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Presentation Skills: Slide Design

Design Your Visuals for Maximum Impact.

In the hands of a skilled presenter, PowerPoint slides can be a powerful tool. But if you misuse them, slides can have all the impact of alphabet soup. How can you make sure your visuals are helping—not hindering—your presentation?

We've talked about how visuals (PowerPoint slides, presentation graphics, charts, tables, and graphs), used wisely, can support and reinforce your main messages. (See our article Visuals Can Power Your Presentation, if You Know How To Use Them.) Yet we still see presentations that could have been far more effective if only the visuals themselves were done right. All that's needed is to follow a few time-tested rules.

Keep them simple and clear.
Fill your slides with all the data they can hold and your listeners will spend their time deciphering the data, shifting their focus from you to the visual. Fully packed visuals also are harder to read. As a result, they obscure your message rather than support it. And don't make the mistake of thinking you can use your visuals as your script. Visuals are not note cards.

Instead, design your visuals for at-a-glance comprehension. This serves to keep your listeners focused on you and helps them grasp your main points quickly. You can't present everything, so capture the most essential information on your visuals and save the rest for handouts. It may help to envision your visual as a roadside billboard, with a message that must come across instantly.

"Fully packed visuals... obscure your message rather than support it."

The challenge is tougher when you're trying, though your visuals, to convey especially complex ideas simply. Tougher, but not impossible. So as you prepare your presentation, work to reduce your information to its essence.

Some rules about text.
Use key words only. Limit your text to six lines. Make your text easily visible. Your visuals must be clearly visible to everyone in your audience, including those sitting in the last row. Pay attention especially to font size. Don't ever find yourself having to say, "I know you can't see this, but..."

For titles, a 44-point font, plus or minus four points, is best; for body text, a 32-point font, plus or minus four points. Allow two inches of character height for every 20 feet of distance between the visual and the audience.

As to font styles, we can't cover the all the guidelines here. The safest bet: follow the keep-it-simple rule and stick with a limited number of styles. Sans serif fonts are easier to read than most other styles. In the end, base your choice on readability.

"A simple, solid, dark blue background with white or gold text offers the best contrast and readability."

Use color.
Color adds clarity and impact to your visuals. It attracts the eye. It increases focus and comprehension. It allows you to highlight key messages. Colors also communicate feelings and emotions. Red, for example, conveys both danger and financial loss.

As to background, we advise using solid colors. Avoid gradient backgrounds—those that progress from one color to a different color or shade on the same visual. Avoid also background images that only challenge your audience to decipher what lurks behind the text. A simple, solid, dark blue background with white or gold text offers the best contrast and readability.

It's true: a picture is worth a thousand words.
You're more likely to get your message across if you convey it in both verbal and visual form. Rather than writing text on your slides, whenever possible, use a graphic representation to support your point. This can bring a statement to life quickly. It also serves to improve retention.

Using charts and graphs.
Use charts and graphs to display numeric data. Some examples: line graphs, for showing changes or trends taking place over a period of time; bar graphs, for comparing magnitude; pie charts, for showing percentages. Again, the trick is to keep it simple. Limit your graph or chart to one idea. And limit the data you put on a chart or graph. The more you include, the harder it is for your audience to comprehend.

The bottom line: visuals will not automatically improve your presentation. Only the right visuals will support and reinforce your key messages. Find out how you can design visuals for maximum impact. You can attend a presentations seminar or work privately with one of our consultants to optimize your visuals to support your presentations.

This Issue

To make sure your visuals are really helping your presentations, let our consultants help you match your material to your goals. Call us for some one-on-one coaching; we'll come to your location to work with you or a group of colleagues. You can also attend one of our regularly scheduled seminars that will help you design effective visuals and build your overall presentation skills, honing your skills for building persuasive arguments. For more information, follow the links or give us a call at 1-800-874-8278 or outside the US, +1 201 894 8200.

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