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 came across this Vimeo video recently. It’s by Susan Weinschenk,  a behavioral psychologist who specialises in applying psychology to the workplace.

It’s produced in the style of the  RSA Animate series of talks by leading thinkers. In these animated videos you don’t get to see the speaker. You hear them talking while an artist creates a cartoon summary of the talk. It’s quite an effective technique.

The talk does what it says on the tin – provides 5 key points about how people respond when listening to a presentation. I’ve come across most of these points before, but Susan brings out some key lessons on what they mean in practice for the preparation and delivery of presentations

Her second point – “multiple sensory channels compete” – is particularly important in the context of slide design and reinforces the view that wordy slides should be avoided at all cost. When there’s too much to take in visually, your audience won’t hear what you’re saying.

The video is, in effect, a “taster” for her book 100 Things Every Presenter Needs to Know About People, and it’s done it’s job as I think it’s worth checking out the book.

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

On being emotional

October 28, 2010

A few weeks ago I signed up to the series of  “Outstanding Presentation Workshops” webinars organised by Ellen Finkelstein. So far I’ve watched all of them, either by logging on line or by downloading the video of the broadcasts that Ellen makes available the day after the webinar. They’ve all been very good, with some excellent presenters from the presentation training world in the USA (with one, Olivia Mitchell, from New Zealand).

In her talk, Nancy Duarte stressed that “all business is about presentation” and I think she has hit the nail on the head. Most people in managerial or white collar jobs, the self employed and even many “shop floor” workers have to get their point across to people whether they’re at a large gathering, small meeting or even one to one, and they need good presentation skills  to do this effectively.

Although there are a couple more webinars left in the series, I’ve noted some common themes that have come across from several of the sessions

  • good preparation is essential
  • make sure you have a clear objective
  • focus on the needs of the audience
  • use stories to engage the audience
  • slides are a backdrop to enhance the presentation – they’re not the “main event”
  • any slides or visual aids used should be well designed

I’d agree wholeheartedly with all of these.

In his talk, Jim Endicott made that point that presentations are about persuasion – getting people to think, believe and act differently – and that emotion is a powerful tool for achieving this. However, there is a danger that, unless it is used with caution, the presenter can cross the line into demagogy and manipulation. We see this all too often with some politicians – after all, what’s a political speech is not a presentation?

I’d accept that in the business world presentations are often about persuasion , but I think that there is also another reason Jim didn’t mention. Sometimes they’re about informing and educating, which is what we try to do when we we’re teaching and training.

Admittedly, sometimes persuasion is needed in the classroom – for example when a teacher is trying to get antagonistic students to understand the importance of the subject they’re being taught, or when employees are reluctant to listen to the message being put across in a training session. But where the audience is receptive and keen to learn the presentation isn’t about persuasion .

Good preparation, being careful with the use of visual aids are relevant to all types of presentations. Using stories or case studies to illustrate  the points being made and bring them to life is a good technique when informing and educating. However, although it might be needed when we want to captivate and enthuse our audience, using “emotion” isn’t necessary or relevant where  our objective is to get them to learn or understand. Then, we need to appeal to their intellect.