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Speaking for Geeks: Your Slides

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At most tech events, the audience and the producers expect you to have some slides to show alongside your presentation. I recently gave a talk without any slides at all and I think I made the audience uncomfortable.

Creating great slides for a presentation is a subject that others have covered in great detail elsewhere. It’s the subject of entire blogs and books. Presentation Zen is probably the best known of these.

I’m not going to try and provide you an exhaustive list of what to do and not to do with your slides. Instead, I’m going to give a few tips that help me, and call out some of the most obvious common errors I see tech presenters repeating.

See if you can find out what aspect ratio the projector or screen you’ll be using is in. If you create 16:9 wide format slides but end up projecting on an ancient 600x800 projector, most of your content will be squished, off the screen, or otherwise unusable. If you can’t find out the format, use a standard 4:3 aspect ratio. It’s easier to display a 4:3 image on a 16:9 screen than vice versa.

Find out how big the room will be and what sort of lighting is in there, if possible. A brightly lit room that’s super deep requires a much higher contrast color scheme to be visible in the back of the room than a dark, small room. If in doubt, go high contrast: white on black or black on white.

Avoid words on your slides. Your slides are not content. They’re supporting your content. They don’t need to stand alone. No one needs to read them without you around. By putting lots of words on the screen, you’re losing your audience. They start reading the text, and since they can read faster than you can talk, they reach the end of the slide before you do. Then they go off and read their email, or daydream, or start their expense report. You’ve lost them and good luck getting them back.

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If you have 10 words on your slide, you probably have too many. Regardless of how many words you have on a slide, don’t read them verbatim to your audience. We can read, thank you. We don’t need you to do it for us. And we can read faster than your verbalizing. One way to make this easier is to just not put text on your slides at all.

If you’re in a situation where someone really does need to read your slides without you around, consider creating two versions of the slides. One that you present, and one that you leave behind. When I advise startups on pitching for investment, I recommend this approach. Have the “pitch deck” that investors expect full of details, but present from a “presentation deck” that just has supporting information like charts and diagrams.

Your slides should illustrate your point. They’re a visual to anchor the audience’s eyes and keep them from wandering to something else, like their email. Think about when you watch TV news. The anchorwoman is talking to you. Behind her is a graphic that explains what you’re hearing about. The graphic doesn’t try and convey all the information the anchorwoman is giving you, it’s just there to tell you what she’s talking about. When it changes, you know she’s moving to a different topic.

Don’t put animations in your slides. “Transitions” or “animations” are one of the worst things that PowerPoint and other presentation software ever gave us. Flying, fading, spinning, zooming objects all over the place distract the audience. They have no substance.

A more practical reason to avoid animation is that it often breaks when moving from one environment to another. You’re expecting your content to come sliding in, but when it’s viewed on the laptop the conference is showing all presentations from, it doesn’t show up.

Unless you’re a designer or you have a designer helping with your presentation, use a pre-existing template for your slides. Both PowerPoint and Keynote come with a bunch of them. You can also buy templates from a variety of sources for reasonable rates. The simpler the better, at least until you have some experience under your belt.

Presenters that try and design their own templates often end up with things that are unreadable when shown on a big screen in a large room.

Don’t put things on your slides that don’t need to be there. The page number on every screen isn’t needed. No one’s going to later ask you to pull up page 6 of your talk. Assuming you’re presenting to a public audience, leave off the ubiquitous “proprietary and confidential” footer. If it were confidential, you wouldn’t be showing to a room full of people.

Conversely, I DO like to put a logo and my contact info—either email or Twitter — on every slide. This makes sure that if someone takes a picture of your side and posts it somewhere, people can tell where it came from.

Don’t try and copy someone else’s style. When Lawrence Lessig’s culture remix and Dick Hardt’s Identity talk came out, I spent years sitting through bad clones of the rapid fire style of those talks. 300 slides in 30 minutes is hard to do well, and no one did it well.

Have your contact information on a slide early in the talk. Repeat that slide at the end of your deck. I leave that up while I answer questions and wrap up.

In most presentation software, when you’re in presentation mode and you advance past the last slide, the software exits presentation mode. To keep from accidentally doing this, I put a single blank black slide as my last slide. Then if I accidentally go past my contact slide, I can go back one.

I often give a talk on the subject of Public Speaking for Geeks. Here’s the slides from that talk, so you can see some of the principles here in action.

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