This year, I watched a talk called “I’m Judging Your Slides” or something like that. I watch a lot of conference talks. No, more than that. As if it were my full-time job, which it pretty much is. 25 conferences x 2 days (rough average) x 6 talks a day. Plus recorded talks.
- I’m not going to go find the link to that presentation, sorry.
- I have a lot of opinions about talk slides.
In this new job, I have a designer. Someone paid to have professional aesthetic opinions. This is AMAZING, and super exciting. I’m pretty sure she gets heartburn every time she looks at the spectacular pinkosity of my current slide style. She’s given us a Google Slides template to work with, and it is all branded and lovely and works with our website and has the right hex codes just built in so you can always find them instead of wandering around a color picker. I was super excited to port my slides over to the new style.
And then I tried to do it, and it is hard. There are a bunch of slide styles that I would never use in a talk, and I’m missing some that I really need, like section headings. What was the disconnect?
Talk Slides Are Not Presentation Slides
I realized that I wanted slides for giving talks, and the template she gave me was slides for giving presentations. That seems like a pretty subtle distinction, but it’s a very different audience and intent, so key parts are different.
If you ask someone for a presentation deck because you missed a meeting, you would get something that gave you a lot of information — facts and figures and decisions and charts. If you got the slide deck from a well-designed technical talk, it would be an unhelpful amalagam of cat pictures and command prompts.
When I’m designing slides for a talk, I visualize a room that can seat about 100 people. I’m at the front of it, I have a projector with an HDMI connection, and a slide clicker. I’m standing to one side of a screen. It’s the middle of the day, and these people are sitting in hotel banquet chairs to listen to what I have to say and fight off the waves of sleepiness from catered lunch. I need to be energized, my slides need to be punchy, and my points need to connect with their needs. I am here to inform, entertain, educate, provoke thought.
Presentations are an entirely different thing. They’re being displayed on a large tv in an office meeting room. The audience is people who are thinking of themselves as “in a meeting”. The slides exist to guide thought and discussion around action items that need to happen and information that needs to be evenly distributed across a group of people who have very similar interests. Presentation slides have agendas, and points that you move through, and they are a persuasive medium in themselves, instead of relying on the speaker to add the persuasion.
Given those two very different goals, I can see why it’s hard to design slides. The majority of the advice and templates are geared toward the common case, which is a presentation deck. I have a friend who says that she works on presentation decks “every ding-dang day”. It’s no wonder that we learn to design slides with articulated points on them as the default.
I never had to do that kind of slide construction, so I didn’t build that habit, and when I started doing technical speaking, I found the spare, almost wordless style was much more effective for that audience. I was reasoning from the opposite direction.
Talk slides best practices
Given that I am probably a disaster at presentation decks, I’m not going to talk about how they should work, but here is what I feel strongly about talk slides:
Put your twitter handle or attribution on EVERY SLIDE. That way if you say something memorable halfway through the talk, people can attribute it properly, and every slide has the possibility to work as a standalone photo.
- Except for your handle and attributions, 36 point font is a bare minimum, and I really want something closer to 48–60. Giant font means fewer words, and that’s good, for talk slides.
- One thought per slide. You can explain it at whatever length you want, but whatever you put on the slide only needs to be a place for people’s eyes to rest while they are digesting the one thought. That thought is tied to your slide in their memories. When you switch to the next thought, change slides.
- If you have the luxury, go look at a presentation in the room you’ll have. Different projectors and ambient light sources can mean that a dark background or light background will work better.
- Remember that your slides are not the persuasion, you are. I try to put information in my speaker notes for other people, but that’s a very secondary use case.