Creating Effective Presentations – Part 1 – Overview

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There are many types of technical presentations that you may be called upon to do.  Perhaps you have to prepare one for a graduate course term project, to impress a client or a prospective employer, to teach something to a group of people, or to present your paper at a conference.  There are important design and content features specific to each of these types of presentation.  However, there are a few basic tips that apply to all presentations and these are what I’ll be discussing in this post.  Future posts will deal with the specifics for various types of presentations.

Perhaps the easiest way to provide tips on effective presentations is to illustrate what NOT to do.  Let’s look at a few slides as examples. (You can click on each slide to see a clearer view.)

What’s wrong with this first one? Here are my thoughts:

  1. There’s too much text:  If you put of tons of text on your slide, people will actually spend their time reading instead of listening to you.  It’s just human nature – give them something to read and they will read it. Some will finish ahead of you and fidget impatiently as they wait for you to move to the next slide, others will only be halfway through when you move on.  The former group will be bored, the latter will be frustrated. Neither will get much out of your presentation.
  2. The colours are hard on the eyes:  The dark background and dark font together give me a headache.  It’s almost impossible to read it.
  3. The slide is too crowded: Between the cutesy swirl at the top and the big logo at the bottom – there’s not enough room for everything.  Consequently the text is too small.  Despite their compulsion to read it, people will find it difficult (and irritating).  Try not to waste too much slide space on extraneous content such as swirls and logos.

Here’s another example of a slide with similar problems.  In this case, there’s’ a photo as the background.  Granted, it’s a pretty cool photo – kindly provided by Claudine Girouard – but if you make the background this busy, it’s hard for people to see the message you’re trying to get across, especially in a large room.

So – try these tips:

  • Limit the amount of text (bulleted keywords, to trigger your memory, are the best).
  • Avoid detailed backgrounds and photographs as backdrops.  If you absolutely have to have a photo as a backdrop – do it on the first (title) slide only.
  • Visit the room you’ll be presenting in and test your font sizes by viewing your presentation from the back of this room.  If you don’t have an opportunity to do this – then err on the large side for the fonts.  No one is going to complain because your slides were too easy to read. 🙂
  • Avoid using dark fonts on dark backgrounds. If you must have a dark background, use white or bright yellow fonts.  Red is seldom a good font colour on anything other than a white background.  Note also – most of the standard colour schemes provided with your presentation software are poor in this regard.

What else can we say about these slides?  Well – if you stick to text alone, it’s going to be pretty boring for your audience.  So try to incorporate graphical elements to illustrate your points wherever possible. Examples of these include graphs, maps, photographs, short video clips, and diagrams. I generally aim to have one graphical element per slide, with a couple of brief bullet points (at the most) to go along with it.  Often I have no text at all – I just show the graph or photo and provide all the words when I present it.

In technical presentations, the most common visuals are graphs and these are often done poorly, as well.  The biggest mistake you can make is to just cut and paste a graph from a paper.  Here’s an example below to illustrate what I mean. This figure is very effective in the actual paper – but you can’t expect it to do double duty as a presentation graph. For one thing, it’s kind of boring to stick to black and white in the presentation; even more important though is that all of the fonts are way too small.  No one will have a clue what you’re trying to show here.  The truth is, we need two versions of each figure – one for the paper and one for the presentation.

(Source: Neill and Andres, 1984)

Here below is another common example of what  I see in many (bad) presentations.  Again poor choices regarding font colours and font sizes contribute to making this slide illegible.

Here below is an example of how large font sizes and meaningful colour choices can make this same graph very effective. Note also that the source of the data has been cited – it’s critically important to cite the sources of all the figures, data, ideas, and photographs that you use in your presentations, unless they are your own, otherwise you are plagiarizing.

Imagine that from the back of the room – very easy to interpret! Really, you can’t beat a white background and large fonts for clarity and ease of viewing.  Using figures (and tables) effectively is a topic in itself – one that is important both to technical writing and presentations – so please check out my post on that topic (click here) if you want more specific advice on that.

Hopefully you’ll find these few tips will help you to improve the quality of your presentations.  Please use the comment feature to provide feedback or to provide your own tips and experiences.  In upcoming posts I’ll be providing some more specific advice for different types of presentations, starting with conference presentations.

Thanks for visiting this blog!

Cited Reference:

Neill, C.R. and Andres, D. (1984)  Freeze-up flood stages associated with fluctuating reservoir releases. Proc. Third International Specialty Conference on Cold Regions Engineering, CSCE/ASCE, Montreal, Quebec, 249-264.

4 thoughts on “Creating Effective Presentations – Part 1 – Overview

    Sharon Hicks said:
    September 28, 2012 at 3:03 pm

    excellent, clear and concise and straight to the point 🙂 … good presentation 😉

      Faye Hicks responded:
      September 28, 2012 at 3:11 pm

      Thanks Sharon! 🙂

    […] to every type of presentation – I’ve already outlined those in detail in an earlier post (Creating Effective Presentations – Part 1 – Overview), so if you haven’t yet read that, please pop over there and read it first.  It covers the most […]

    […] presentation effectively. This is the third in a series – so if you not seen any of the earlier ones, I suggest you go back now and read those two earlier […]

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