Presenting with style


Have you ever been thanked for a great presentation? I certainly have. Some might think that I’m a good speaker and that the content is interesting, but I don’t think I’m that good, if I compare my style with some of my own gurus. I believe that some of my results often have to do with the style on how I use my slides. I’m confident that even uninteresting content can be presented in an interesting way and language barriers or poor speaking skills can be complemented with great presentation design.

When I say presentation design, I’m talking about the approach on how you create your slides to complement (rather than overload) your story, how simplicity is applied and how metaphors or visuals are used to support your message. You might also consider the flow of your presentation, when you throw jokes, when you go into details, when you ask the audience a question, how you develop the story, when you add some audio or video and how to apply some cross-media feats.

This sounds quite simple but it requires a lot of practice, time and patience. Anyone can be a great presenter, even if you believe you don’t have any sensibility for visual communication. By applying some simple steps of advice you can get so much better results. Here is what I would suggest in order to improve an existing slide full of bullet points and corporate branding:

  • Drop the bullet points to the notes section. If you know your stuff, you don’t need them. If you really must, split the slide so that you have a slide for each bullet point
  • Think of a metaphor that could illustrate your point to draw the picture in the mind of your audience just as it is (think Jesus, much of his success is based on inspiring metaphors)
  • If you cannot come up with a metaphor, use a simple photo to illustrate your point (see istockphoto.com for examples)
  • If you need to add words, use a 2-5 words or use a short quote, if possible
  • Never position text over a detailed part of your image, because it interferes with the background and reduces readability. If you need, edit the photo by reducing detail on certain parts with fades or blur, or cut it into pieces
  • Use high quality photos. If the photo is a bit dull, use the built-in features to cheer it up by adding contrast or fiddling with gamma and brightness settings
  • Remove all slide numbers, corporate branding, visually unnecessary elements and links. You can have those on their individual slides (e.g. on the beginning and end), but not on every slide
  • If you really need motion, add slide animation that makes sense and supports the image (say, if you have a picture of a book, use a page flip transition)
  • Make sure all elements are lined up symmetrically to slide borders or other considerable boundaries
  • If your presentation has some identifiable major sections, you might want to use some slides to identify change of phase. Use similar style on each that stands out of the rest
  • Use the largest font size you can afford with a readable font (arial, verdana, gill sans…)
  • Use font color that sticks out of the background. With dark backgrounds use white or a very light color, with white backgrounds use slightly gray black or any almost black color
  • If you have a Mac, use Apple Keynote to get really professional results with less work
  • Be proud to do things differently than anyone else in the conference

With this approach you will get slides that do not interfere with your speech (avoid all situations where people start to read your slides or need binoculars to make sense of it). When using images and less words, the photos as metaphors give you much more freedom to modify your presentation on the fly if you need to.

The next step is to forget slides altogether, maybe even making your presentation completely non-linear and spontaneous.

For more advice, see the following excellent presentation by Garr Reynolds worth every minute of your time:

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  • http://iki.fi/markus.koljonen/ Markus K

    Awesome, new approaches are always good and challenging. Certainly these tips are worth trying out. One thing worries me though. With constant change and no binding elements the show can easily, one would think, crumble into pieces that don’t fit. The challenge is to build a coherent presentation.

    Garr Reynolds here manages to do so using typography as one tool. Other things one could look at is colour palettes & schemes, grids, textures and effects – though I for one would be really tempted to throw in a more substantial visual element such as a borderline or emblem.

  • Ville S

    Your entry and the video greatly reminded me of another great presenter, Dick Hardt. You can watch his interesting 15 minute presentation about Identity 2.0 (which, I think, should be right up your alley anyway) here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RrpajcAgR1E

  • Bram Beark

    Dick Hardt. Really….?