The basics of professional slide design: less is more

Pinpoint foil design

Success in creating a good set of slides always depends on adherence to certain design principles. While the topic and audience can vary greatly depending on the task at hand, there are a number of basic principles that should always be considered in a professional PowerPoint presentation. In Part 1, I want to help you get “on point” with your slide design.

If you read our blog often, you will be familiar with Garr Reynolds and his book “Presentation Zen”. Just as Zen gardens in Japan are laid out in clear structures, Reynolds emphasizes clarity, simplicity and accuracy in a presentation. His approach is so compelling that his books have become bestsellers worldwide. Apparently, the author speaks from the soul of many people who would like to have more clarity in a slide presentation and thus also in the slide design. So it’s a good idea to keep the content of a slide simple in terms of slide design as well. That’s what I do myself, and that’s what I advise my customers to do. I know people who panic that important aspects of their presentation will be lost in this way. After all, it all matters, and the audience should get all the information on the subject, please. But often that is simply impossible. People’s receptivity is limited – this is also true for a professional audience. You won’t achieve anything if you overload every single slide with information. It is also not a solution to “pump up” the slide set to 100 or more slides. At a certain point, no one will listen to you. Therefore, it is better to be brief and to get to the point with your statements.

So think about the key messages of your presentation beforehand. What information, message, or call to action do you want to convey to your audience? Now here are a few tips regarding slide design, how to get more clarity and structure in your slides.

Three tips for professional slide design:

1. reduce all text passages to the essentials! Reading longer texts is quite exhausting for your audience in the long run. Besides, you want people to listen to you and not have to read slides while you’re talking. Grasping an entire text and storing it in memory is quite difficult. However, individual important points can be remembered quite well.

Example: Imagine you have to give a lecture about colds like flu. What could an appropriate text design look like?
In case (a), use a detailed text for your slide:

Important symptoms of influenza illness:
In addition to fever and a strong feeling of debilitation, the flu is also accompanied by symptoms of respiratory illness. Particularly often, those affected suffer from a dry, irritating cough, headaches, aching limbs, congestion of the respiratory tract, and inflammation of the throat.

In case (b), reduce the information to the essential information:

Main symptoms of flu:
– Fever
– Irritative cough
– Headache and pain in the limbs
– Obstruction of the airways
– Inflammation of the throat

The second version is easier for your audience to read and the information is also quicker to grasp.

2. your presentation and your slides are two different areas. When you present your slides, the slide content should be a support to your talk. The presentation should not be directly reflected as text in the slides. If you practically read your presentation from the slides, it will bore your audience and reflect poorly on your qualities as a speaker. The situation is different if you want to send a presentation. Then you should make sure that there is so much information that the slide set can be understood without your explanatory presentation.

3. use more slides if necessary to include important information! No one likes “slide battles” with dozens of slides that eventually bore even the most interested listener. But another faux pas with regard to slide design is to overload slides with information. Sometimes on the same page you can find a diagram, a quote, a text passage, and some more information in the form of bullet points. If this information is indeed essential for your presentation, it is better to pack individual passages into their own slides. This makes it easier for your viewers to absorb all the messages properly.

In any case, you should always keep in mind what you can expect your audience to do. As an audience member, I can either hear what you are saying or read a text on a slide. The presentation materials are a support for your presentation and not a substitute for it. The slides should underscore your remarks, not replace them.

The information does it!

What information should you provide on your slides? Of course, all of them that will help you better communicate your messages. Be aware that superfluous information can confuse the audience. Your audience must simultaneously assemble your presentation and the content of the slides shown with it into a complete picture. The more facts you have to process at the same time, the harder you make it for your target group. Experts in particular tend to include so many details in their presentation that even experts have trouble fully grasping everything during the presentation. Most likely, the audience’s level of knowledge about your topic is quite different. Therefore, you must be prepared that too much detail may be incomprehensible, uninteresting, or confusing to large portions of the audience. I am, of course, aware of the concern that one may yet omit important information if the presentation is to be reduced to the essential components. However, it has been shown that rigorous content selection based on relevance benefits both the speaker and the audience. I’ve put together some tips to help you make your PowerPoint presentation more relevant to your target audience.

1. adapt your presentation to your target group as much as possible! Start with a basic slide set that you make as simple as possible for introductory presentations and for lay people. Limit yourself to the basics on your topic and consider what information is truly essential. In doing so, you’ll probably find that it’s at least as hard to reduce a set of slides to the bare minimum as it is to squeeze absolutely all possible info into the presentation. Once you have created a basic presentation, you can adapt it to different audiences by adding additional content (graphics, videos, quotes, etc.) as needed.

2. avoid unnecessary elements! It is not uncommon to find things on slides that have nothing to do with the actual topic of the presentation. This includes logos, company slogans, addresses or telephone numbers. Anything that is not part of the actual presentation distracts from content. If you wish, you can distribute a handout after your presentation; there will also be enough space for logo and contact details.

3. choose the foil background wisely! The background of a slide also naturally affects the readability and comprehensibility of the content. Should you decide to use an image as a background, it should of course have relevance to your theme. If you were to lecture on fuel injection technology for car engines, a background picture of cows on a mountain pasture or ocean surf would be completely out of place and irritate your audience. Overly lush backgrounds distract from concise content and negate your efforts to draw the auditorium’s attention to the essentials. Complex content, such as extensive charts, should be given a particularly discreet background, otherwise the slide will quickly look cluttered.

4. choose suitable photos! Photos can make information more vivid. But for that they have to be really good and relevant to the topic. Finding the right photo for the content of a slide can be quite a task. Better abandon this style element before taking images that only fit approximately. In the meantime, there are photo files on the Internet such as Fotolia or iStockphoto, which provide good search results with a little patience. In any case, be sure to respect copyrights when using photos. Unauthorized use could quickly become expensive for you.

In any case, it is advisable to put yourself in the shoes of your audience. What information is absolutely required? What additional facts would overwhelm them? By putting your audience at the center of your thinking, you will be able to create a compelling presentation.

Animations for more pizzazz and a professional touch

If you want to create a good presentation, you need to have some insight into how slides are designed, in addition to practical knowledge about working with PowerPoint & Co. There are some principles that should be followed in any PowerPoint presentation. In the third part, we will look at the use of animations and how they can best be used.

Animations can add pizzazz to your presentation and give your slides a professional touch. Moving images can be used to present information in a particularly impressive way. However, animations can quickly become annoying if used incorrectly. Virtually every presentation program offers a set of animation effects that you can use for your slides. For example, Keynote offers amazing slide transitions. PowerPoint scores with pledge animations (an object moves along a predefined path) and Prezi’s specialty is zoom effects. Before you start thinking about incorporating animations into your presentation, you should first read the following tips.

1. with animations you direct the attention and feelings of your audience. Moving images attract the viewers’ attention. At the same time, they can trigger emotions such as curiosity, surprise or joy. Important facts can be pushed to the foreground with an animation, for example. The presenter can use it to direct the viewer’s attention to a specific area of the slide. You can use it to control which part of your presentation you want the audience to engage with next. You can zoom in on hidden details in the presentation, for example, if you want to highlight individual components of a machine, organism or industrial plant.

2. create clear transitions between individual topics with the help of animations. If your presentation is divided into individual chapters or topics, you can display the topic change with an animated slide transition.

3. use animations to better display diagrams and charts. Diagrams can be presented in a more interesting and also understandable way if you animate the individual components while you present your explanation about them. Thus, in a bar chart, you can grow the individual bars to which you are currently saying something. Or a fever curve seeks its way on a chart, while the audience waits in anticipation to see how high the curve will rise.

4. use animations to control the reading direction of your viewers. Normally we start reading texts at the top left. But maybe show a chart on a slide that should be looked at bottom to top. In that case, you can use animations to guide the audience’s gaze.

5. animations should always have a purpose and be more than a mere gimmick. If figures suddenly jump through the picture that have nothing to do with the topic, this will irritate your viewers. An animated truck can be useful in a presentation about a logistics company; it looks out of place when it comes to learning foreign languages.

In any case, animations are an effective tool to direct and influence the viewers’ attention. Especially with somewhat dry topics, professionally used animations can create emotional moments. There are target groups, such as designers, artists and other creatives, who are particularly receptive to emotions. You can reach these groups particularly well by means of animated images – possibly even with sound. But ultimately, we are all impressionable by emotions, and these tools are particularly good at generating emotions.

Potrait_MG_WosilatDipl.-Wirtsch.-Informatiker Matthias Garten as the expert for multimedia presentations and professional PowerPoint presentations knows about the art of professional slide design. He is an entrepreneur, speaker (TOP 100 Speaker), trainer (TOP 100 Excellence Trainer), multiple book author, presentation coach (presentation training), member of the GSA and Club 55, organizer of the presentation conference, of the Presentation Bootcamps and Presentation Rocket Days. In addition to PowerPoint and presentation training, he inspires and advises companies to present themselves even more effectively and thus stand out from competitors. He is the business owner of the presentation and PowerPoint agency smavicon Best Business Presentations and with his team has created over 10,000 professional PowerPoint presentations for over 150 industries since 1993.