8 Ideas for Better Slides

I recently ran a few training sessions about how to visualize and present complex data. The high point was a series of “extreme slide makeovers” in which I honed the message and cleaned up visuals from existing presentations. Here are some ideas to tame busy, confusing slides.

A PowerPoint template
49% of the area is available for content
  1. Simplify your slide master, make room for content. Fancy borders, elaborate fonts, and background images do little to impress your audience. They leave little room for communication, either. For those saddled with frilly corporate slides, you’ll have to take on the Brand Standards Police. It may help to get quantitative. Consider this PowerPoint standard slide master. Less than 50% of the total slide area (highlighted in green) is available for content.
  2. Say something once, why say it again? The Talking Heads sang: You’re talkin’ a lot, but you’re not sayin’ anything / When I have nothing to say, my lips are sealed / Say something once, why say it again?Wordy slides can be confusing and tedious. The author is using a lot of words—and often lots of qualifiers—in hopes that the core point lies somewhere within. The burden of synthesis is shifted to the audience. That’s not fair.
  3. Make one point per slide. The take-away sentence on your slide should clearly state your point; the data on the slide should support that point. Any information that is tangential to the key concept can be pushed to an appendix or supporting slide.
  4. Redundancies cause unnecessary repetition. I was surprised in my slide makeovers how often I found information that could be consolidated to simplify the slide. Redundancy came in many forms: multiple graphs repeating the same legend, axis labels that are described in a chart title, restating the same point.
  5. Waiting slide
  6. Christmas is over, take down the decorations. Clear out clip art, “screenbeans”, and other images used to dress up the slide. Most effects are less “dazzling” than you might think. Eliminate gradients, shadows, 3D effects, and most animations. These design effects were exciting 10 years ago. But if they don’t help you communicate, move on. On the other hand, consider using full-screen photos as a way to convey a idea or theme, accompanied by few words. Here’s an example from a presentation I gave a few months back:
  7. Don’t do thisIf you can just show the number
  8. Reduce chart-junk. Excel and PowerPoint charts come pre-packaged with a heaping helping of chart-junk (“unnecessary or confusing visual elements”). Here are a few things I change in a default column chart: no shaded background, grey gridlines, no chart outline, no y-axis line, no column outlines, turn off auto resize text, change column colors to increase contrast. If you want to save yourself from chart-junk induced carpal tunnel syndrome, check out Chris’ chart cleaner Excel add-in. Sometimes charts aren’t necessary at all. If you’re using a pie or stacked column chart to show a single data point, the number alone will do the job more clearly.
  9. Delete your “Text-junk” too. Text can contain “chart-junk” too—visual distractions in text that dilute your message.
    • Title Capitalization or Other Excessive and inconsistent use of Capital Letters. Title caps doesn’t make sense to use and is more difficult to read.
    • Underlining. If you want to emphasize a word or phrase, use bold or italics.
    • Don’t use bullets when there is only one item or sentence. People have become so accustomed to using bullets that they’ll use them when they are totally unnecessary.
    • Bad fonts: The worst is Comic Sans MT, as the LMNOP blog describes: “These days, just like an e-mail from an “@ aol.com” address has a distinct lack of credibility, an e-mail written in this font makes the sender seem ridiculous and out of touch.”
  10. Three fontsThree sizesThree font stylesThree fonts, three sizes, three styles
  11. Simplify style and formatting. Inconsistent colors, fonts, font sizes, and other styles are a subtle distraction. Limit yourself to three font colors (emphasis!, normal, low-emphasis), three font sizes, and three font styles. Here’s an example.Three colorsThree sizesThree font-stylesPutting it all together

All these points can be summed up as: Make everything on your slide serve your story. Best wishes for 2008!