I can’t read your slides

Me: horrible eyesight from child but hoping for some edification from your talk

You: perfect eyesight and excited to share your project

Your slides:

How I see your slides:

You can stop reading here, to be honest. You probably get the gist of what I’m trying to say, and you also probably already know if this post applies to you or not.

Otherwise, read on for some tips on how to make your slides more legible.

If you’re still reading, I’m going to assume that you care about your audience’s experience: that the reason you’re giving a talk is because you want your audience to get as much value out of it as possible. If that’s the case, then you’ll want to design your slides to take those with poor vision into account, so you can improve their experience (as well as everyone else’s).

So here are my tips.

Assume the worst.

Assume the projector will be terrible, and so things will appear washed out and blurry.

Assume that the screen(s) will be small compared to the size of the room, and that there will be people sitting (or even standing) at the very back of the room.

Assume that the lighting will be poor, and so things with less contrast will be hard to read.

How would you adjust your slide design to compensate?

These assumptions aren’t that far-fetched, really; most of them will be true to some extent at all but the most well-organised events. What this exercise in assumptions really does is make it easier for you to sympathise with those who already have below-average vision. If you’ve ever strained to read a paragraph of 12pt Times New Roman from the back of the room, or tried to decipher a diagram where the featured colours are spring green, chartreuse, and lime, then you already know how unpleasant it is to be confronted with unreadable slides.

Figure out what your slides are for.

As in, decide what role you want your slides to play, and make sure that your intended purpose for your slides works with the limitations of the medium.

Here’s what I would personally recommend using your slides for:

  • Minimal text, to remind the audience of what you’re talking about. Someone might have come in late, or been distracted, or just missed what you said. The language you’re speaking might not be their first language, or your accent might be unfamiliar to them. A small amount of text to orient the audience to what you’re currently talking about it useful, especially if you use any terms that are domain-specific or otherwise difficult to spell.
  • Diagrams, charts, and images relevant to your talk. Make them as big and high-contrast as you can without feeling silly. If you have labels, make sure the labels are easy to read. I wouldn’t recommend putting in stock photos or other visuals that aren’t relevant to your talk, because I think they can be distracting and confusing, but that’s just a personal preference and I’m sure there are others who like them.
  • Keywords to remind yourself of what you’re talking about. Whether you’re using speaker notes or not, having slides that indicate (to you) your current place in the talk can be incredibly useful, in case you ever get lost or forget what you’re supposed to say. You certainly don’t want to put your entire talk on your slides, but a few keywords (that also make sense within the flow of the presentation) can go a long way. It goes without saying that you should probably practice your talk while looking at your slides to figure out where you’re likely to get confused and thus what self-reminders you’ll need.

Don’t stress about design.

You don’t need to be a great designer to have slides that your audience will appreciate. You don’t need fancy diagrams or pretty icons or beautiful photos. They can help, sure, but if you don’t have the time or inclination for that, stick to the minimum viable product of slide design: a large font, a colour palette that isn’t distracting, and respect for your audience’s limited desire to read huge blocks of text. Zach Holman guide on Slide Design for Developers from 2011 (super old in Internet years, I know) is useful here.

Take a step back.

Physically, I mean. Start your presentation on your computer, stand a few feet away, and see if you have to strain to read your slides. If so, you would probably benefit from another pass to make your font larger and your text more succinct. You’ll have to use your own judgment for how much larger or more succinct— one word per slide may be overkill— but it’s a useful exercise to keep in mind.

I’ve been cursed with (extremely thick) glasses for most of my life, and while I recently got laser eye surgery, I still don’t have great vision, with low lighting rendering me especially helpless. So I’m writing this in the hopes of nudging those who make slides into making life better for people like me — those who forgot their glasses, or have an out-of-date prescription, or are just tired — as well as for everyone else (even those with perfect vision can appreciate slides that are easier to read).

Good luck, and may all of your future slides be readable.

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