5 Tips to Make Your Next Presentation *POP*

July 26, 2017

Whether you use Keynote or Powerpoint, use these tips to totally deck out your upcoming presentation.

Tip #1: Know that mountain lions are deadly killers

So this woman is hiking in the Northern California foothills, when she suddenly realizes she’s being stalked by a mountain lion. The minute she realizes she’s in danger, she starts running, as fast she can, along the dusty trail. But of course, the mountain lion is no slouch, and he’s soon chased her to the edge of a steep cliff.

Somehow, through blind luck, this hiker is able to take hold of the root of a wild vine, and she swings herself over the edge. So now, instead of running, she’s just hanging there, in mid-air, looking like something out of a movie, clinging to this vine while a hungry mountain lion sniffs and snarls hungrily at her from above. Completely terrified, she looks down below her to see if maybe she can jump to safety. But just 10 feet below her dangling feet stands another mountain lion, ready to pounce the moment she drops.

So she’s hanging there, with only this vine to support her weight, and she sees two tiny kangaroo rats (you know the ones with the long tails, with the soft tuft at the end?) creep up along the side of the precipice. Little by little, they start to gnaw away at the vine.

Then, like a miracle, the woman sees an enormous, wild, juicy strawberry growing in a small patch of green leaves — and it’s just within reach. Suddenly she has an idea. Holding tight to the vine with just her right hand, she propels herself to the lone strawberry, plucking it free with her left.

And you know what? It was the sweetest fruit she’d ever tasted.

Okay, maybe you’ve heard that story before, or a version of it (like, maybe, the original one that the Buddha came up with it 2,500-ish years ago.) But even if you have, you’ve still traveled to another time, another place, your mind is engaged, and you’re in a state of active attention. That’s the power of narrative — and it’s a phenomenal way to start off any Powerpoint or Keynote presentation, before you even open your first slide.

Tip #2: Make sure your words don’t look like ancient hieroglyphs

This isn’t a knock against ancient hieroglyphs. Cuneiform tablets are incredible testaments to millennia-old human ingenuity and manual dexterity. But unless your name is Indiana Jones and we are literally inside the Temple of Doom, 99.999% of the people attending your presentation will not be able to read them. Also, it’s important to know that we don’t really mean you’re using hieroglyphs. We mean the typeface you’ve chosen is too elaborate and wing-dingy to be readable at a glance.

Look. We all want to have exciting looking slides, and choosing cool typefaces is a fun factor to play around with. But when it comes to text on a screen during a presentation, readability should be your #1 concern. Experts agree that many sans serif typefaces (your Helveticas, Arials and Trebuchets, por ejemplo) are the way to go for maximum readability. But it’s not necessarily an either/or situation. Like many aspects of life, it’s both/and. In terms of on-screen readability, sans serifs work beautifully in body copy. Serifs are super for titles and headings. (And one serif typeface in particular has been shown to incur more trust among statistically significant percentages of readers. So that’s worth considering.)

Tip #3: Hide the bullets (and bury the bodies)

This isn’t a perfect Get Out of Jail Free card, but as a general rule: Don’t use bullets, and don’t use body copy. (“But what about just before this when you said to use sans serifs for body copy—”) Good point. You could legitimately get away with using no sans serifs at all if you create a deck that is one line of text per slide, if that. Challenge yourself to cut your copy to a deck full of memorable one-liners, and you’ll have some 24-karat presentation gold on your hands.

Now, there are some cases when you may need to include more than just a witty slogan. And that’s okay. But the more you strive for brevity, the more you increase your chance for a standing ovation.

“But what about that story about the mountain lion? That wasn’t just a one-liner. That was soooo long.”

Thank you for bringing that up (and… thank you?). We’re not saying you can’t gab your face off. Talk all you want, just don’t make your presentation a textual play-by-play of the words coming out of your mouth. Just like imagery, the words on screen should complement and strengthen your running commentary, not duplicate it.

Tip #4: Find a family (of photos) that supports your cause

Having the right photography can make or break your deck. But it’s not just about having beautiful images. It’s about having visuals that support the words you’re saying out loud. Images that complement your message, and add life to your language. So, how do you find these perfect images?

Our friends at Hubspot have compiled an excellent list of some of the most useful stock photo websites of 2017. Each of these sites has a unique point of view when it comes to compiling photos to offer to the public. Find the one that fits your brand voice, then get shopping. Bonus tip: When looking for images for a presentation, don’t just troll photo collections for beautiful one-offs. Find a family of photos that work together to help you tell your story in a cohesive way. It’ll really help bring your deck together.

Tip #5: Make a chart your friend

Our EVP Managing Director Mary Puls changes a lot of things — her go-to hairstyle, her favorite fashion trend, her predictions for the future of artificial intelligence — but there’s one saying she’s been repeating for years: “A chart can be your friend.” And it’s true. But a poorly visualized chart can be more like a frenemy. You know, the kind that acts all sweet to your face but then steals your prom date for no other reason than to anger you? Like, seriously Megan?

Okay let’s get back on track. Here’s a bad chart, created by presentation hero Sean Johnson, and how he turned his frenemy chart into BFF territory.

Image Courtesy of Sean Johnson at Hackernoon

What did Sean do here? Well, he upgraded a sans serif headline into a serif headline, for starters. He also kept tiny text in sans serif, which again increases its readability. But that’s not all he did. In the spirit of data visualization icon Edward Tufte, he erased any non-data-related ink. If there was any graphic on this chart that didn’t directly convey crucial data to the audience, he made it disappear. Grid lines? Vanished. Irrelevant percentage points? Ixnayed. Headline that didn’t tell you right away what you were seeing? Fixed.

And just like that, a chart is our friend again.

Well, that was fun. We hope you will use these tips to supercharge your presentation powers, and deck the conference halls with boughs of succinct language and eye-catching graphics. Fa la la la la, la la la.

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