminars that everything being shared visually is information. Even little things like putting a drop shadow on text should be examined for usefulness. Is it helping to communicate or just creating visual noise?

The key is necessity. Eye-candy is fun, but any visual element that’s not supporting meaningful content is really just noise. And likewise, content is most effective when it’s succinct and clear, organized in an intuitive way, and supported by engaging and appealing visuals. One caveat: visuals are also a means of communicating a brand, not just a specific message, so you might justify the use of graphics or movement that don’t support a specific message if they are a vehicle for the brand story. But beware, this can be a slippery slope! There is a seduction that comes with “cool.” At the end of the day, keep asking yourself what is necessary and strip away the rest. Apple’s brand is built on this mechanism.

Tip 5. Be engaged

Presentation delivery skills are separate from file set-up skills. Remember, if you’re engaged, the audience will be too. If you’re distracted, unorganized, or generally disengaged, you’ll lose them to their phones and daydreams. It’s your job as a presenter to win their attention and keep it. Speak clearly and with energy and focus. Try your best and remember, practice makes perfect. If possible, review a video of your presentation afterwards and identify what you did well and where you can improve on your skills. Ask people for feedback and think of developing your presentation skills as an ongoing exercise.

Good luck out there!