Everyone knows that PowerPoint is the language of business. The problem is, most PowerPoint decks are nothing more than a series of overstuffed and often confusing slides that accompany nap-inducing soliloquies by presenters.
Having developed thousands of presentations, we’ve identified best practices that are simple, yet rarely employed. To that end, we created Center of Gravity, a new framework for building presentations. The idea is that each deck, every slide, and every piece of content within a deck needs a focal point. To do so, one needs to think about presentations from three vantage points: (1) macro, presentation wide, (2) slide-by-slide, and (3) on a granular level, where every piece of data or content within each slide is carefully considered.
Take a Macro Perspective
To begin, think about presentations from a macro perspective, looking at your presentation as a whole. What is the focal point of your presentation, which makes the deck cohesive and crystallizes your presentation’s purpose? Then go one level deeper. Each slide must intentionally further the deck’s purpose. If it does not do so, then you should ask, what is that slide’s purpose? How does it fit into the big picture of the presentation?
Moreover, each slide must also have its own Center of Gravity, a focus that holds it together, gives it balance and cohesion. And lastly, zoom in close to the content of each slide. Examine each paragraph, each chart, each headline. Each item, table or graph should speak to the focus of the presentation, but also needs its own focal point.
Let me illustrate with a metaphor. Take our solar system. The sun is the central element of the solar system and exerts a gravitational pull on each planet. However, each planet has its own gravitational pull. In a similar way, each slide, and every object within each slide, must speak to the overall center of gravity (i.e., the sun). However, like the planets in our solar system, each slide and every object in each slide must also have its own focus, which keeps it grounded and cohesive.
Let’s review some strategies and tactics to ensure that a focus is maintained at each level.
Consider Your Deck as a Whole
Your presentation as a whole should have one big idea, theme or objective. There needs be a common purpose. Is this deck selling your work, your ideas, your research? If so, determine the thing(s) that you are selling. Alternatively, is your deck simply sharing your work, informing without the need to make the audience take action. If you are sharing, what things do you want the audience to take away from the presentation?
Consider the Audience
Next, consider the audience. On a macro level, think about the composition of your audience, whether it’s customers, management, or the broader organization. Most presentations aren’t well calibrated for audience needs. Instead, they are built from the speakers’ perspective, but it is important to segment your audience and build your story around them. Why are they here? What is their expertise level and roles? How much appetite have they for granular details, acronyms, so forth? What are their professional anxieties, their calls to action? Are they skeptics or believers? What kind of resistance will you face? The answers will help frame how you build your deck. Thinking deeply about your audience prior to building your presentationwill help optimize its’ impact.
Lastly, consider cohesion. Step back and view the whole from a design and storytelling perspective. First, build a narrative structure. A presentation is not a series of disconnected ideas, data points or observations, but the ultimate form of multimedia storytelling. Presentation design is an emerging discipline that combines words, video, animation, data, any media imaginable.
Each deck needs a narrative structure; beginning, middle, and end, while breaking down key concepts into sections and subsections. The more complex the subject matter, the more organization is needed. One needs a handle to group concepts, create hierarchy and sequence. I start by outlining, which builds hierarchy by definition, then move on to storyboarding (i.e., about nine or 12 squares on a sheet), and make rough sketches, without detail. This process is a way to take complex information and build a visual narrative. By using a combination of outlining and storyboarding, the result will be an organized narrative structure with intentional hierarchy.
When it comes to simple design tactics, the most basic rule to follow to build cohesion across your deck is to limit animations and transitions. In fact, limiting all motion to basic fade transitions is a good rule of thumb. Unless you are a skilled designer or animator, you should stay away from PPT animations and transitions. That said, fade transitions make a great base for presentations because they’re easy, commonly used in film, but not cheesy
The next two tactics relate to fonts. Try to stick with two font families in a presentation: one for headlines and titles, another for everything else (including sub-subtitles and body copy). Better yet, use one font family but vary the weights (e.g., bold for headlines and titles, regular or light for body copy and subtitles). I often use Franklin Gothic, which is an elegant, balanced font. Calibri is a great option for body copy and longer text, as it’s a smaller font size saves space, while being easy to work with.
The next tactic is color. When it comes to font colors, tend to use one color throughout, or shades of the same color, ideally black/gray. You might say that’s boring, but the truth is visual interest gets created from nuance in the use of fonts, not in a rainbow of bright colored fonts. Visual interest comes from hierarchy, photos or data. So stick to one or two fonts, and limit the use of color. Ideally use one color for all body copy, and different shades of the same color to create hierarchy.
Each Slide, A Focal Point
We’ve looked at the deck globally; now we’ll cover individual slides. How do you evaluate a slide? How do you ensure that each has a center of gravity to each? Again, each slide must further the overall purpose of the deck. If it doesn’t, why is it there? However, each slide also needs its own focal point. There should be hierarchy, balance and visual cues to make the individual slide meaning clear, while distinguishing information that’s more important against that which is less important.
Like the other levels, there are tactics to employ on the slide level. The conventional wisdom for slide design is to present one idea per slide. The problem is, that’s not always pragmatic. One idea per slide is a great tactic for TED talks, but doesn’t always work for day-to-day corporate presentations, certainly not for research or complex presentations with lots of data.
In most corporate presentations, “slide stuffing” is inevitable. The solution is visual balance and hierarchy, so instead of focusing on one idea per slide, the more appropriate paradigm should be one idea at each moment in time. You can have as many ideas as needed in a given slide, and as much information, but the key is to control the audience’s attention at each moment in time. This is about streamlining the real-time connections between visuals and spoken words, to make sure that the audience isn’t confused. Visuals and words should be clearly connected at all times.
Another tactic – simplify. Maybe it’s a bit aspirational, but clean design is cool. Curation and editing creates simplicity. If you’re in doubt, the bias should be towards cutting and putting less rather than more on each slide.
Next, consider the negative space that surrounds a passage of text, chart or image. Negative space helps define the boundaries on a slide and image, and creates balance. This is a subtle concept, but it adds sophistication to slide design. You want some negative space but not too much; it’s a balance that takes thought and practice. Strive toward balance, and the slides will have order and visual clarity.
Margins are another tactical consideration. Few people who don’t design presentations for a living focus on maintaining equal margins around the bottom, top, left and right. From my perspective, margins are among the most important design tools available. Always strive to preserve margins, even if it means shrinking charts, text, photos and objects to make them fit while preserving consistent margins across your slides.
Lastly, consider text – we discussed decluttering slides, and simplicity, but the fact is you will face word walls of overstuffed text. How do you create hierarchy with word walls? Use text opportunistically. Every time you have a large passage of text, consider leading with a short sentence headline that summarizes the key takeaways from the passage. And set the headline apart by bolding headline text, making it slightly larger and/or make the font color darker than the passage.
Last But Not Least, Look Within Each Slide
The last level of zoom is looking at every object (i.e., each chart, paragraph of text, image, etc.) within each slide. When it comes to data, every chart, table and graph should relate directly to the overall Center of Gravity. Strongly consider removing any data set if it doesn’t further the overall purpose of the presentation. That said, each chart, table and graph needs its own focus, balance and hierarchy that pulls it together.
First, acknowledge that the data is your baby. You spend countless hours and money developing your data and analysis, and you want to share it. The problem is, nobody cares that much about your baby (regardless of how many baby pictures you share), and nobody cares that much about your data. When presenting their work, most people overshare data because they don’t want to mislead or confuse, and most importantly, they don’t want to leave out anything important. That said, consider that key to your role as a presenter is curation, delivering insightful information rather than burying the audience in it.
Separately, data design uses the same tools as slide design. Use color appropriately and judiciously. Efficient use of negative space creates hierarchy. At the end of the day, data should be the hero, the most important data points should stand out. Get rid of unnecessary labels and containers, hash marks, lines and legends. Get rid of bells and whistles that create clutter and visual confusion. Find the story in the data, and don’t overshare.
To boil down great data design into a punch list, there are three imperatives. The data needs to be:
First, the data needs to be easily accessible and accurate. The axes and scale of the visuals, bars and the lines needs to be accurate. The visual emphasis should fairly depict the data. An appropriate visual hierarchy should make data the hero, without superfluous bells and whistles.
Second, is your data insightful? Data should tell a story and directly connect to the overall presentation’s theme. If there’s nothing interesting about the data, consider removing it. Be thoughtful about calibrating the granularity of data, because the more granular, the harder it is to emphasize insights.
Third, is the data beautiful, aesthetically? Are you using color as a tool purposefully? Is the data visualization as simple as possible? Are there bold lines, text and shapes where needed? Is there ample negative space?
When designing any presentation, consider how it performs at three levels of zoom. At each level, consider how it connects to the overall Center of Gravity. And at the same time, it must also have its own focal point that maintains cohesive. Focus on these three levels and your presentation will carry the day.