August 22

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Tips For Using Slides

By jaime

August 22, 2020


Ah, slides. The bane of the audience. Long have we suffered at the hands of speakers who just don’t seem to understand how to effectively use a set of slides. Well you don’t have to be one of those speakers. Here are a few simple tips to ensure that your audience will not go into a coma  from an overdose of slide mistakes.

Tip #1:  Don’t Read The Slides!!!

I place exclamation points after that tip because it is the most common error amongst speakers and it is also the most annoying. Don’t read your slides. It’s an insult to your audience if you stand there and read your slides to them. For starters, they can read for themselves! They are there to hear you provide an explanation about the bullet points. Why is each bullet point important? How does it affect or benefit them? Secondly, the material we present is technical and that alone is enough to make your audience sleepy. Don’t complicate your life by lulling them to sleep with a monotone reading of your material.

I will offer one exception to this tip. If you want to place emphasis on a keyword or idea buried in a bullet point, it’s ok to read out loud to draw attention to it. For example, if you are presenting a particular percentage or numerical finding, it’s ok to read that out loud so your audience understands the significance of that number. 

Tip #2: Use Sentences, Not Paragraphs

The purpose of a bullet point is to help remind you of a key concept or idea that you want to share with your audience. Bullet points are not meant to contain an entire thesis! Again, I add emphasis because I often see presenters place entire paragraphs on a bullet point. Then they stand there and read them verbatim. It makes me want to bang my head on a wall. 

Use bullet points as small reminders of what you want to say. Think of your slides as gigantic note cards. A simple word or sentence per bullet point should suffice. I honestly don’t know the rules of punctuation when it comes to bullet points but, if I’m writing a complete sentence or quote, I will use periods. If I’m writing a single word or simple phrase I leave the period off.

Again, I offer an exception to a tip. If you are quoting someone and that quote is made up of multiple sentences then I suggest making that quote the single item on the slide. If it seems like a waste of space, you can try to add one more bullet point but make sure it’s relevant. I explain why in the next tip.

Tip #3: Use Fewer Bullet Points

Along with heavily-worded bullet points, I often see presenters fill up their slide with bullet points. This makes it hard to read even on a large screen. I’ve seen people put as many as 14 bullet points in a slide. Yikes! This goes back to the previous tip in that an excess of text on a slide makes it hard to read, whether that text is in one big bullet point or in several individual bullet points.

I’ve found that it’s best to keep the bullet points to 5 or less per slide. If I have a lot of points to make, I just continue them on another slide as necessary. I’ve used as few as 2 or 3 bullet points on a slide if I thought it helped readability.

Tip #4: Use Photos Instead

Resting on the adage that a picture is worth a thousand words, I often prefer to use a single photo on a slide. Not only does it make it aesthetically pleasing but it readily provides an image for the audience to work with. 

Remember that there are two things that can make learning new material easier: 1) associating that new material with something you already know; 2) associating the material with an image. Using photos in slides can help in both ways.

I like to use Unsplash.com because it’s free and the images are high quality. As a matter of fact, you may have to shrink them to fit on your slide. As an added bonus, I find that when I associate the image with the point I want to make, it helps me recall everything I want to say without relying so much on my own hand-written notes. Of course, you can use a combination of photos and text if you prefer that but I’ve found that using a single photo on a page works really well.

Tip #5: Limit The Number of Slides

I left this tip for last because the idea of “too many” slides is a bit subjective. It really depends on how much time you have and how complex the material. By the same token, I would not advise you to try and fit too much information into a single presentation if it is very complicated. Well now you may be asking, “So how much is too much and how little is not enough?”

My recommendation would be to keep slides to 10 or less for a 45 minute presentation. Keep in mind that you can easily spend 5 minutes on each slide so 9 slides would put you right at the 45 minute mark. If your material requires more explanation then you should find a way to use fewer slides and focus on the main points. Try to ask yourself this question, “What is it that my audience must know when they leave my presentation?” 

Try to narrow your presentation to one key idea and then build two or three supporting ideas around that. Then try to fit that into your allotted time with as few slides as possible.

Slides Should Help, Not Hinder

I feel that too many presenters tend to “hide” behind their slides. It’s as if they assume that just dumping lots of information onto their slides will relieve them from having to remember their speech. Don’t go that route. Your audience wants to hear from you. They want to hear your story, to share in your experience. Don’t use your slides as a crutch. Instead, use them to provide a visual backdrop for your message.

About the author

I'm an engineer and, sometime, public speaker.  I believe technical presentations don't have to be boring.  I believe the world will benefit when engineers become better communications.

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