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?

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 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

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.

Teaching and presentations

August 31, 2010

Watching the video of the talk given by Garr Reynolds at Duarte Design recently, I picked up on a couple of side comments he made about teaching

  • using a whiteboard rather than slides when teaching
  • good teaching is where the teacher talks less

These are good points and I’ve reflected on similar lines here, here and here.

Teaching shouldn’t just be about talking to learners – they should be engaged. I’ve felt for a long time that a good teacher or trainer will draw his learners into a conversation rather than lecture at them and although classes should be properly planned and prepared the best teachers are flexible in their approach and don’t simply put up lists of points they’ve prepared in advance. That’s why I too, often prefer to use the old-fashioned approach of developing points on a flipchart or whiteboard as a discussion develops.

However, slides do have their uses. There are different teaching situations and what visual aids are appropriate depend on the context. Giving a lecture to a large group of students is not that much different to making a business presentation, and the use of well designed slides is usually a good approach.  With small groups in the classroom, slides still have a role but should be used carefully.

Garr Reynolds is one of the leading advocates of designing simple visual presentation slides avoiding bullet points. His book “Presentation Zen” is one of my favourites on the presentation design and I’m a regular reader of his blog. He visited London recently, but only gave one public talk, so although I’d have like to hear him speak, it wasn’t feasible. However, he recently gave a presentation at Duarte Design who have put a video of his talk online. Garr lives in Japan and is influenced by their culture. In his talk he uses the Japanese bathhouse and associated rituals as a metaphor for preparing and  making a presentation – a different way of looking at things!

Garr Reynolds at Duarte Aug ’10 from Duarte Design on Vimeo.

The key points can also be viewed on his blog.

It’s interesting to see how Garr puts his ideas into practice. His slides are certainly very visual with minimal words (in most cases). Your attention is focused on him and what he’s saying rather than loads of words written on the screen (which many of the audience would end up transcribing instead of listening). So he does practice what he preaches.

One thing I wasn’t so keen on was that on a few slides he had some lengthy quotations which he read out verbatim. I think this jars a little with his message on good presentation design. I think that if a speaker wants to use quotations, it’s better to let the audience read it for themselves with the speaker bringing out the key point afterwards. Alternatively leave the quotation off the slide.

As someone who writes about making presentation, there is always a danger that he could get “shot down” when he speak by not practising what he preaches. But I think he does a pretty good job in this talk.


There are quite a number of blogs and websites focusing on presentations. One of the best is Olivia Mitchell’s Speaking about Presenting. In her posts Olivia provides lots of useful tips and ideas for presenters and her readers often comment on the posts, sometimes opening up an interesting debate.

In a recent post about presentation handouts, it was recommended that they’re distributed at the beginning of the presentation. This is somewhat controversial as many presenters prefer to give them out after they’ve finished speaking. The recommendation is justified by reference to some recent research involving University students.

The posting has led to an interesting debate where a number of people have posted comments arguing against this. Olivia has subsequently acknowledged that there are circumstances where its better to distribute them after the event in a follow up post. It’s good to see someone taking on board comments and modifying their view rather than taking a dogmatic position. Well done Olivia!

First of all a few words about the research Olivia refers to. I haven’t read the paper that was published but I’ve looked at the abstract and read a summary that was published on the web by the British Psychological Society (BPS).  Now, we have to be careful when drawing conclusions from any research. The findings will depend on what exactly is being tested, the scope of the study  and the methodology used. In this case there are many contextual factors which could affect the findings and they are unlikely to be applicable to all circumstances. It seems that the research involved only two studies with groups of University students and that the materials concerned appear to have been copies of the lecture slides – not exactly conforming to Olivia’s recommendations regarding the format of good handouts. There are a number of comments made on the BPS blog posting questioning the study methodology. I personally have serious doubts about the validity of this study and don’t think the findings can be generalised to justify the need for handouts to be given out before a lecture or presentation. A lot more work, covering a wider range of situations and a more thorough methodology would be needed to win me over.

My own view on this is that it’s “horses for courses”. There are some circumstances where I’ll distribute material in advance of a presentation and others where the audience have the materials in advance or they’re handed out at the beginning of the session. It really depends on what I’m doing.

If I’m giving a talk to a conference or professional meeting, I don’t give out anything in advance. During my presentations I like to incorporate some element of “surprise” where I interact with the audience and “reveal” points during the presentation. If the audience had copies of the slides (or even a more detailed handout) in advance the effect is ruined. Also, my own experience is that if I’m listening to a presentation where I’ve been given the handout in advance I can’t help but flick ahead of the speaker – I think that would be the case with many other people too.  Anyone who does this is not listening to the speaker – they’re distracted. The counter argument is that if the speaker is interesting this won’t happen, but I’m not convinced.

A few times a year I give lectures to relatively large groups of students studying for a Masters degree. Quite a lot of them are from overseas and not everyone has good English language skills. In this case I do distribute notes at the beginning of the class. But they aren’t copies of the slides. They’re more detailed course notes that they need to read after the lecture. I may refer to specific sections during my talk, but don’t expect the students to sit reading them during the lecture. Even with a large group I try to interact with the audience, asking questions and trying to generate some discussion. I do worry that some of the overseas students may not follow everything I’m saying and that’s something I perhaps need to reflect on in the future.

A lot of my work involves teaching smaller groups (typically 8 to 12) on professional training courses. They’re very intense week long courses with an exam on the last day. There’s a lot to learn so we send out the course manuals a few weeks in advance hoping the delegates will spend some time working through the materials before the course. When I first started training (over 20 years ago now – time flies), the classroom sessions were like lectures where the delegates sat and listened. However, over the years I’ve changed my approach and now try to run them interactively. Due to the amount of material we have to get across its difficult to completely avoid lecturing, but I’m making a lot of effort to turn the classes into workshops wherever possible. Now as we go through the sessions, the majority of the delegates work through the manual, often highlighting sections and making additional notes, but they keep engaged due to the small group size and my approach (with a small group I can tell if anyone is drifting away). It does present some difficulties as I like to throw out questions – to keep the delegates listening and thinking (and stopping them nodding off!). If they have the answer in front of them this can defeat the object! I’ve been reflecting on this and one idea I’ve come up with is to look at modifying the materials so they become more of a workbook with spaces for classroom exercises and the like. It would take some work to modify the course notes, but it’s something I’m looking to try out in the near future.

My own experience suggests that it’s wrong to generalise about when to distribute materials. It really depends on the situation. We need to be flexible and adapt to circumstances.