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It's time to rid of the stigma around slide decks, and level up your sessions with these helpful presentation design tips.


Presentations can suck, but they don't have to.

Real talk: Of all the presentations you've sat through at work, how many have impacted the way you work or navigate through life?


For most people, the answer is pretty consistent. Work presentations seldom

leave lasting impressions. Especially when the purpose of a session is to report on information rather than foster engagement or participation among attendees.


Business presentations are often taken for granted, as evident in how they're usually delivered. Slide decks have become the de-facto solution for sharing information for many institutions and organizations. They're presented more often than they should be, saturating personnel with information in the same format over and over when the method could otherwise be an email, video message, or group discussion.


So, how much of your message is your audience actually retaining through your slide deck?


In this deep dive, we're exploring undoubtedly the most common method used to deliver presentations - the slide deck - and how they can either make or break your presentation.



What's the deal with designing slides?

Why focus on the slide deck? Survey after survey shows that most people use presentation software to create the slide decks that drive their presentations.


One survey from Presentation Panda showed that 89% of respondents use Microsoft PowerPoint to create presentations, while the remaining 11% use other leading tools like Google Slides, Apple Keynote, and Prezi.


Many organizations and institutions have made slide decks the go-to solution for sharing information with an audience. But slide decks serve a specific purpose and shouldn't be synonymous with "presentation."


A presentation marks an event where information (usually an idea, proposition, or story) is shared with an audience, in person or virtually. At the same time, a slide deck is one method used to deliver a message. This method has become familiar to most people through the use of conventional slide decks (you know, the linear PowerPoints and Keynotes that you're used to).



However, not all presentations are created equal. Nor should they be! Presentations don't always require a slide deck or have to be linear. Some presentations are so engaging and interactive that they don't need any visual point of reference. Many people have become conditioned to (and rely on) the use of a slide deck each time they deliver a presentation. This can inadvertently set a precedent for you and the audience that a presentation is synonymous with a slide deck, and one ought to be expected every time a group is in session.


Let me be clear. I'm not claiming there is no use for slide decks in a presentation. They can be powerful tools for specific presentations, which I'll outline later. But as the old saying goes, with great power comes... well, you know the rest. The presenter is responsible for ensuring the slide deck complements the message, not distract the audience.


Let's unpack this further by exploring challenges before we get into solutions. What better to start with the most complex problem every presenter always faces: keeping an audience attentive and engaged. Then, we'll dive into the advantages and disadvantages of slide decks to get a clear picture of how they help us combat the attention problem.


The Attention Problem

Dr. John Medina, a molecular biologist and author of The New York Times Bestseller "Brain Rules," provides insight into the attention span of most audiences.


"Peer-reviewed studies have confirmed that approximately 10 minutes into a presentation or lecture, most people have mentally checked out."


The Ten-Minute Challenge

The "10-minute" phenomenon isn't necessarily something we can explain, as the reason for each person differs considerably. One person may fantasize about their Alfredo pasta waiting in the fridge for lunch, while another finds the presenter not engaging enough to care. One person could simply have a larger attention span than their peer, making the reason for the "10-minute" phenomenon as complicated as the wiring of people's brains. ๐Ÿคฏ


Still, the outcome seems to follow a consistent pattern: 10 - 15 minutes into a presentation, people begin to pay less attention or none at all. Attendees start to look elsewhere for something interesting enough to keep them stimulated, whether that be the Slack message from a colleague that needs an answer or the infamous impulse to glance at a phone to view the latest text message, email, or Tweet.


In 2018, Prezi (the popular online presentation tool) contracted Kelton Global to conduct the State of Attention report, which uncovered two insightful statistics about the presentation habits of 2,036 full-time business professionals.


  • 4 in 5 admitted they shift their focus away from the speaker during a presentation

  • 95% admitted they multitask during meetings


Those are some pretty high numbers, leaving presenters with a severe dilemma. What's the best way to capture and maintain your audience's attention during a presentation? Shifting focus away from the speaker is the opposite of what any presenter wants. Visuals always need context, even if the audience gazes at a slide deck. The speaker is responsible for clarifying and quantifying the content on screen.



Multitasking

Multitasking is another obstacle found in the study, and it's even worse because the word is a misnomer. In recent years, the scientific literature has made clear that in most situations, our brain can't focus on two things simultaneously. Neuropsychologist Cynthia Kubu and neurosurgeon Andre Machado, MD, addressed this in their TIME Magazine article, "Why Multitasking is Bad for You."


โ€œWhen we think weโ€™re multitasking, most often we arenโ€™t really doing two things at once. But instead, weโ€™re doing individual actions in rapid succession, or task-switching.โ€


The problem of "multitasking" during a presentation is terrible when you realize that most people in a session trying to multitask are incapable of doing so. Their brains simply tune out parts of the presentation to accommodate the focus they're giving the other task. It's a dangerous balancing act that can quickly go south for both the attendee and the presenter.


So, what's the most effective solution to combat the short attention span of participants?


The good news is you don't have to go down the rabbit hole of neuroscience to find out. You can tweak your slide deck and leverage a few presentation tactics to tackle these inevitable challenges head-on.


Let's review several advantages of slide decks to determine how they can help boost attentiveness and engagement.



Advantages of Slide Decks

Using slide decks for your presentations offers several advantages:


  1. They're visual aids: A slide deck visually represents the information you presented, making it easier for the audience to understand and follow along.

  2. They keep your message organized: A slide deck can help structure and manage the presentation's content, making it easier to stay on track and cover all the necessary points. It also saves presenters and attendees time by reducing the need for extensive notes.

  3. They can engage your audience: Incorporating multimedia elements, such as images, videos, and animations, into the slide deck can help capture the audience's attention and keep them engaged throughout the presentation. This is especially beneficial when accounting for different ways people learn, whether auditory, visual, or kinesthetic.

  4. They're accessible post-presentation: A slide deck can be easily shared with the audience before or after the presentation, making the information more accessible and easier to review.

  5. They're highly customizable: The presenter can customize the slide deck to match the branding and messaging of the presentation, making it a powerful tool for conveying a consistent and insightful message.


While those benefits may seem compelling, they're only as effective as the person behind the content's design, structure, and delivery.



Disadvantages of Slide Decks

Let's play devil's advocate momentarily and go over some disadvantages. Consider the following disadvantages of using a slide deck:


  1. Your design can be distracting: A poorly designed or overloaded slide deck can distract an audience and reduce the impact of the presenter's message.

  2. Technical Issues: Technical issues, such as compatibility issues with different devices or software, can disrupt the presentation and lead to delays or confusion.

  3. Over-Reliance: Relying too heavily on the slide deck can lead to a lack of flexibility and spontaneity in the presentation, making it difficult to adapt to unexpected situations.

  4. Lack of Personal Connection: A slide deck can create a barrier between the presenter and the audience, mainly if the presenter reads large bodies of text from the slides rather than directly engaging with the audience.

  5. Accessibility: While a slide deck can make information available, it can also create accessibility barriers for people with visual impairments or other disabilities.



Again, these disadvantages indicate a poor job done by the person(s) behind the slide deck, not necessarily the slide deck itself. Let's review a few ways you can overcome these pain points.


  • You can quickly curb distracting slides by following sound design principles. This includes using the appropriate text font and size for maximum readability, using symmetry to minimize too much white space on your canvas, and limiting your color scheme to avoid visually overwhelming your audience.

  • You can avoid technical issues by preparing for your presentation with a Plan B if things go south, like keeping a physical copy for yourself while a colleague troubleshoots your issue (because you should never go it alone) and sharing materials with your audience before your session begins.

  • You can overcome over-reliance on your presentation by becoming hyper-familiar with both the subject matter and narrowing the focus of your message. Create a "key takeaway" statement summarizing the outcome you hope your presentation produces. If your audience members summarize your presentation with a similar statement in their own words, you've accomplished your main objective.

  • Text-heavy slide decks are the worst way to share a message with your audience because you could have just given the audience the slide deck to read and absorb on their own if they knew you would read the entire slide to them anyway. Instead, try reducing your paragraphs to three to five bullets that you can use as markers for your message. By markers, I mean words or phrases that prompt you to verbalize the paragraph you want to share instead of sharing it all on one slide.


Finding Balance

I know it sounds clichรฉ, but you must find the right balance. โš–๏ธ


Your presentation should be agnostic to the method of delivery. In other words, focus on the message you want to share and the content that makes up your message first before deciding whether your message should be shared through a video recording, a slide deck, or an informal meeting. Remember, a presentation marks an event where a message is communicated. The nature and purpose of the event must be considered first and foremost before the delivery method comes into play.


This level of strategic alignment helps ensure your content is the primary focus when you bring people together before you indulge in the theatrics. Don't get me wrong; theatrics are essential to an impactful presentation. After all, it's the reason Hollywood has been so successful in sharing millions of messages in tens of thousands of films over time. Memorable films provide a masterclass in keeping audiences across the globe hooked on a journey from exposition to climax and back down to a conclusion. And the best movies are the ones where writers and directors make the message their "North Star," not the camera shots and special effects that are supposed to serve as byproducts of a compelling message.


In the same way, many web designers who work with clients seek to understand the nature of the project and the content that will make up its pages before they start design work. Understanding the message a client needs to relay to their site visitors drives the design process because the design is given a purpose. When you design without a clear message as the backbone of your efforts, your design lacks purpose and value.


Your slide deck is no different. It should complement your message to make it memorable, creative, and impactful. The objective of your slide deck should be to visually grab your audience's attention and help them absorb the information you're sharing. You can achieve the highest impact when your audience applies the knowledge they gain, turning it into wisdom (applied knowledge).



Four Tips for an Impactful Presentation

A lack of retention is not always indicative of a poorly written message, per se. Since presentations mark "events," multiple factors play into successful events. Logistics, production quality, and body language are just a few elements to consider. If you're a presenter, you're in luck. Here are a few tips to remember when planning your presentation and designing a slide deck.


1. Keep it Simple

Avoid cluttering your slides with too much information or too many visuals. Use simple, straightforward language, and limit yourself to one central point per slide.


Don't overload your audience with too many slides, either. Keep your total slide count to a minimum. Around 10 - 15 slides are a sweet spot (including transition slides).



2. Use Visuals to Enhance Your Message

Use high-quality visuals such as images, charts, and graphs to illustrate your points and make them more memorable. Choose high-quality and relevant visuals for your content, and avoid using generic or overused stock photos, as they can detract from your message.


As I said before, do not (I repeat, do NOT) include paragraphs on your slide unless necessary. Slide decks are supposed to be designed, not written. Use a Word Doc or email to write and share bodies of text with your audience. Your slides should have visuals that prompt you (the presenter) with the next part of the message you want to convey.


For example, instead of writing a paragraph about how sales have increased by 70% over the last four quarters, you can display a bar graph that shows that incremental increase over time. The bar graph should be the only thing on your slide, and when the slide is shown, prompt you to discuss details about that data verbally.


Key takeaway: Let the visuals do the talking. You focus on explaining.



3. Follow Good Design Principles

Use sound design principles to make your slide deck visually appealing and easy to follow. This includes appropriately using white space, aligning elements, and balancing text and visuals. Use animations and transitions sparingly and strategically (please, for the love of all things presentations, don't use the curtain transition effect in PowerPoint ๐Ÿคข), and test your presentation on different devices and screen sizes to ensure it displays correctly on all platforms (e.g., Teams, Slack, Zoom, etc.).


Consider Branding

Use consistent branding throughout your slide deck, including your logo, color scheme, and fonts. This will help establish credibility and make your content more recognizable. Stick to a consistent color scheme, and avoid using too many colors on one slide (shoot for at least 3-4 colors per slide that complement each other on the color wheel).


๐Ÿ’กTip: Check with your company's marketing team for slide deck templates to help you follow standard brand guidelines.


Consider Readability

Also, be sure to use a clear and easy-to-read font with appropriate font sizes for different elements. Leave out the fancy cursive and use 18 - 22 pt font or higher for body text and 28 pt font or higher for headings. These font sizes are recommended for virtual presentations and may need to be increased for in-person office presentations or keynote speeches.



4. Tell a Story

Use your slides to tell a compelling story and guide your audience through a narrative. Everyone can relate to a story! Organize your content logically, and use transitions to create a seamless flow between slides. Use storytelling elements, like anecdotes or examples of real-life scenarios, to make your content more relatable and engaging.


Stories can also help you address the "10-minute challenge", allowing you to use the narrative to check in with your audience every 10 minutes by asking them a question, raising a scenario, asking for insight, or even playing a game or activity relevant to your message. The sky is the limit!


5. Practice, practice, practice

Once you've designed your slide deck, practice presenting it multiple times and from various angles. This will help refine your message, identify problem areas, and ensure you are confident and engaging when presenting.



Bringing it all home.

This article is certainly not an exhaustive list of all presentation tips and techniques; there is more to come on this subject. However, it should equip you with some fundamental principles about the nature of presentations and how your slide deck can boost your message's impact on your audience.


YOU (the presenter) are the life of the presentation, not your slide deck. Think strategically about what you want to say and the key takeaways your audience should remember when it's all said and done. Every little thing you include in your presentation should serve a purpose for your audience. It's okay to end up with a few "deleted scenes." As long as the message remains your primary focus, designing your slide deck will begin to take shape on its own.



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References:

  • 1 - Noar, A. (2018, May 22). New Survey Results on Presentations โ€ฆ #2 Will Shock You! - Presentation Panda. Presentationpanda.

  • 2 - Gallo, C. (2014, April 30). Why PowerPoint Presentations Always Die After 10 Minutes And How To Rescue Them. Forbes.

  • 3 - Bellur, S., Nowak A., Kristine L.. & Hull, Kyle S.. (2015). Make it our time: In class multitaskers have lower academic performance. Computers in Human Behavior, 53, 63-70.

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It's time to rid of the stigma around slide decks, and level up your sessions with these helpful presentation design tips.

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