This post is the companion to an earlier one that I wrote about conference abstracts. In the same way that the last one was inspired by reviewing a ton of abstracts and noticing a recurring pattern in my suggestions, so this one comes from reviewing a bunch of slide decks for a forthcoming conference. They all look like good talks, but in several cases these great talks are fighting to get out from underneath the deadening weight of slides.
Herewith follows my highly-opinionated, fairly-subjective, and extremely-terse advice and general suggestions for slide decks. You can also find relating ramblings in this recent post too. My friend and colleague Vik Gamov also wrote a good post on this same topic, and linked to a good video that I’d recommend you watch.
Your slides are not your talk
Your slides are a visual aid for the audience. I have only just begun to really move away from this in my presentation style, and it is both liberating and scary at the same time.
It’s liberating because you now have the audience’s full attention and can really tell them the story you want to. It’s scary because you now have the audience’s full attention, and no slides from which to just read your content.
Slides on the screen behind you whilst you talk are COMPLETELY DIFFERENT from those that you want people to download and peruse and marvel at later.
People feel this itch that more content is better, that it gives them a safety blanket of things to say and talk about and remember to mention. But it’s not, it’s a distraction and a hindrance.
Bullet lists are great for takeaways slides, for things that you want people to access and understand afterwards without needing commentary. But that’s a different type of material that you’re preparing that presentation slides. I’ve seen the advice written to prepare two versions of a deck; one for presenting, one for download. I’ve yet to do that but whether you do or not be very conscious in building your deck of which type it is.
A common mistake is when it comes to code. I see people putting the complete code extract or configuration syntax on a slide. Invariably it is introduced with "you probably can’t read this at the back". Don’t do that. Quote just the relevant bit of code that’s under discussion.
More text is more confusing, is more stuff for people to read on the screen.
If they’re reading your slides they’re not listening to you
If it’s there, we’ll read it. The adverts on the underground (/metro/subway). A billboard at a traffic junction. The text on slides in a conference talk. And if we’re reading, we’re not giving our full concentration to what’s being said. I mean, there’s that nice lulling feeling of words going into our ears, sure, but now our brain is multitasking in groking two things. And I don’t know about you but whilst I can wash the dishes whilst giving my full concentration to a podcast, I sure as heck can’t comprehend what I’m reading whilst comprehending what I’m hearing.
It’s OK not to mention everything
Starting out with my first ever conference talk I saw slides as being the canvas upon which I must scribe my life’s work and understanding in the given subject of the talk. Every
I must be dotted, every
T crossed, every configuration option listed, every component explained. Wrong.
You have a time slot of 30 minutes in which to expound upon a very specific thing that you promised in your abstract. If it’s a technology-focussed conference it’s safe to assume that unless your talk is called "An introduction to <x>" then your audience already knows the basics (or, are open to the fact that they don’t).
Look at your abstract, and think what you want your audience to leave with at the end of it. How much of your slide content contributes to that, and how much is filler and background? Be ruthless, cut it back. Take another look? Does your message still make sense or does it lack context? Maybe add a bit more in. Season your slides sparingly!
Most technologies nowadays are so complex that you have to focus on just a particular part of it. If you try to prepare the audience with a full briefing on the technology, plus every other tool that you happen to mention as you go through your talk, they won’t really take anything useful away—unless your talk is "a primer to the <xyz> technology stack and ecosystem"
Use Less Text & Make the font bigger Bigger BIGGER
Make the font bigger. It makes more impact, it’s easier to read. You might have the luxury of presenting in a cinema with a ginormous screen behind you, but you might have a crappy beamer with a room of 100 people and half of whom can’t read what you wrote.
"But I can’t fit all my text on if I make it bigger"
→ Bingo, you’ve got too much text. Very, very rarely will there be text that absolutely must be on a slide and must be on the same slide. Most of the time you can either:
Cut the extra text entirely
Split the text over multiple slides
There’s this rule of thumb about slides-per-minute, and one slide per minute of talk. It’s kinda useful to gauge if you’re in the right ballpark, but in the law of unintended consequences, I think it leads people to think they must have fewer slides—and just put more on each. Much better to take a dense slide with three points on, split it over three, and rehearse your talk so that as you make those three contiguous points you’re clicking between the associated slides. And if it all needs to be on one, to emphasise some big point that you’re making, then you need a handful of words at most.
If I was to put this article into a slide deck (and maybe I should…) I’d put something like:
The slides are not your talk
Slides give you a basis from which to talk, and give the audience something to look at (not read) in between gazing in adoration as they listen to your dulcet tones.