Practicing slide:ology

August 23, 2009

As a marketing professional, the favorite part of my job is the time I spend with customers. This past week I was asked to host a senior government delegation in our Executive Briefing Center. Since the 45 minute slot was supposed to encourage conversation, I brought a single slide as a visual aid. Imagine my surprise when I was told that the previous day another vendor had used 75 slides to accomplish the same outcome.

Why do people rely so heavily on PowerPoint for their presentations? And why are most PowerPoints really bad? In slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations, Nancy Duarte, who did Al Gore’s slides for “Inconvenient Truth,” makes the case that most of us confuse presentations with documents, that we don’t spend enough time preparing for presentations, and that we don’t apply the basic rules of design to our presentations.  Here’s Nancy summarizing the book:

The book divides presentations into three types:

  1. Documents
    Slides contain more than 75 words each which are essentially a word document in another format.
  2. Teleprompter
    Slides with ~50 words each which are primarily used to guide an un- or under-prepared speaker.
  3. True presentation
    Slides that are mostly visual which reinforce the presenter’s message.

To support this last point, Nancy reminds us that “…listening and reading are conflicting activities. However, it is natural for people to simultaneously pay attention to both verbal and visual communication. That’s why great slides serve as a visual aid that reinforces the speaker’s message.”

Most of the book focuses on how to create slides by thinking like a designer. The basics of good presentation design (contrast, flow, hierarchy, proximity, unity, and whitespace) are covered in enough detail to understand them without overwhelming you. However, there’s also a great recommendation for how to develop your presentation flow: write on Post-It notes since you’ll be forced to condense complex thoughts into a series of single ideas and rearrange the note until you have the best flow.

None of this is easy. Creating good slides requires work and forces us to have better presentation skills.  After all, without the teleprompter you have to practice a lot more.

(Thanks to Vinay for pointing out the book to me)