This very amusing short video of a routine by comedian Don McMillan illustrates in a very effective way some common traps people fall into when designing presentation slides.

Which of Don’s mistakes do you commonly make?

And now for the News

August 16, 2012

Although there are lots of ways these days to keep up with what’s going on in the world, I still tend to watch the news on the TV once or twice a day. News broadcasts are a way of getting information across to people and involves people talking supported by visuals, so they are, in effect, a type of presentation.  And I think there are lessons that can be learnt about presentations from watching the TV news

One of the main problems with most presentations I attend is that the presenter has limited time but uses a deck of Powerpoint slides crammed full of information. In many cases every single point they make is reproduced in a list of bullet points on screen. The speaker isn’t really needed. All the information is on the slides. And because most of the audience will attempt to frantically copy down the words, they don’t hear the speaker, who might as well not be there!

TV news bulletins aren’t like this. The following is a clip from a typical BBC news bulletin.

The bulletin uses lots of visuals – it is TV after all. There are a lot of video clips that illustrate the point but there is no attempt to convert everything that the news presenters say into words. There are some “slides” where key facts are displayed, and one quote from the Prime minister. But they are limited and note how they don’t have much information displayed at any one time.

On the TV News the spoken word is the main way of conveying the information with relevant pictures used to support what is being said, and with limited use of text and graphics. TV news is really meant to be an overview of what’s happening in the world. There isn’t time in a news bulletin to give all the detail. If anyone does want to know more they can turn to other sources much more suited to presenting large amounts of detailed information – such as a newspaper or, these days, websites. With presentations, rather than try to cram everything on slides so the audience can copy them down, provide a handout they can take away.

Presenters can learn  a lot from TV news

  • time is limited, so keep to the essential points,
  • Use good quality images to support what’s being said,
  • use text and graphics sparingly
  • there should be minimal text on slides
  • provide a handout or references in case the audience wants to know more

It occurred to me the other day that the problem with the phrase “Powerpoint presentation” is the word “Powerpoint”.  What I mean by that is that when somebody delivers a “Powerpoint presentation” the emphasis is on the “Powerpoint” rather than the “presentation”. And, for me, that’s the wrong way round.

Presenters will often start preparing their presentation by opening up Powerpoint, or some other “slideware” program, on their computer and start typing. What they’re actually doing is creating an outline for their talk. That’s not a bad idea in itself. The talk needs to have a structure. But  doing it this way means that they end up with a deck of wordy slides that aren’t really what they need.

The presentation isn’t the deck of slides – it’s what the presenter has to say. The slides are visual aids that should support this. The audience doesn’t need to see the outline. They need appropriate images and key words that emphasise what the speaker is trying to get across without being a distraction.

For me best practice on presentation design is to follow the approach advocated by Garr Reynolds in Presentation Zen and Nancy Duarte in Resonance

  • work out the objective of the talk – what you want the audience to know or to do at the end
  • work out the key points that need to be covered
  • organise the key points to create an outline for the talk
  • decide what visual aids you’re going to use – it doesn’t have to be Powerpoint slides,other approaches can be better
  • if you’re going to use slides, start to think about their design

All of these are best done before switching on the computer.

Taking this approach would mean you’re concentrating on the presentation rather than the Powerpoint . And that’s a much better emphasis.

I  recently came across a slide deck posted on Slideshare by Chris Atherton. She’s a psychologist and used to be a Senior Lecturer (formerly Lecturer) in Psychology at the University of Central Lancashire. She’s now working as a User Experience Architect for Numiko ltd

The slides are from a presentation Chris made in April at the Leeds Bettakultcha. According to their website this is:

an evening of short talks accompanied by digital slide presentations. The presenters are all volunteers who have based their talk around something that they are passionate about – which can be absolutely anything.

The format of Bettakultcha talks is 20 slides for 15 seconds each (they transition automatically), and you can talk about anything you want. Chris chose to talk about (what else) psychology.

Too many people use Powerpoint in a bad way – either creating an outline or using it as a script. In either case that results in badly designed, over wordy slides. The slides for a “lecture” type presentation should be visual aids to supplement what the presenter is saying, not to reproduce the talk or act as a teleprompter. They should be visual with minimal words that add to what the speaker is saying. Now this means that if the slides are posted onto Slideshare , where the speaker isn’t present, the slide deck can look pretty meaningless. Chris has got over the problem by annotating the slides with a summary of what she said. The annotations on the slides were added afterwards  so that they make sense to the viewer. They weren’t present on the originals. I’ve noticed that a few people have started to do this and it’s a technique that I’ve started to use with presentations I’ve uploaded to Slideshare.

She hasn’t used Powerpoint – she’s tried something quite different. The slides are hand drawn on an iPad using the Paper”. It’s a, fresh, original approach. You’d have to be reasonably good at drawing to use it, though.

Chris Atherton at @Bettakultcha Leeds from Chris Atherton

As well as showing a fresh, inovative approach to slide design, I think that this presentation is a really good example  of how to get a technical topic across to a lay audience in a limited time with well designed slides!

 I spend quite a lot of my time these days teaching and training small groups in a classroom setting. Inevitably this involves making presentations using the default tool – Powerpoint.

In one of the first posts on this blog I reflected on the problems inherent in using  “slideware”, like Powerpoint, in the classroom. The key points were:

  • learning should be active – slideware is passive
  • it isn’t good at distributing large amounts of information
  • it inhibits spontaneous feedback
  • it is not good in conveying information using non-linear paths
  • it is not good at recording input from the audience

There are some other problems too. When preparing slides the standard template drives you into producing lists of bullets. This is what Edward Tufte calls the “cognitive style” of Powerpoint. Preparing a presentation using Powerpoint drives you into producing an outline of your talk. The outcome is really a set of speaker notes which is too detailed for the audience.

Faced with slides full of bullets, I find that most people tend to try and reproduce all the points. Their attention  is divided and as they have to concentrate on copying from the slides, so they can’t listen properly to what you’re saying.

Well, they’re the problems I’ve identified, and I’m sure there are others too. What can we do to get over them?

The first thing is to ask yourself whether making a presentation with a stack of slides is the best approach for the class. Active learning, where the learners are engaged, is much more effective than passive techniques where the instructor stands at the front and talks at the class. Consider the alternatives – hands on practicals, exercises, demonstrations, brainstorming, role plays, group work etc. Depending on circumstances it might be viable to incorporate one or more of these into a class. Introducing variation in the teaching methods is always a good idea. To me the best classes are more like a discussion than a lecture.

The second thing to ask is whether having pre-prepared slides is the best visual aid to use. Sometimes its better to revert to the old “chalk and talk” approach using a whiteboard, flip chart or some other active medium. This allows you to be more flexible and draw in and record contributions from the group.


Sometimes there are other options – using models or pieces of equipment you can use for demonstrations, or even pass around.

Where you decide that you need or want to use slideware, there are a number of things you should think about

try and minimise the use of slides. Ask yourself is there another way of getting this across? Use slides only for those points where its really necessary

Remember that slides are free! Break them up. Ideally each slide should focus on one point (although you may want to include some summary slides that pull together the key points, but even then don’t cram too much on one slide – have your summary list on two or more slides if necessary)

Use diagrams and pictures where possible. I’ve attended many presentations where the presenter has slides full of words when a diagram would have been better.  For example, which of the following slides on the structure of the eye would you prefer?



Have more slides than you need to cover the main options. This will allow you to be flexible – calling up whichever slide is most appropriate depending on how the discussion progresses. Using Powerpoint’s “presenter view” allows you to do this. Alternatively it may be able to include a menu with hyperlinks into the slide design.


Picture of the eye from

There’s a lot happening in the presentation world at the moment. I’ve signed up to a series of free webinars – “Outstanding Presentation Workshops” organised by Ellen Finkelstein and have already logged into the first three.

The second of these featured was Nancy Duarte of Duarte Design, the author of “Slide:ology” whose new book Resonate has just been published in the States (it’s now available yet in the UK but will be released in the near future). In this new book Nancy covers how to prepare, create and deliver presentations  According to her website it

“reveals how to transform any presentation into an engaging journey. You will discover how to understand your audience, create persuasive content, and elicit a groundswell response.”

During her “Outstanding Presentations Workshop” webinar, Nancy mentioned that she was giving a free webinar when the book is launched. Places were limited and were soon taken, so a second one was set up that I was able to register for.

During her talk Nancy set out the key themes of her book. Her presentation was excellent with extremely good visuals. That’s what I’d expect from Duarte Design. To me, there were no major new revelations. However, she pulled together key messages about how to create and deliver a presentation that will engage an audience, and her own presentation achieved this.

Presentations can be an effective means of communication and, in practice, “all business is about presentation”. The problem is that the majority of presentations are bad.

Nancy’s key point is that the best way to engage the audience is to turn the presentation into a story rather than lecture at them.  Her contention was that “we are all natural storytellers” and the right story can “create a human connection”.

Most presentations are like a report bombarding the audience with too many facts. The alternative approach is to use storytelling techniques which are dramatic and emotional and which make a connection with the audience. To achieve the latter presenters should make an effort to find out as much as they can about their audience before preparing their talk and attempt to increase “the area of shared experience”.

Rather than overwhelming the audience with information, every presentation should have one big idea – a “unique point of view” – and the presentation should be designed to move the audience to this.

Lessons can be learned from the techniques used by professional story tellers, particularly from the theatre. Presentations should be structured like a drama.

(diagram from

Developing this idea Nancy introduced a “presentation form” made up of a series of dramatic climaxes

pres form

Presenters should attempt to captivate their audience ensure that they identify a STAR moment that they will remember





So how did Nancy’s presentation hold up? Well she certainly applied the principles she’d set out to her webinar.

  • It wouldn’t be easy to research the audience for a webinar attended by a large number of people from all around the world, but she would have known that the majority of people participating would be interested in presentations and would probably be aware of her work. So she’d be able to prepare with an audience profile in mind.
  • She used a story telling approach, peppering her talk with lots of examples and anecdotes
  • She used the dramatic structure she advocated
  • I’m not sure that there was a single STAR moment. Although there were several key points, none of them stood out as more important or captivating than the others.

Nancy Duarte Webinair

September 23, 2010

Yesterday evening I logged on to the second of the “Outstanding Presentation Workshops” series of webinars organised by Ellen Finkelstein. They  are led by some well-known personalities from the world of presentation coaching and you can register for them free of charge. Its a great initiative and thanks to Ellen for organising them.

The speaker last night was Nancy Duarte of  Duarte Design, the author of Slide:ology and a forthcoming book Resonance. Her talk was entitled “Think like a Designer: design principles that will make you a rock star“.

I’ve participated in a webinar led by Nancy before (see my post Duarte’s Six Tips for Remote Presenting). She’s a good (although perhaps not great) speaker and puts her principles into practice, producing some very good slides that enhance what she has to say. So one of the benefits of logging into her talks is to see really well designed slides and how they can be used effectively.

Nancy based her talk around the themes that she sets out in Slide:ology, so there weren’t any major new revelations for me, but it did reinforce some key points. I’d have liked to have heard more about the ideas in her new book, which is due out next week, so I was a little disappointed. She’s giving a free webinar next week when the book is launched, but all the places are taken, so I’ll have to miss out on that, although she did say that she would post a broadcast of the event on the web.

The key points I picked up  from yesterday’s presentation were :

Importance of design

  • Design driven companies perform better than average (evidence from British companies performance on FTSE)


  • Powerpoint is the second most used program by businesses after e-mail (I’d have thought Word would have been used more, but I’m sure she’s got some figures to back this up)
  • Powerpoint isn’t “evil”, but it is usually badly used
  • The Powerpoint default setting is the source of a lot of the problems (i.e. leading to slides comprising lists of bullet points in a hierarchical structure) – turn it off!

Presentation design

  • Make the presentation memorable
  • Identify one piece of information that will stick with the audience

Slide design

  • Minimise “noise” on slides – keep them simple and to the point and strip out all unnecessary detail
  • Use white space as a design element
  • Text on slides needs to be readable by everyone in the audience
  • Convey one idea per slide

Using pictures

  • Represent ideas with pictures – slides should be visual
  • Don’t be obvious when selecting pictures – throw out your first idea – brainstorm to come up with new ideas


  • Slides are a backdrop to enhance the presentation – not the “main event”!
  • Create more visibility and minimise noise

A couple of tools she mentioned during the talk were the Presentation landscape and the Glance test checklist. These are worth downloading from the Duarte website where you can also find some short presentations which get across Nancy’s message about presentation and slide design and also provide some examples of really well designed presentations.

I’ll be interested to see what ideas Nancy has included in her new book.

Next week the” Outstanding Presentation Workshops” webinar will be given by Olivia Mitchell who has one of the best blogs on presentation skills “Speaking about Presentation”. As a regular reader of her blog, I’m looking forward to hearing what she has to say.