Use slides to amplify your message – not to derail it!

Presentation, documentation – and anything in-between

When considering slides as a media for communication, it is essential to consider and adapt the overall layout of the slides to fit the purpose of the communication. One overall guideline is to consider whether the slides are meant for supporting A) a stand-up presentation, or crafted for B) communicating and documenting findings and distributing these via mails or online… Ever too often, the pragmatic solution lies somewhere in-between: something you need to circulate via email as pre-read as well as present it in person.

Though the pragmatic solution is often a mix of the two, it can be very helpful to make a distinction between presentation slides and documentation, as mixing up the two will be a root cause for not getting your message across.

In general, stand-up presentations should support and amplify your message. You are telling a story, your audience shouldn’t have to read your story of off a slide show! Whereas for documentation slides, you need to convey the message without your verbal support.

This article will touch briefly upon the first type of presentation, and provide some overall guidelines as to how you fit your slides to the purpose of doing a stand-up presentation.


Presentation slides – for supplementing and amplifying YOUR story, not for telling it

Almost too often, whenever someone does a stand-up presentation, it is accompanied by a slide show. Often helpful, more often I would argue that slides are limiting for the presenter in actually delivering a message, and occasionally being plain disastrous!

So let’s uncover some do’s and don’ts of using slides for stand-up presentations. Few tips and tricks will turn your slides from distraction to actually supplementing and supporting the story your are telling.

How to actually build your storyline and structure your presentation, I will safe for later, and in this article focus more on layout – though storyline and structure is just as important – if not more so..!

To improve your slides for stand-up presentations:

  • Use imagery and visualisations, keep clean of text
  • Bring as few slides as possible, carefully select each slide and have a specific purpose for showing it

Use imagery and visualisations, keep clean of text

A rule of thumb is that your audience should not have to read anything of off the presentation beamed up. In general, if people are reading, they are not devoting their full attention to you and will be less likely to follow what you are saying, and confused as to whether they ought to focus on you as a presenter, or your slideshow. In addition, it is mentally tiring to read and listen simultaneously, and your audience will be slowly tranquilised and sleepy…

Way too often, I see presentations that consist only of text, outlined in a big messy list of a thousand bullets, nothing else. This will kill your audience! If this is your approach to stand-up presentation slides, ask yourself why you are bringing these text heavy slides? Because the information on the slide is important? If the information is important to the audience, why not just hand them the slides, and skip the presentation (assuming that your audience can read actually read…). If the purpose of the text-heavy bullet lists is to keep you – as a presenter – on track, you might want to change the approach. This could be by keeping the information as speaker notes or the like to make sure that you cover all relevant material, but do not show all of that information when presenting.

Use images and visualisation that support your story. Think of images and photos almost as cinematic effects to set the scene or mood. Find metaphors for your story or story elements. Images are more appealing and easier to remember than tons of words in long sentences.

Example below: Setting the scene for a strategic view, looking beyond the “clouds” of daily work, elevating the perspective to a higher level of abstraction.

Slide with mountain above skies

(Photo found on:

Use visualisations as “bread crumbs” or “cognitive map” to navigate and guide the audience through your structure and agenda. Providing an overview calms the audience, allowing them to focus on content rather than on figuring out where the presentation is going, and why you are saying what you say.

Bread crumbs can be introduced when setting the agenda by stating what you will be covering in the presentation. In the example below, illustrated with three bubbles: “Current offering”, “New direction” and “Implementation”.

Slide with bubbles as agenda items

Throughout the presentation these bubbles can then be used as “tracker” to guide the audience in terms of “where are we now”. This can be done by minimizing and moving the graphics to the upper right corner, highlighting the agenda element in focus, shading out the non-focus elements.

Slide with bread crumbs and light text

In the example above, text is included to guide the audience. The text is brief and should not overload the audience. Alternatively, the text can be replaced by photos that capture the essence of each textual element, as visualised in the example below.

Slide with bread crumbs and photos

Text in terms of brief headings can be a helpful mean for navigation in order to guide the audience through the structure or agenda of the presentation – but keep these brief and precise.

Bring as few slides as possible, carefully select each slide and have a specific purpose for showing it

It is key to carefully consider the amount of slides that you intent to show as part of your presentation. As we covered above, text is a killer, but so is bringing too many slides. Think about it. Have you ever, after hearing a presentation thought to yourself: “I wish he/she showed more slides?”. Probably not… On contrary, I bet that very often, you thoughts have been along the lines: “O my, he/she sure flipped through a lot of slides, but I have no idea what he was trying to say..!”.

Ideally, you have build a nice appealing storyline, and pinpointed the exact spots of this story were you can amplify your message with a graph, a message, quote, movie-clip or whatever (I will cover building your storyline in another article). But face it, most of the time, we do not have days and hours to prepare Steve Jobs-like presentations, and sometimes fall into the “whatever is in stock”-trap, picking and bringing a number of often unrelated slides from different presentations that will somewhat support the subject for the agenda that we are supposed to cover. There is a word for this, and it is sloppiness! You have the opportunity to engage with an audience, don’t waste it by not being prepared.

If you have fallen into the “whatever is in stock”-trap, at least do your audience –  yourself and –  the favour of going critically through all of your slides, and clean out anything that could be “nice to have” and not “absolutely need to have” in the presentation.

If in doubt, there is no doubt – clean it out!

Also, clean out anything where you do not understand or have background knowledge to cover questions regarding numbers etc., as this will make you look fumbling.

If you are about to fall into the “whatever is in stock”-trap, pause and consider whether bringing slides is at all the right approach. Start by asking yourself:

  • What do I want to say?
  • Why do I want to say it, hence what is my motivation for saying it?
  • What is the knowledge that the audience already have?
  • How can I ensure that our collective knowledge (audience and presenter) has increased after the presentation?

Hope these few pointers will help you improve your presentations!

What is your take on the subject? Comments will be highly appreciated!!