4 Tips and 1 Tool That Will Help You Perfect Your Slide Design

Slide Design - Illustration of Magnets on side of human headA good presentation depends, at least partly, on good slide design. Surprisingly, if you want to make great presentation slides, it helps to understand a little bit about the human attention span.

Let’s start with you.

Picture yourself arriving at the last presentation you attended.  You were probably one of many people there and could melt into the crowd; you were interested, but preoccupied. You had a phone in your pocket, a to-do list in your head, and your next meal on your mind. The presenter was vulnerable. In the next few moments, she could completely captivate you — or lose you entirely.

Despite our penchant to try and do several things at once, studies show that humans can’t actually multitask effectively. Instead, we switch our attention rapidly between tasks.  In fact, research shows that “multitasking” gets in the way of productivity, and it decreases our efficiency by as much as 40%. MIT Neuroscientist Earl Miller explains, “People can’t multitask very well, and when people say they can, they’re deluding themselves… The brain is very good at deluding itself.”  Couple that with the most popular problem in our technology-obsessed culture, the ever shrinking attention span and it can seem difficult to connect with a crowd and make an impact.

Good news! (I think.) Despite being distractible, we’re also predictable little creatures and there are several reliable ways to capture and keep our attention. When we work with presentations here at Duarte, we start with storytelling, the ultimate attention grabber, which should always direct your presentation structure. However, in this article, we focus on using layout and design to grab your audience’s attention and guide it through the information so your message is broadcast clearly. These lessons apply whether you’re designing PowerPoint slides, Keynote slides, or presenting slides from the back of a napkin, and the best part is that we’ve developed a tool you can use to test if your slides will hit the mark BEFORE you get up in front of a crowd.

Why Good Presentation Slides Must Pass the Glance

Since people can’t multitask, that means that audiences cannot simultaneously read your dense, bullet-riddled slides AND listen to you AND understand what you mean. Thus, your slide should function more like a billboard than any other media.

presentation slide as a billboard

We call this “glance media.” The audience should be able to quickly grasp the meaning of the slide before turning back to the presenter. And they should be able to do it in three seconds or less.

We also think it’s helpful to think of your presentation slides as broadcasting information the way a radio transmission does—there’s the signal and then there’s noise. Your signal, or message, is susceptible to interference, which can distort the communication and diminish the audience’s ability to discern meaning and intent.

We developed the Glance Test in conjunction with Glenn Hughes at KLA Tencor as a litmus test for the readability of slides; it allows you to quantify the effectiveness of slides as a glance media by calculating a signal-to-noise ratio for each slide. In particular, the Glance Test focuses on the singularity of the message, its audience relevance, the clarity of its visual elements, the data presented, the helpfulness of diagrams, its arrangement, and the animation used.

Glance Test for Presentations

Before you present, you should evaluate each slide in your presentation using the criteria in the Glance Test. If an attribute on the slide takes away from the slide’s clarity, fill in the “noise” bubble; if the attribute helps the meaning come through clearly, fill in the “signal” bubble.  Then total up each column—the higher the signal, the clearer the slide. Rework any items that contribute to the noise.

Essential Tips for Designing Presentation Slides that Pass the Glance Test

If you want to make good slides for your presentation and ensure you design slides which pass the Glance Test, focus on the following aspects while you are creating them.

Design Slides that Communicate a Single Idea

Always keep in mind your ultimate goal: making your information easy to digest and understand. Trying to say too much will confuse your audience and cause you to fail the Glance Test from the start. Restraint is crucial:

  • On the macro-level, always know your Big Idea. We’re talking about the goal of the presentation. This is also called the controlling idea, the gist, the takeaway, the thesis statement. Every single piece content needs to support this larger mission, so double check that it does.
  • Limit yourself to one idea per slide. Break-up complicated, multi-part concepts on separate slides and eliminate distractions for the audience, by directing them to focus on key messages and data.  Remember, if the information doesn’t directly ladder up to your big idea, kill it.

Design Slides Your Audience Cares About

This might seem obvious, but every presentation should be designed with your audience in mind. However, it gets deeper and more specific than you might anticipate. Every slide, every piece of information you’re presenting should attempt to speak to your audiences’ needs, concerns, and fears.  You want to talk to them in a way that builds trust and establishes emotional connections, and you want to anticipate their questions and their resistance. Many people take the audience into account on a macro-level, but if you’re committed to your audience, you’ll keep a persona slide at the beginning of your deck as you’re designing your presentation and refer to it as you’re editing each slide.

Your slide design should always keep the audience in mind. Use this persona template

Design Simple Slides with a Consistent Visual Style

When you strip multimedia messages of extraneous elements (like excess text, graphics, and animation) audiences learn from those messages more effectively. So, when you’re designing slides, keep simplicity in mind. Rather than adding elements to a slide for aesthetic purposes, ask yourself if there’s a good reason to put the element on the slide. If you can’t think of a reason, then it doesn’t need to be there.

Stick to one consistent visual style when designing your slide deck. Use the same typeface (or two),  the same color palette, and photographs in the same style throughout. This helps ensure that audience members don’t have to do extra work during the presentation to process new or unexpected visual elements and that they can focus on the meaning of what you are presenting.

Arrange and Layout your Slides with Care

Glance Test Blog Post Assets - Arranging Elements (2)

When you create your slides, pay special attention to how you arrange elements, since arranging them haphazardly can obscure meaning and confuse the audience. Here are several aspects of arranging you should focus on when designing your slides:

  • Flow: think about how viewers’ eyes will move around a slide. They might notice the biggest and brightest elements first, then move to the other slide elements.
  • Contrast: Human eyes are drawn to things that stand out. Thus, you can use contrast to focus the audience’s attention. Contrast slide elements using size, shape, color, and proximity.
  • White space: White space is just what it sounds like – the white, open space around a slide’s items of interest. Include a healthy amount of white space on your slides. This helps sharpen viewers’ focus by isolating the important elements.

Real Life Examples of Slides that Pass (and Fail) the Glance Test

Full disclosure, although we tend to work on developing new presentations here at Duarte, we also work on presentations using building blocks clients already have in place to enhance their everyday presentations.

We use our Glance Test to determine whether slides will be successful or not and to guide the updated design.

The goal of this presentation, which came to Duarte, was to inspire a group of beauty bloggers to feature a new product line on their websites and channels. To achieve this, our client wanted to communicate that there are genetically determined characteristics of skin clarity and that Product X, a scientifically developed organic formula, could improve all those skin conditions in any season.

Their first slides looked like this:

presentation glance test fail

These slides are hard to read! And kind of a bummer. They fail the Glance Test for many reasons including:

  • There is more than one idea per slide. For example, slide 2 is telling us that there are five factors of clear skin and that there are three key genes—these are two separate ideas and each deserves its own space.
  • The audience (skincare bloggers) probably doesn’t care very much about “3-key genes” that the scientists who developed the product care about.
  • The background is noisy and makes the information hard to grasp.
  • My eye is confused about where to look.
  • There’s no white space on the slides, the colors are drab, and there’s no clear contrast.
  • The photographs look random and like they came in from another presentation.

Once Duarte took a stab at it, we came up with this:

presentation glance test pass

  • We started by telling a story that matters to our audience (the skincare bloggers), and we focused on benefits to the customer.
  • We chose only the most important ideas for that audience and gave each idea a separate slide.
  • We chose colors and fonts that support the message, but that also appeal to the audience.
  • We turned scientific language into understandable language and gave it context that makes it matter.
  • We used contrast to emphasize what’s important on each slide.
  • We used white space to give the feeling of luxury and removed the cluttered background image.
  • We used photos that fit in with the general aesthetic of the slide.

As you can probably tell, this is a completely different presentation — and the concepts and message are clear and precise. These are the kinds of images and messages that will stop a group of technologically-connected, social-media-happy, utterly-distractible, skincare bloggers in their tracks.

This is what each of your presentations should aim to do: appeal to your audience, communicate simply and clearly, and display presentation slides that transform audiences. It takes a lot more effort to be simple and clear than it does to write down everything you know about a topic. Take it from Woodrow Wilson, who said, “If I am to speak for ten minutes, I need a week for preparation; if fifteen minutes, three days; if half an hour, two days; if an hour, I am ready now.”

Design / Tips


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