Presentations that don’t bore, bewilder or bamboozle

When a presentation program tempts you with all its bells and whistles, it is hard to resist. Bright colours? Yeah. Fancy fonts? Why not? Animations? Now you’re talking. Load ’em up. But forget your entertainment; it’s time to consider what your audience wants.

The range of options available in these programs can make or break a presentation. We’ve all been to at least one where the presenter did not choose them wisely. So how do you put together a visual presentation that complements your words?

Over the past couple of decades, I’ve given hundreds of presentations, most of them lectures to university students. I’ve also prepared lecture presentations to be given by other academics. I follow these guidelines to ensure I put together a presentation that sets off the message and doesn’t distract the audience.

Tailor your presentation to the audience. The audience is not there to gaze adoringly at you. (Although some might be, because you’re a fine human being). The audience has turned up to be informed, enlightened and inspired by your words. They want to understand what you’re telling them. ‘One size fits all’ presentations, which are suitable for a range of audiences, are rare. Rarer still are people who can adjust their talks as they go. I’m not one of those people and if you’re not one either, then make all the changes before you start. This requires some homework if you are unfamiliar with the demographics of your audience.

Keep the content simple. One statement or fact per slide is enough. Two if you must. Three is really iffy. People will start reading the slide as soon as it appears and will keep going to the end. While they are reading, they won’t be listening to you. So don’t let those sharply honed jokes and apposite turns of phrase become victims of your desire to pack in the information.

Don’t make the presentation look like a GeoCities site from the 1990s. Fussy backgrounds, clashing colours and fancy fonts (individually or in combination) will drive your audience crazy. Not only will your slides be distracting, but they might also be hard to read. Don’t make your audience work too hard: they get enough of that in their jobs. Keep it simple.

And as we’re on the subject, remember that your audience might include people who have less than perfect vision, so consider their requirements. Well-spaced text, clear fonts and high contrast between text and background are all helpful.

And while you’re cutting out the fiddly bits, keep graphics as undemanding as possible. Graphs and other illustrations are essential. Need to show the relationship between global temperatures and the number of pirates? You can’t go past a graph. But remember that it is hard to take in too much information at one time. Keep graphs as basic as possible.

Be judicious with animations. Resist the desire to liven up a presentation with typewriter sounds, dancing pink elephants or mice scuttling along the bottom of the page. Using animations is like streaking — it’s something that seems like a good idea at the time. Long after the message has faded, the memory of those animations will keep returning to your audience like some ghastly zombie. Think very hard about cute animations and then kill them with a sharpened shovel. (The same applies to over-worked metaphors.)

If it is important that your audience remember the details of your presentation, consider providing handouts. Note-taking is a skill. If your talk contains a lot of facts, quotes, references, addresses or other information, it can be helpful for the audience to have access to a summary. Hand these out ahead of the talk, so everyone has a chance to read them before you start.

Clear everything else but your presentation from the folder or flashdrive. Do you really want the file called Cyoot Kittehs opening unbidden while you set up your presentation? Because that is what will happen. Maybe only once, but that’s enough. If it does happen, the wrong file will be projected onto a huge screen and everyone will have the opportunity to judge your taste. Be known for your great talk, not for your pictures of cats with fruit on their heads.

Always plan for a worst case scenario. Things go wrong, so try to have a contingency plan if the projector fails or the laptop freezes. Could you keep going without illustrations? Are there any props you could use? Could you give the rest of the talk in interpretive dance? Okay, maybe not that one. But do whatever you can to keep going.

Above all, have fun. Remember that a presentation is not a punishment for you or the audience. Good luck!


How to make your audience love you (and not throw things)

1. Match your talk to your audience
2. Make only 1 – 2 points per slide
3. Keep the layout simple
4. Use colours sparingly
5. Use graphics sparingly
6. Use animations sparingly
7. In fact, do everything sparingly
8. Rehearse
9. Consider handouts for the audience (notes, not bribes)
10. Clear everything except your presentation from the folder/flashdrive