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Simplify your slide decks

I’ve worked in a consultancy for the last 3 years, and with public sector organisations for almost 8 years now. One of the most important communication tools in how teams and organisations work is the humble slide deck.

My tool of choice is Google Slides (although it’s more limited in terms of design it’s great for collaboration), but you might be more used to working in Powerpoint or Keynote. A ‘deck’ can act as anything starting with proposals/responses/statements of work, through to pitches, show & tell presentations, and they are often used for final presentations, or even more detailed reports (but just so we’re clear, I don’t think slide decks are the right format for detailed reports).

Over the years I’ve seen a lot of badly designed presentations. I’ve got my own set of simple prompts for trying to improve how people use these tools which I’ll share here. Russell Davies wrote a great set blog posts about doing presentations which I’ve found helpful, and you can probably see how my thinking and experience was shaped by a year working at GDS back in 2013. There’s also a useful 2016 blog post by Matthew Sheret that talks about the GDS approach to presentations.

In terms of thinking through what you’re communicating and why, I’m always amazed at how little attention goes into setting out a clear brief for most decks. I often write a brief upfront for teams to refer back to when working on presentation materials together. You might want to use something like this format as a starting point:

Purpose.

This [deck] is being designed [for this purpose]. It needs to communicate [these key messages] to [these people] so that they can [do these things].

When thinking about key messaging, a book I read about 10 years ago and that has continued to be useful is Make to Stick: Why some ideas take hold and others come unstuck, by Chip Health. It sets out a criteria for ‘sticky’ content which I think works very well. I suggest you get hold of the book, but the basic premise is SUCCES(S):

  • Simple
  • Unexpected
  • Concrete
  • Credible
  • Emotional
  • Stories

Simplify…

The key point with everything here is to simplify, or simply to do less. Think about what you want to communicate, and who you want to communicate with. I’m more realistic about use cases, in that ‘7 words a slide’ type guidance might work for a pitch deck or talk, but it doesn’t work for a research insights deck.

The following 5 considerations are what you should think about when designing how to present your content, stories and narrative:

Type. Make it readable. Limit the number of type sizes and weights being used and consider line length. Don’t use small type sizes.

Words. Write in short clear sentences that use plain english.

Colour. Avoid colour for emphasis, or to imply meaning. Limit your colour palette and choices.

Layout. Consider key messages and don’t overload pages with content. Keep layouts consistent, and limit any variations in page design.

Imagery & Illustrations. Use these to communicate something, not as decoration. Think about the message and tone of different styles and types of imagery. For example, photographs of people feel very different to hand drawn or more sketchy illustrations.

Ben Holliday is an experienced designer, leader, writer and speaker. This is his blog (started in 2005). You can follow all of Ben's blog posts by subscribing to the RSS feed, or follow him on Twitter for more regular updates.