Some business professionals believe that presentation skills consist of creating slides. Then they stand in front of the audience as the slides appear and use the slides as a script. This is a terrible thing to do to an audience. When you give a presentation, you are the main attraction. You are, in fact, the presentation. The slides are there to support you, and they can do that very well if you follow some simple rules.
1. In Titles and Text, Use Upper and Lower Case. Usually your presentation skills don’t need to include graphic design skills. You probably work from corporate standards or templates. Study after study of legibility has shown that people read upper and lower case text more readily than they read capitalized text. If you’re allowed to, vary the case according to the conventions of standard business English.
2. Highlight Key Words. When text appears on the screen, it will help your audience a great deal if key words stand out. Font change (i.e., bold rather than regular) and color change, either alone or in combination, are the easiest and most effective ways to do this. Both are instantly recognizable and tend to create the least disruption in the design of the screen.
3. Use Two to Four Colors for Text. Using the same color of text throughout can be boring, and boredom lowers audience alertness levels, which taxes your presentation skills even more. But using too many colors can overwhelm the audience. Two colors per screen is very effective. If you need a third and fourth color for headers, headlines, special emphasis, or to meet corporate design guidelines, that’s fine.
4. Bullets: the Rule of Four. Never put more than four bullet points on a screen and never more than four words per bullet. If you’ve ever seen a presentation that included a 20-bullet list, each of which was a sentence or paragraph, you know they can be deadly. They dramatically increase the strain of trying to listen to the presenter. And, if you’re the presenter, your presentation skills are unlikely to compensate for that.
5. Check Spelling. Misspelled words don’t make you look rebellious. They just make you look sloppy. Every audience includes at least one person who is a skilled speller, and no skilled speller was ever won over by visuals with misspellings.
6. Use Licensed Images. Photos, clip art, or cartoons can make points that would take forever to get across with words, and they can do it more dramatically. But get the rights to use them. The chances of someone calling you out for infringing might be small, but the risk of embarrassment, for you and your company, is great. There are plenty of images available in clip art or stock photo services, and the costs are often amazingly reasonable, sometimes even free.
7. Minimize Special Effects. Animations and fancy transitions can be effective when they are used sparingly. But special effects can easily overawe an audience, and “shock and awe” is a strategy for intimidation, not persuasion. Besides, special effects take the focus away from you and your presentation skills.
These guidelines are timeless, and they hold whether you are presenting with a projector, a laptop, or a tablet. We have recently enhanced our Executive Presentation Skills® program to include instruction on presenting with tablets and presenting while seated. We still emphasize that your slides are not supposed to impress or even to delight the audience. They are there to help you communicate.