Five Commandments for an Amazing Slide Deck

The Five Rules for an Amazing Slide Deck

Ace your slide deck

If you give a speech, chances are you will use a slide deck. In most organizational settings it is expected that you will use a slide deck. Most likely, you will use a popular presentation software, such as PowerPoint by Microsoft, or Keynote by Apple, to create slides to go along with your speech. Regardless of what you use, you want to make sure that you compose and use your slides correctly. The reality is that presentation software was created by software engineers, not professional speakers. As a result, slides can be a powerful tool that enhances your speech, but they can also turn your speech into a snooze-fest.

What can a slide deck accomplish?

The Good Sophist approach to public speaking emphasizes four outcomes that great speeches achieve. Great slide decks should help you achieve these outcomes. The first outcome is attention. Your slides should draw attention to your speech. Unfortunately, in their natural state, slide decks can increase your chances of losing attention. We’ll make sure that doesn’t happen to you. Next, your slides should help your audience remember what your speech was about. Third, you want to use your slides to create a connection with the audience. A big part of public speaking is creating a relationship with your audience. Finally, you want the audience to react in a positive way to your slides. Properly creating your slide deck is the first step in achieving these outcomes.

1. Less is more

When creating your slides try to keep them simple. Presentation software templates are created in way that encourages you to A) create an outline of your speech that is B) heavily reliant on the use of words. As a result, most slide decks are long lists of words with subheadings of more words leading you to even more wordy explanations. If your audience just reads your speech from the slide, then what reason is there for you the speaker?

I teach mostly lecture courses that are content heavy. But I know if I fill those slides up with content my audience will stop listening go me and focus on copying every word on my slide. This takes away from my ability to connect to my audience, open the audience up to remembering what I say, and minimizes my chances of getting a positive reaction. In other words, it decreases the effectiveness of my lecture. If you’re prone to using a lot of words on your slides, consider these options.

A. Make two sets of slide decks.

I make a “presentation” deck and a “distribution” deck. While speaking I use the presentation slide deck and make the distribution slide deck available to the audience prior to the speech. This allows me to focus on my speaking rather than waiting for them to copy down each word from the slide, but it also ensures the audience doesn’t miss any important information.

A Keynote slide with lots of explanation of Aristotle's Canons
“Distribution” Slide
Keynote slide with less words and colors added
“Presentation” slide

B. Control eye gaze through selective animations.

If there is no way for you to avoid using a wordy slide deck, control when they appear by using “appear” animations then make them go away using a “disappear” animation. This avoids assaulting the audience with a slide full of words and allows you to explain each one in as much detail as you need. But beware of using fancy animations (or transition animations) because they can distract from your presentation.

Ace Your Slide Deck
Created by Christopher Salinas

2. Images are your friends

Engaging images can captivate your audience and really make your speech stand out. For a great example of how powerful this can be, check out Lisa Kristine’s TED talk on modern slavery. Of course, not all of us have such an impactful topic to work with, and moreover, many of us don’t have such moving images. But this is your chance to be creative and win your audience over.

3. Don’t be afraid to go blank

Here’s a pro tip. When you insert a black page into your slide deck, the projector image appears to be blank. Many presentation clickers will do the same thing. I always start off with a blank screen so I can control exactly when the slide deck begins in my speech. This is important because your audience will become focused on your slide deck the moment it appears. Furthermore, don’t be afraid to insert blank slides in the middle of your presentation. Give your audience a respite from the slide after slide monotony. Let them remember that there is a human being speaking to them.

4. Avoid templates

At all costs avoid the pre-loaded templates that come with the presentation software and never use the pre-loaded ‘blank” screens. Avoid using the included clipart in your slides. You should also try to change fonts and colors whenever possible. The included templates, fonts, colors, and art are the most commonly used in presentations. As a result, they have become not only cliche, but indicative of a bland, boring speech. Think about yourself as an audience member. What do you think when you sit down for a presentation and see the standard PowerPoint default template come up? Nothing. You think nothing, and that is the point. Once, while giving a presentation to a large law firm I used Prezi rather than my normal Keynote. The audience was entranced with the movement of the slides because, in their environment, Prezi is never used. That change in presentation software invited the audience to be more interested in what I had to say.

A boring PowerPoint template
Start slide using typical PowerPoint theme
An exciting Keynote slide
Custom start slide using Keynote

5. Use the deck as a tool to capture the attention of the audience.

The number one commandment of using slides is to remember they are a tool. Imagine this all too real scenario. You walk into a lecture hall. The lights dim, the projector goes on. You hear a voice speaking from stage right, narrating each slide. Perhaps reading the words from the slide to you. Sadly, this is a common scenario. At this point, you are not a public speaker, you are a disembodied voice. Try to minimize the need to turn down the lights by using high contrasting colors on texts and backgrounds. Invest in a presentation clicker so that you are not tethered to your laptop. Move around the lecture space while using the slides – movements draw attention. And never, never read from the slide to the audience. First, if you’re reading from the slide then you probably have too much text. Secondly, when you read from the slide you have to turn your head away from the audience. It’s hard to have a conversation with someone while staring in the opposite direction. And finally, unless you are speaking to a group of pre-schoolers, the audience can probably read the slide deck for themselves. There is no need for you to do it for them.

These are some important general rules to consider when making your slide deck. Check back for more information about specific techniques to make great slide decks, and most importantly, how to enhance your public speaking skills with them.


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