Technical Presentations: Slides That Don’t Cut It

By Susan de la Vergne


Brace yourself. I’m going to make a shocking recommendation about how to prepare slides for technical presentations. Here goes: Don’t use design templates. Ever.

You know the ones I mean, those decorative templates in PowerPoint and other slide products with the colored frames, borders and bars, and the dots and doodads in the corner. They’re a terrible idea! Why? Because design templates detract from your presentation rather than improve it. They contribute visual clutter, and they interfere with the visual elements on your slide that are actually intended to convey information. Your slide includes diagrams, charts, lines that depict relationships, cause and effect, sequence, and logic. On top of all those meaningful shapes and colors is a blue swoopy shape along the top of every slide that conveys absolutely nothing. It hovers over your meaningful visual depiction, taking up a good fifth of the screen.

Of course your audience isn’t actually confused. They can tell the difference between a swoopy blue decorative band and actual data. But why decorate your data? Doesn’t your audience have enough to look at and take in?

Slides should be visual depictions of information that augment what you say. You need slides to make a coherent presentation about, for example, a systems interface design or to teach a how-to session about nanotechnology invention. It would be awfully hard to say what you have to say without a picture.

Your slides, then, should be designed to optimize the visual, to make the depiction of your rich engineering content efficient, clear and complete. As a slide preparer, your responsibility is to the data, and anything that draws the viewer’s eye elsewhere, or competes visually with the actual information, has no business being on your slide. That includes wingdings, doodads, gratuitous color, boxes, clip art and those ever-popular bullets.

In his book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, visual design guru Edward Tufte lays out “principles of graphical excellence” which are intended for many kinds of visual information, including slides. He says well-designed slides convey “the greatest number of ideas in the shortest time using the least ink in the smallest space….” Decorations, like slide templates, contain no ideas. They waste visual space. Instead, Mr. Tufte says we should minimize “optical clutter” so as to maximize content.

His recommendations are especially relevant for technical material where accuracy, completeness and clarity are particularly important. Don’t let anything detract from the mission—that is, knowledge transfer.

Here’s another heretical recommendation: Remove branding from your slides. You know what I mean—your company logo in the corner of every slide. It detracts from your message, as it’s just optical clutter. I know your marketing department insists, and they’re right to feature branding on marketing slides. Every company needs a snappy professional brochure look on materials intended to show clients and prospective clients that yours is an attractive, together, professional organization.

But marketing is on a different assignment than you are. You’re teaching colleagues how something works. You’re explaining the intricacy of a design. You’re persuading project stakeholders of the viability of an untested technology. Technical slides aren’t marketing slides. They have different goals, different purposes, and different audiences. So why is it that marketing standards are applied to technical slides? Because technical organizations don’t usually have standards of their own. (They should.)

Well, I warned you several paragraphs ago you might be in for a bit of a shock. Maybe now is a good time to revisit those last couple of slides you just whipped out. Try ripping out the doodads, and try them without the template.

And don’t tell me “it looks boring” without the decorative additions. Decorating your data doesn’t make it more interesting, just more decorated.


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