Clients often come to us seeking help with the craft of writing and designing presentations, so we thought we’d share some of our core principles. We’ve assembled these, along with specific tips that you can put into practice right now. Please check out and share our presentation design cheat sheet, which we hope will be a handy reference to help you design any kind of presentation.
Context is queen
Don’t assume your audience has any background going into your presentation. Taking a moment for context-setting avoids the confusion of someone being dropped into your content without knowing what they’re about to see or why. It often helps to answer questions before they’re even asked.
- Use an agenda slide, with timing if possible
- If appropriate, include an executive summary (keep to 3–5 points)
- Even for short presentations, articulate your objective up-front
- Assuming your presentation is focused on one piece of a larger project, show where you are in the process, including what’s already been accomplished
Your presentation is a story, so make sure it reads like one
Slide design is critical, but the flow of your entire presentation is just as important. When you tell a story to a friend, you pay attention to pacing. Do the same with your slides. Make sure there’s a rhythm and cadence, so that each idea leads naturally to the next, leading to a satisfying conclusion.
- Don’t try to tell your entire story on a single slide. If you do need to summarize a big idea (or set of ideas) in a single visual, consider designing a separate leave-behind
- Use divider slides to help your content breathe
- If needed, use a progress bar to show where you are in your overall story
Make sure you give the “so what?”
This may be the most important thing to get right. As you’re crafting each slide, make sure you ask yourself “what’s the key takeaway?” and then make sure it’s clear. If you aren’t sure if you’re getting your point across, consult a trusted colleague, and ask them what they think. Their answer may be very illuminating.
- Keep it to a single key takeaway per slide
- Keep body slides to conclusions and recommendations, and use appendix hyperlinks for factual backup
- Keep it scannable: bullet points vs. paragraphs, key words vs. sentences
- Make sure all action items are clearly called out
Tell the story visually whenever possible
We all know how sticky images can be, so challenge yourself to eliminate words on a slide when a photo, chart, graph, or other type of visualization can do the job. But be deliberate with visuals; don’t drop them in just to be cute, or because a slide feels empty without one. Consider the purpose of everything on the slide.
- Consider using dramatic photos as metaphors that help to make a point instead of words. Full-screen photos also work well as divider sliders
- Use visualizations, charts, graphs, and infographics only if they serve to make a point
- Data viz can be tricky; it’s easy to muddle the point if the design is overly complex, so make sure you approach it with simplicity and clarity, and clearly call out key information
Presentations vs leave-behinds
Finally, remember that presentations should look different than leave-behinds, and you need to make different design decisions based on which you’re making.
Presentations are focused more on big ideas than in-the-weeds details (which can be included in the appendix). If a presentation becomes a leave-behind, consider using slide notes for more description.
Leave-behinds can utilize longer and more descriptive copy, and the slides can be a bit more dense, and can utilize longer and more descriptive copy as they may be used as a reference later.
While presentations are the currency of the business world, the quality bar is still sadly low. But if you excel at this, not only will it help you be a better communicator, it can also make you stand out from the crowd.