I’ve attended my fair share of conferences this month alone, plus a Seedcamp, and I can safely say that in any way, I learned a lot about how to build slides, how to keep the audience engaged and things one just shouldn’t do in a talk or in slides. While I certainly don’t claim to be an expert on the topic now, I just wanted to put all of my impressions and lessons learned into a post.
I’m definitely not the first person to write about this kind of stuff, a year ago Geoffrey Grosenbach wrote on presenting, and just recently John Nunemaker wrote a post on improving your presentations for less then $50. Both are well worth reading, but they don’t cover everything I find annoying in presentations, so there you go.
Keep them small
Seven bullet points per slide is bullshit, that’s way too much. One phrase per slide is a decent rule, though I’m not dogmatic about it. One phrase and a couple of short bullet points (not more than four) work from time to time, but not all the time. I usually go for a bigger slide set these days, with less content on each slide.
I can run through 80 slides in 45 minutes. I know that sounds like a lot, and I certainly go through them fast, but I’d rather give people something to think about than bore them to death. Slides with too much text on it also have the negative effect of distracting the audience. They shouldn’t read the slide text, they should be listening to what you have to say. Even if you do talk slow, less text on slides is always a good idea. The people should listen to you, not try to understand what your slides are saying.
What I usually do is just crank out slides with any text that I’d like to say, and then I go through them one or two times to refine and shorten the prases I used to be no more than four or five words for the most part. I also throw out slides when I realize they’re disrupting the flow or contain things I’m likely to talk about when I’m on a different slide.
Use a large font
Just do it. Not only does it make your slides more readable for everyone in the audience, it forces you to keep the information on a single slide short. My headlines are usually 60pt, my subheadings and bullet points around 45pt. The bigger the better.
While we’re talking about fonts, avoid italic. It’s a lot harder to read, especially when you mix it with a regular font. If you need to emphasize something, just make it bold. Italic fonts disrupt your slides’ flow.
Avoid full sentences
Except when you’re quoting someone. Short phrases or even just a single word are much easier to grasp for the audience, and they give you a better sense of flow.
Dark text on a bright background
A dark background only works for Steve Jobs, because his team does everything they can to adjust the lighting on location for his talk. You on the other end, have to assume the worst. If there’s just a little too much light coming into the room, your slides will be unreadable, when you use a dark background. I’ve even seen slides where people chose a dark background and just a slightly dark font.
You have no influence on the lighting in the room, and you’ll pretty much just embarrass yourself when your slides are unreadable. There’s just no excuse why you shouldn’t just use a light background and a dark font.
Avoid dark photos
Photos are at a similar risk. The more contrast you have in photos you’re using in your preso, the less likely people will be able to see them. I tend to not use a lot of photos in my slides anyway, but I just hate having to say: “Geee, that’s a bit hard to see, isn’t it?”
Slides are for the people attending the talk
Your slide set should not be focussed on being fully understandable by people who have not attended your talk. You end up with so called slideuments, presentations that read like a document. You’re talking for the people attending your talk, they probably paid to hear you speak, so focus your energy on giving them a good talk. If you want the rest of the world to know about details of your preso, write a blog post or put it into the presenter notes.
Video killed the conference star
I’ve seen video in presentations quite a few times, and honestly, it bores me to death, especially when there’s a voiceover on the video. If you must include video, at least talk yourself, taking the audience through whatever happens on the screen, especially because you don’t know how the audio is going to be at the venue. I’m well aware that live demos are a finnicky thing, but so is video. Not always do you have the luxury of using your own computer to do the presentation.
Avoid long code snippets
Code is simply hard to grasp within just a couple of seconds, and it’s awkward trying to explain larger chunks of it. Use short snippets instead. If you must include some longer examples, split it up in smaller bits, explaining them one by one. I tend to avoid overly complex code snippets. Trying to explain them properly just takes too much time.
Avoid flashy animations
They simply take up valueable time and distract the audience. Even though they’re nice to look at in theory, in practice they’re the bane of a well-built presentation. This is true for both transitions between slides and elements of a single slide appearing later. Just make them appear, not sparkle or fade in.
Practice, practice, practice
I find practicing a talk by speaking to myself awkward, not because it’s embarrassing, but simply because of the butterflies in my stomach I always end up saying different things in the actual talk. Now, that’s not to say you shouldn’t think about what you want to say. I tend to go through my slides several times, going through the things I associate with every single one of them, giving me a rough idea and a line of thought on what I want to say. This definitely is a lot easier to do when it’s a topic you’ve talked about before, but in general the above has worked much better for me.
Drink, drink, drink
It’s a simple fact that talking a lot lets your mouth run dry. I need about half a liter of water to get through a talk. Or at least I make sure I have that amount ready. Before you run dry and faint in the midst of your talk, drink, it’s not a shameful thing to do, it simply keeps you going. Shame on conference organizers not thinking about having drinks ready for their speakers. When in doubt, scout the talks before you and make sure you have a bottle ready should it not being taken care of.
Look at the audience, not the big screen
It should be so obvious, yet I’ve just seen people do it again at Cloud Expo. One of the guy’s slides had 14 bullet points on it, and the font probably was too small for him to be able to read it from the laptop screen. Another reason why I keep my slides short, they’re purpose is to keep me in a flow, to give me short reminders of what I want to talk about.
Don’t read your presenter notes
If you need presenter notes to run your talk, you need to practice more. They’re surely useful for people just looking at your slides, but if it takes full sentences to keep your talk running, you’ll end up wasting a lot of time trying to read what your notes say. Talking freely is a challenge, but the earlier you take it on, the faster you’ll get used to it. I’ve seen people use index cards with their presenter notes on them, handwritten, trying to decipher what they’ve written on them.
If you know what you’re talking about (at least the slightest bit), you’ll be fine without them, trust me.
Two’s not a company
Having more than one speaker is awkward, especially when one of them is just standing there for most of the time, waiting for his turn. Have one up in front at any one time, bring in the next person when it’s his turn. Simple like that.
Don’t ask questions
The audience simply won’t answer. If you ask anything, make the audience raise their hands on a topic, but don’t expect anyone to answer a specific question. That’s your task. Involving the audience sounds like a good idea, but they’re lazy, they want to learn something.
Jokes, tiny bits and stories
Stories and jokes can really lighten up a presentation. Sure, you shouldn’t tell jokes all the time, but something sarcastic thrown in from time to time sure can help to wake up the audience. Stories are even better, people love benefitting from real life experiences in any way. If it has a happy ending, even better.
Talking slowly is for wimps
The rule of spending two minutes on a slide is bullshit. It would only mean you’d have seven bullet points on a particular slide. You shouldn’t rush through anything, and I certainly try to avoid doing that, and it definitely depends on the topic you’re talking about, but when I talk about technical things I expect the audience to be curious about it and try to keep up. If they can’t, they can always come back to my slides or ask questions. But as always, it depends.
Talking fast is for the impatient
If it’s on more generic things that involve higher level topics, or some sort of longer-running workshop, it’s only appropriate to walk the people through it and take your time doing so. Usually in these situations it’s a lot easier to focus on a single topic. It just depends on how broad your talks topic is.
Take tiny breaks
Should you realize you’re sort of losing track, simply bring yourself back on the rails. Take a tiny break or just stop talking. You don’t need to apologize for that. It’s easy to start blabbering on about a certain topic which you didn’t even intend to cover in your talk. On the other hand, that’s what makes every talk unique, and is exactly why shorter phrases on slides are so much better. They keep your brain engaged, making up associations with certain things as you go, and they help keeping a talk interesting.
Avoid longer breaks though as people end up being bored, and you’re losing precious time. Longer breaks are usually a sign that you’re not as prepared as you should be. If you need to switch in between e.g. slides and a live demo, make sure that everything is prepared before the talk.
Talking in front of others is a challenge, no doubt about it, but there’s really no point trying to avoid it, because the only way to improve your skills is to simply talk in front of people. This is my view of the talking world. I constantly try to improve on my slides and think about what I’m doing wrong during talks to improve on that. I’ll never loose the excitement right before a talk, and that’s a good thing. When it becomes routine, you tend to bore people instead of engaging them. It’s about constantly improving yourself to simply become better at talking in front of others.
This is my view of giving presentations. Feel free to throw in your ideas, or even to disagree. These guidelines probably aren’t for everyone, and they might even change for me within just a couple of months, but most of them simply make sense to me. I do need to get me a good remote though, since with my larger slide sets, I find myself hitting the space bar a lot.