What are your tips, tricks, tools and resources for making kick-ass presentations?
May 20, 2006 5:40 PM   Subscribe

A slightly different PowerPoint/ presentation filter: What are your tips, tricks, tools and resources for making kick-ass presentations?

I am tired of sucky PP presentations with mis-matched colors, info overload, bullets and graphs that don’t read well. I need help with making better academic (NOT business) presentations. Googling this only gives me a headache because I’d like to move beyond the basics (avoid busy slides, clashing colors, clip art, flashy transitions etc.) and really get to presentation techniques for conveying complex ideas in a visually appealing way.
Lately, I have started turning to print magazines for ideas on how to place text in relation to images, choosing font sizes, color schemes etc. Can you suggest books or websites that will help me along these lines?
posted by special-k to Computers & Internet (23 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
here is some generic advice that goes way, way back in the computer science community.

not directly applicable, but good advice nevertheless.
posted by joeblough at 6:19 PM on May 20, 2006

You might consider ditching PowerPoint altogether, in favor of making your presentations directly in XHTML. It's pretty easy to do, once you get the hang of it, put together some template designs you like, and maybe (if you need it) get a WYSIWYG editor (like Dreamweaver).

HTML files will load as local files -- you just make your hyperlinks in UNC notation, and you can run and distribute your presentations directly off your hard drive or removable drive media, and don't need access to a Web server at all. If you set root document base, you can easily republish the presentation to the Web, just by changing the base URL and uploading to a real Web server.

Your presentations will be inherently cross platform documents, and will facilitate re-use, adaptation, and content indexing by standard applications. And you will have full control over all design elements.
posted by paulsc at 6:20 PM on May 20, 2006

Another vote for ditching PowerPoint. It sucks the life out of a room.
posted by JekPorkins at 6:26 PM on May 20, 2006

Check out what Lawrence Lessig and that Identity 2.0 guy have done with slides. It's a world apart from your typical presentation.
posted by sudama at 6:29 PM on May 20, 2006

I use the "I hate powerpoint" theme: black text on a white background... sort of "I wouldn't be using powerpoint at all if I didn't work at this company"

fortunately, most of the presentations I do are for developers, so I usually have a slide, and then use Visual Studio to show some code, then show another slide, etc.
posted by stupidcomputernickname at 6:29 PM on May 20, 2006

The Opera browser is quite slick for replacing Powerpoint presentations with XHTML + CSS. The feature is called Opera Show and you can check out more here. If you can make a slick web page, you can make a just-as-slick presentation.
posted by evariste at 6:29 PM on May 20, 2006

Yet another vote for ditching powerpoint. Our very own Jessamyn has a nice method for doing presentations, but my goal is to do away with bullets/text completely and simply use graphics that highlight any particular point I'm talking about. Visuals are great, but only if they enhance, not replace, your speech.
posted by griffey at 6:48 PM on May 20, 2006

In any case, the visuals should be in support of your spoken presentation, not the basis of it.

That is, take what you're going to say and then create the visuals that reinforce the key points -- rather than creating the visuals and using them as though they were your speaking notes.
posted by winston at 6:50 PM on May 20, 2006

I think the problem lies with the presenter, and not powerpoint per se. A boring presenter will be as bad in powerpoint, a good presenter can use it effectively. One should not rely on powerpoint to be your presentation, but to be your cue card.
posted by edgeways at 6:56 PM on May 20, 2006

I've recently come across the Beamer Latex class (http://latex-beamer.sourceforge.net/). You should really check that out, especially the examples on the page. It's designed for academic presentations and helps a lot with keeping things look tidy (and you have to spend a lot less time on layout/presentation). It automatically creates tables of contents and a header pane showing the current progress within the presentation.
They also have a great manual with recommendations on creating good presentations.

Surprisingly PDFs have excellent support for presentations, and the beamer class has great support for that (including special links to allow quick jumps to different parts of your presentation).
posted by Morbuto at 7:04 PM on May 20, 2006

I have worked on this myself, and I'm no expert but I can tell you my current theories.

1. NO WORDS ON SLIDES! This is my cardinal guideline. Avoid writing down words on your slides if at all possible, and in particular I think the times when it's appropriate to have a standard "bullet-point slide" are few and far between. Your audience is hearing you talk anyway; putting exactly what you're saying up on screen is just (a) wasting an opportunity to complement your words with images and (b) punishing your audience for having learned how to read by making them listen to you say what they just read. I really think that the prevalence of the bullet-point slide is what makes people think that PowerPoint is a bad technology. [PowerPoint doesn't have to be boring --- consider, movies are just short stories with really good PowerPoint to go with them :)]

2. When brainstorming your talk, come up with a small visual metaphor "palette" that you'll refer to over and over again in your slides. For instance, if you're talking about a new detector for the Loch Ness Monster, you're going to want to refer back to pictures of the Loch Ness Monster being detected in various ways over and over again, so you'll want to refer to variations on the same basic picture again and again; make sure it's a good one; simple enough that people can understand it immediately but detailed enough that you won't have to change it halfway through your talk. If you're presenting a more abstract idea you'll want something less literal, of course, but the same principle applies.

3. Slides are free, have lots of them. My talks typically have somewhere around two slides a minute (where I count each distinct press of the space bar as a slide); rather than cramming tons of information on every slide, I have one idea per slide and I help the audience connect the dots by using consistent visual metaphors and of course connecting the images together with what I'm saying.

4. Use newspaper-cartoon-style "animation" as much as is appropriate, but don't use PowerPoint's actual animation features. Sequences of images are very effective at conveying change over time, and if that's what you want to get across to your audience I think it's far more effective to just show them what you're talking about with slides than it is to show them a single static picture and then try to explain with words how it changes over time. They'll just be imagining the picture changing anyway, so do it for them! However, I'd say that if you want to animate, don't use PowerPoint's built-in animation features; do it cartoon-strip style instead. That way you can control when the steps take place, and if someone asks a question in the middle or something like that happens you won't miss a beat. Also, this should go without saying, but don't use animation unless showing how something changes is the point of what you're talking about with those slides -- they'll distract your audience from your point. (This is also why I don't think one should use fancy transitions: the audience will end up paying more attention to the transitions than the slides.)

5. More of a "trick of the trade": avoid putting important things on the edges of slides. It's pretty much guaranteed that somehow, the edges of your slides will end up getting cut off at some point. Also avoiding the edges helps make your slides look more spare, which is an aesthetic I kind of like.

That's all my secrets, for what they're worth.
posted by jacobm at 7:08 PM on May 20, 2006

Moving past the limitations of Powerpoint (which appear to be mostly creative-impaired) my key recommendation for kickassiness involves being *passionate* about the topic.

You likely know most of what I'm going to write, but here goes:

Engage the audience. That means YOU not the presentation slides. Make eye contact with the people that you are presenting to. Vary the tone of your voice. Drop your voice to nearly a whisper right before making a point. Sometimes, make your voice louder to emphasize a point.

Basically, train their attention on you, don't let them take your presentation for granted (a monotone guarantees this!) and use the presentation material as the backup, not the be-all.

This also means - don't read the slides. Talk to the audience, convey the urgency of your message. You don't talk to friends (or to your banker) with a powerpoint - same here, it's an important presentation, so they should focus on YOU.

Use the presentation material as backup. This means imagery, graphs, other visual aids. It's great that you are looking at magazines for inspiration - I would recommend magazines dealing with Photoshop. There are at least six major ones - and photoshop artists still ply their trades with presentation materials. So there's lots to learn from there.

Hah - so now comes the hard part. It's hard to pull *passion* off spontaneously, so practice, practice, practice. Record yourself, or better yet film yourself. Ham it up a little (but not too much). Make your presentation memorable by emphasizing no more than five major points per one-hour presentation. Summarize often (in the beginning, and in the end - and of course develop these five points in the middle of your presentation).

Challenge your audience. Don't talk down to them. Learn as much as you can about them in the beginning of the presentation (if it's a small seminar, ask them to introduce themselves - if it's a semester-long class, ask them to introduce themselves at the beginning of the class and take notes). Then, engage them by casually mentioning their interests in the presentation. Show them that you are offering your knowledge to each of them, as individuals, rather than as a group in a class.

Basically, a good presentation is one where each person feels that they were touched somewhat by what you had to say - that their investment in time yielded a positive result. If you show passion for your topic, and interest in them, you have it made.

And if your slides look fine in the process, so much the better. But I assure you that it's such a minimal part of the whole equation.
posted by seawallrunner at 7:19 PM on May 20, 2006 [1 favorite]

I thought this Scale With Rails presentation was really well-done and conversational, and not in any way boring.
posted by evariste at 7:38 PM on May 20, 2006

Response by poster: seawaller: Advice appreciated! But, I am not looking for advice on how to give a presentation. I've got this part down. I'm specifically looking for practical advice on putting together a good clean presentation to match my talk.
posted by special-k at 7:43 PM on May 20, 2006

Don't fret too much over which tool you're using, or spend a lot of time on the tool itself. If you're comfortable with powerpoint, just go ahead and use powerpoint.

Powerpoint does make it easy to build a bad presentation, but it's also pretty easy to give a good powerpoint-based presentation, especially if you follow some of the tips laid out above. I'm especially a fan of avoiding bullet points entirely. I also think it's a good idea to have a descriptive title for each slide. Avoid vague or abbreviated titles ("Results"); the audience should be able to get a good understanding of what the slide is about by reading the title ("20 nm resolution achieved").

Here's the tool I use to design color schemes. Mess around with it a bit. It's fun. There's a link to an English-language tutorial at the top.
posted by mr_roboto at 7:58 PM on May 20, 2006

Special-k, if you have access to a Mac, Keynote has some very clean built-in templates that might get you to where you want to go.

According to this guy....

Keynote has an ineffable quality about it that brings out the creativity in its users.

Also, there's a great blog called Presentation Zen that mixes information about the mechanics and design (your question) with presentation tips (most of the answers here).
posted by baltimore at 8:31 PM on May 20, 2006

I just did a 45 minute talk for my thesis defense. I followed a lot of the advice on this page:

* as few words as possible
* use flickr's 'interesting pictures' and wikipedia's featured pictures to find good looking stuff that ties into your theme
* white text, almost black background. no decoration.
* I drew cartoons for stuff I couldn't find artwork for

I used a freaky beast called Squeak in lieu of powerpoint. Its lots of fun, but has a steep learning curve.

Good luck!
posted by gemini at 8:57 PM on May 20, 2006

techniques for conveying complex ideas in a visually appealing way

I'm really into using metaphor for this. For example, I was trying to get across the point of the value of context in programming environments, and I used a helicopter shot photo of greater los angeles, along with the quote "There's no 'there' there". Then switched to an equally intricate picture of a 486 chip up close and proceeded with my point...
posted by gemini at 9:00 PM on May 20, 2006

On the "no words" advice, yeah, people reading bullet points suck, but you should have titles and labels for all your graphics, especially charts and graphs. If someone isn't paying attention for the second where you say what the y-axis is, the whole slide will be meaningless.
Also, people like to give outlines, but I've seen some people say "first I'll introduce xxx, then talk about my work on xxx, then give you some conclusions". This doesn't help anyone out. A good use of an outline is to show where you are going with your talk. People can't remember everything, but if they have an outline they can see where each piece of data is building toward something.
I like to start with an introduction to the subject, why its interesting and what you are try to accomplish. If you want people to listen to you, its better to motivate them first, rather than build up to something exciting. Then after the intro I'll have the outline for the rest of the talk. If a point is important for understanding of the talk, you have to repeat it and if possible relate it to something else the audience knows about.
For an academic talk, its always best to err on the side of being professional. No one says "That was an ok talk, but it would have been great with some animations or little cutesy cartoon figures".
Use a blank template, this lets you maximize the size of your figures. A white background will show everything but white and yellow, I hate it when the background has a color gradient across the slide that makes some of the text illegible.
posted by 445supermag at 9:48 PM on May 20, 2006 [1 favorite]

There is an interesting thread on this topic in the Ask E.T. section on Edward Tufte's website.
posted by booksprite at 11:35 PM on May 20, 2006

I think an interesting way to go about creating a powerpoint presentation would be to start from the devil's advocate position: "you don't need a slide to illustrate this point -- whatever you have to say is compelling and memorable enough".

Then, you have to argue for whatever a slide would add to your presentation.

I was at a conference not long ago and the most memorable speech had no visual materials at all. The people talking to their powerpoint presentations tended to mumble, miss the mic half the time as they turned from the screen to the audience and back again, and simply repeat what was on screen. There was no focus, and there was a lot of repetition.

The guy who came out and just talked was the best by far. He looked the audience in the eye, he told us how [stuff] was up by nearly fifty per cent, [other stuff] was down twenty percent, and users were doing more [whatever] than last year, and our theories as to why. Then he shut the hell up and took questions.

I'm not saying all software presentations are bad, but there has to be a good reason for a visual illustration of a particular point. Find your good reason, there's your slide.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 12:18 AM on May 21, 2006

Best advice

Have a final slide that can serve as your conclusion from about 2/3 the way through. Then if you find your time management fails and you are in danger of over-running, just hit "End" and bingo. End.
posted by A189Nut at 12:33 AM on May 21, 2006

Oh, and here's something that would win huge points with me -- open your presentation in presentation mode.

If you can't do that, at least launch the slide show to the first slide before it appears on screen.

I've lost count of the number of people who've started off their presentation with the hideous, over-busy powerpoint editing interface with its hundreds of toolbar buttons and spoilers for what they're going to present down the left hand side, then hit the Slide Show button. And of course when the damn thing is over, there we are, back in Edit mode. You could get around that by just having a blank slide at the end.

You guarantee it starts up in pres mode, not edit mode by saying as PPS not PPT.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 12:35 AM on May 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

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