This is an update to my previous post, The “Attention Method” for Effective PowerPoint Presentations.
My Attention Method™ of presentation design is a philosophy more than anything. It’s a belief that your presentation slides must support your audience’s attention to fully follow and comprehend your spoken words at every moment of your talk.
That’s a simple sentence, but it encapsulates several key truths about delivering powerful talks. Let’s unpack them.
Your Spoken Words Are the Most Important Element of Your Presentation
The visuals on the slide are subordinate to your spoken words. That is, the words you say should not be treated as an afterthought, but should rather be the most essential element of your presentation.
Don’t be basic
As we know, most people start by sketching out their bullet points on slides, then spend their whole presentation reading off their slides and maybe adding in some improvised “color commentary” that’s not on the slide. Y’know, to make it “interesting”. 🤨
This leads to “umms” and “aahs” as people think while they’re talking, adding a halting cadence and aimless direction to most slide presentations. It usually means that the words on your slides and the words coming out of your mouth don’t really match.
This is all bad practice. Let’s do better.
Give your words the care they deserve
First, write every word of your script out in its entirety (not just bullet points). I mean it.
This will help you edit your comments for clarity, brevity, and focus so your presentation doesn’t meander aimlessly. It will also help you commit much of your cleverly edited words to memory so you’re not reading off your slides. Make sure that each sentence or paragraph has a clear focus for the reader to comprehend.
Once you’ve written your speech out, scan through the text and bold or highlight the key ideas that you want to have a heightened impact on your reader. These key ideas are the ones we will use our slides to amplify.
You can then find visual ways to emphasize the concepts of “up” or even “up 20%”, and “increased demand” so these key features of your talk are amplified.
You can see, the slides above are designed to amplify only the most relevant part of the line above, using large font and bold images to give added impact to what could otherwise be a bland and boring statistic in a report. They use images that illustrate the idea of “up” or “demand” so audiences can get a gut emotional feeling connected to what might otherwise be a forgettable factoid.
Humans Process Visuals Better than Words
Our ability to use (and understand) language is not as reliable or impactful to our brains as the visual systems that bring images into our consciousness and memory. We simply comprehend and recall information better if our brain’s visual processing systems are engaged in the learning task.
Humans’ verbal ability was one of the most recent milestones in our long story of the evolution of the brain. Other mammals, reptiles and fish had evolved vision as a key means of survival for hundreds of millions of years, while our language ability only evolved between 200,000 years ago and 1 million — a tiny blip in a very long timeline. As a result, our visual and emotional brain centers are much more powerful for decoding and retaining information than the ones that handle abstract symbols like letters, numbers, and words.
This is useful information to us as communicators and educators, because it means that verbal language needs to be supplemented (better to say “contextualized” or “grounded”) with powerful visual aids that help our audience “see” and “feel” the exact meaning we’re trying to communicate.
A picture is worth a thousand words, so they say. I can say “tree”, and every person in the audience may think of a different kind of tree. But if I show you this tree:
your brain will instantly fill in the other 999 words that are true about this particular tree, the way it looks, the way it makes you feel, anything you may already know about this tree, the way it was photographed, and more.
You as the presentation designer can produce this effect in your learners’ brains if you take care and control over the messages you craft. Don’t leave it up to chance — put your learners in the mindspace you want them in by designing their experience with care.
Said another way — don’t let your message depend solely on the words you use, but rather, reinforce your words with visual cues that flood learners’ minds with the meaning you’re trying to convey.
Every Moment of Your Talk Is Part of the Eternal Now, Man
Not to get all New Age-y on you, but we all must strive to LIVE IN THE NOW, especially when we’re holding learners’ attention in our hands.
Each individual moment of your presentation is a unique experience that needs to stand on its own, not subordinate to what came before or what will come next. You are the playhead moving along the video timeline of your talk, and whatever is on screen at this moment needs to include only what you mean to say and show, with no extraneous information to distract from what you’re saying in each moment.
You can check this by recording your talk and jumping around in the timeline to see if your visuals match what you’re saying at every given point in your talk. Of course, if you script out your talk and match your slides to your script like we’re talking about here, you should be in good shape.
The most common presentation sin is having too many words on your slide. We all know this. But the REASON that’s bad is because you are mixing up the words you said before, the words you’re going to say next, and the words you’re saying at this moment. You’re disrespecting the words you’re saying now by cluttering it with other off-topic information. It’s like introducing “background noise” into your talk.
As we say above, wherever possible you should choose a powerful image that can replace as many words in your talk as possible, so that learners’ eyes can dwell on an interesting visual and still stay engaged with the words you’re saying.
Even a single key word on screen at the moment it comes out of your mouth heightens the impact of your talk and helps your audience pay attention to your message.
Slides per minute vs. Insights per minute
Often times within academia and business contexts, I’ve been told “please have no more than 8 slides for your presentation”. I don’t know where this “slides per minute” equation came from, but it reveals a (false) assumption about how much information is communicated per minute per slide.
You should focus on delivering a steady rate of “insights per minute” by carefully editing your script to cut out “dead air” and follow a fairly structured outline that keeps delivering usable, relevant information to your audience at every moment throughout your talk. In other words, tailor your talk for “dense and tight” and you’ll be in good shape.
I just ask these people how much time I can get, and then use as many slides as it takes to keep every moment of that presentation packed with valuable content.
Long Slide Animations are Wasted Moments
Another widely agreed upon presentation best practice is to avoid using the distracting slide transitions and bullet builds that novice presenters love to slap on PowerPoint decks. These are dysfunctional because they force people to wait for the words to appear, and that wastes your learners’ time. They can squander learners’ attention too, taking focus away from your message as people absently watch your letters bounce around the screen and come into view over precious seconds.
I’m not an absolutist about this like some. A nice dissolve/fade transition can add a professional sheen, but the duration matters a lot. Most builds default to a full second or more, which again causes the learner to wait for your content to even be readable onscreen. I will often change the duration to 0.5 or 0.3 of a second, which gives a barely-perceptible fade during a quick transition — just enough to soften the transition so it looks properly “cared for”.
Watching professional movie trailers is a great way to see quick dissolves used tastefully and to heightened effect.
A full second fade might subtly signal a change of topic or a transition from lecture to activity, while shorter fades (0.2-0.5s) can be used tastefully within blocks of content to make a slide deck feel “finished”.
But ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS make these choices intentionally, make them only to support and enhance your message, and take them away if they start to distract attention.
You Only Have One Point of Attention
People who claim they’re “multi-taskers” cite scenarios like having the TV on while they’re reading a book, or microwaving the kids’ dino nuggets while also doing dishes. Even though you may have many things going on at once, you only have one point of attention, and splitting it between too many areas of focus actually degrades your performance on all of them.
UX designers pay special attention to a concept called cognitive load, or the amount of mental effort you have to expend to simply navigate a website or follow a presentation — mental effort taken away from your ability to concentrate, learn, and remember.
The classic text on cognitive load is called Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug, and the wisdom in this book is as true today as it was when it was published. Every bit of effort you can put into simplifying your work so your learner can simply follow along is rewarded with a more engaged, receptive audience.
Make it easy to design slides that support attention
PowerPoint by its very nature tends to nudge us to make lists of bullet points. That’s what the software wants you to do. People usually take the path of least resistance when getting their thoughts out into a slide deck, and consequently, most people default to bullet lists even though we all know better.
Since I first developed the Attention Method in 2008, a new breed of presentation deck software like HaikuDeck, Prezi, Slid.es, and Reveal.js have emerged — tools that default to simple slides with minimal text and full-screen image backgrounds. Of course Powerpoint, Keynote, and others can do this too, but you just have to consciously decide to use only these kind of uncluttered slide layouts.
Of course, identifying what’s critical to communicate amidst the rest of your presentation takes work. Finding images that communicate that idea best is an additional job. Good presentations don’t just happen.
You can blank your screen to support attention too
The flip side of having visuals on screen that support your words is that, when you’re not speaking, the screen should be blank. The same goes for times when you have to speak extemporaneously without any prepared notes or slides, as in a Q&A session. Every presentation software has the ability to switch from slides to a blank screen instantly with a keystroke. You need to know that keystroke. You should learn how your favorite slide deck software enables you to turn visuals off so (again) you’re not talking over irrelevant, distracting words on a slide.
Learn to Slide Flip on the Fly
Your slide presentation also has the ability to jump from one slide to another, out of order, on the fly. For presentations you have given multiple times, or where you know your subject matter inside out, you may be able to switch from one slide to a completely different section of the deck.
Whenever I do a Q&A, I’ll often get an audience question that leads perfectly into a section I have slides prepared for. I can say “funny you should mention (* skip to slide 32 *) let me tell you about that!” This blows people away.
But What if I’m “Not Artistic”?
Good design is about solving problems first, making pretty pictures second. Even if you think of yourself as more “analytical” than “creative”, more left-brained than right-brained, you can still be a great presentation designer.
Identify Presentation Problems and Envision Solutions
Think critically about your own particular struggles when giving presentations. Notice the moments when your own attention wavers while watching someone else present, and write a list. Use that list to find solutions to each challenge, one-by-one. An effective presentation is usually one where someone has thought methodically about each drawback and fixed them. It looks effortless to the audience, but often reflects a large amount of work and thought behind the scenes.
Rely on Supports while you Grow as a Designer
I get it, you still want to make eye-catching presentations. As you develop your designer’s eye, you may choose tools that do a lot of the presentation design for you. Opinionated tools like HaikuDeck strongly nudge you to make simple slides that emphasize few words and strong visuals. These tools can come with professionally designed templates that make many of the design decisions for you. There’s even a new class of AI-supported slide deck makers like Zuru that make ALL the design decisions for you, including choosing attractive images to illustrate your ideas.
Become a Fan of Presentation Designers
The best way to become a great presentation designer is to follow great presentation designers and “reverse engineer” the techniques they’re using. You will notice the moves good designers make that amateurs fail to. You will learn more by watching great designers than by listening to me talk about it.
- Get to know Nancy Duarte. Her TED Talk is a master class in storytelling. She publishes information about her design approach, and even offers live trainings in the Duarte presentation design method.
- Watch a few speeches by Lawrence Lessig. He’s the master of this presentation style (I’m really just giving name to what he is doing). Watch this presentation, and notice how his backgrounds change frequently to support his speech:
In every moment, his visuals add clarity and emphasis, but you can tell — his speech is the star here.
- Check out some TED-Ed videos. These began life as spoken TED Talks with no visuals. The animators came afterwards, creating moving images to support the content of the talk. Even if you don’t have the same animation skills, you can emulate the same design language to support your own messages.
Build vocabulary in design principles so you can think about alternatives
Reading Design Basics Index by Jim Krause gave me the words to be able to describe concepts in visual design. When you understand these foundational concepts, it helps you look at an image or a layout and know all the things you could change about it to make it more immediate and impactful, or eliminate distractions.
Presentation Tools and Tech
Slide Deck Software
I still usually reach for Apple Keynote when I want to make a beautiful presentation with full control over the fonts, colors, animations, and layout that Keynote affords me. Its feature set is similar to PowerPoint’s, but Keynote has some special Apple magic that seems to make everything look smoother, brighter, and prettier. Also, I am extremely familiar with the deeper features of Keynote that let me express pretty much anything I’d want to do in a presentation.
As I mentioned above, writing your slides in markdown syntax makes it just as easy to have one word per slide, with/without a powerful background image. In other words, you can more easily create presentations that conform to best practices with a minimum of effort.
I run a biweekly meeting with a markdown-based presentation doc, and it’s incredibly easy to make updates in real time to the presentation in a markdown editor, and the changes appear to the audience only when I press “Save”. This helps me blur the lines between notes and presentation, between my individual updates and the group’s experience.
CopyLeft Image Search
Commercial Stock Assets
I get access to Adobe Stock through work, and a paid stock image account is worth the money if you want to do professional-level work. Here you have a nearly limitless selection of attractive images in a variety of styles, topics, and file formats, formed into collections so you can maintain a consistent look and feel across assets. This is harder to do when you’re piecing together free assets you find on the web.
Don’t Steal Images
If you just search Google Images and use whatever you find, you are likely to get things that are not licensed for reuse, opening yourself up to copyright violations. Often, you will find watermarked images — never use these! They’re watermarked because they want you to pay, so if you use one, it screams to your audience that you just pirated a paid asset. Don’t do it.
Nice Display Fonts
You want fonts that look good LARGE. Google offers a large, free collection of web-friendly fonts that are licensed for re-use. I have downloaded several of these free fonts to use in my powerpoints and design projects because I know they’re free and legal to use. I even have a tricky method for downloading the whole set at once, if you’re interested.
You may also want to familiarize yourself with some nice Google Font Pairings to see which fonts go together nicely.
ColorZilla (Chrome, Firefox) An “eyedropper” tool to help you pick up colors from websites you like and use them in your projects.
Adobe Kuler (Web) Dynamically generate complementary color palettes for free.
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