HOW DO I CREATE EFFECTIVE SLIDE PRESENTATIONS?

Have you ever sat through a presentation and thought it might be easier to pay attention if the slides were clearer? Too often presentation slides turn into lists of bullet points or walls of text that act as cues for presenters, not aids for students. 

Whether you are creating a presentation for a face-to-face lecture or for an online video, it is important that your presentation is clear, concise, and engaging for the student. There are many types of presentation programs, such as PowerPoint, Keynote and Google Slides. No matter which you choose, the following advice applies.  

Strive for simplicity

Use handouts for texts, not slides. It is better for students to pay attention to you than to spend time trying to read your slides while you are speaking. If they need to read a longer text, you should make it available as a handout or downloadable document. That way, they can read at their own pace.

Get rid of bullet points. Bullet points do not add any visual interest or meaning to your slides. A slide full of bullet points can easily become a wall of text that loses viewer focus. 

In this example, the instructor was guiding the student through important dates. The first image lists bullet points with large amounts of text and a confusing title. In the second image, the title was reworded and the main dates were turned into a timeline with important information highlighted in shorter, easier to read text.

Before image of a slide with a long list of bullets.
After slide with a timeline and less text.

Reduce words on your slides. Avoid large amounts of text. Some presenters feel they need to include every detail. A cluttered slide can be distracting and cause confusion. Students will spend more time deciphering what they see than on your message. 

In this example, the instructor listed all the factors that influenced the development of financial technology. In the second image, the instructor eliminates all of the bulleted items and groups the main points into two topics.

After image with much less text and organized into two columns.

Make one point per slide. Each slide should represent one topic or point. While it seems counterintuitive, having more slides will make it more engaging since students won’t be staring at the same slide for an extended period. At the end of your presentation, you can summarize the points you made in a single synthesis slide.

Once you divide your points into one per slide, look for redundancy. Next, highlight or emphasize the important parts where you want students to pay extra attention.

Do not use your presentation as a teleprompter. Presentations should enhance, supplement or summarize what you are saying. Avoid using your presentation as a placeholder for a script or notes. Use “speaker notes” to add prompts for yourself. 

Reimagine information 

Organize information with side-by-side comparisons. Sometimes you will want your students to compare two ideas or topics. It is best to reflect that comparison side-by-side rather than top-to-bottom form.

The following example compares Chapter 13 and Chapter 7 bankruptcy. The top-to-bottom comparison in the first image is harder to read and understand than the second image’s side-by-side version.

Before image with information presented in one list.
After image with items compared using two columns.

Use color for emphasis. A common way to call attention to important parts of information is to bold text. A judicious use of color will make information stand out more than bold text alone. 

Consider the following images. While both are acceptable, the second image makes the numbers stand out more.

Before slide where all body text is black.
After slide where important statistics are bold and orange.

Draw attention to information on graphs. Cluttering a chart with text means the viewers’ eyes will hop between the text and chart. You want students to focus on the important parts. Here are two simple ways to do that.

Option 1: Note the slides below. In the first slide, there are three competing elements: a bar chart, a table and text. That is too much. One simple fix is to enlarge the graph and delete the text.

Before slide that is too cluttered with a graph, chart, and text.
After slide with a graph - which has its X-axis information highlighted in a yellow box - and a chart.

Option 2: Another way you can enhance the slide is to break up the two charts into two points. Remember, you should strive for one point or topic per slide. Here, the bar chart and table have been enlarged and the points that pertain to the chart are condensed and highlighted on their own slide.

A slide with one graph and three major points to the right.
A slide with one chart and one major point to the right.

Create an infographic to emphasize numbers and data. Instead of showing hard-to-read charts or graphs that you mention later, consider using an infographic or revising the graph to get your point across and trim the rest. Save complex charts for offline reading. 

The first graph below compares consumer spending, real estate and business spending in the U.S., China and the United Kingdom. This is hard to read, especially on mobile devices.

Since only three countries were being compared, the rest of the countries are unnecessary. While this may be acceptable supplemental material, the extra information is distracting in a presentation.

In the revised infographic, the unnecessary information is removed and only the relevant information is displayed. 

Before slide with a graph that has many bars and colors.
After slide with two simplified infographics highlighting important data.

These charts compare the United States to China and the United Kingdom. In the first image, the information is presented in a hard-to-read table. In the second image, the relevant information is isolated, making it easier to understand.

Before slide with a chart with too many countries listed.
After slide with a graph showing the important data for just three countries.

Look and Feel

Slide layout should be 16:9. When creating your slide presentation set your slides to the 16:9 ratio. This is the ratio of most screens. (If you use a 4:3 ratio for a video presentation, you will end up with wasted black space.)

Before slide formatted to 4:3 ratio has unused space on the sides.
After slide shows how using 16:9 ratio fills the screen.

How to change your slide size in…
> Powerpoint 
> Keynote
> Google Slides

Choose the right typefaces. There are two categories of typefaces: serif and sans serif. Arial, Helvetica and Open Sans are sans serif. Times New Roman, Garamond and Georgia are serif. 

While serif typefaces are preferred for printed materials, sans serif is generally best for reading on screens. So use sans serif for text bodies. Use serif typefaces for titles and headings.

Use type consistently. If you choose Arial for text and Times New Roman for your headings, stick with them throughout.  Don’t mix more typefaces in unless there is a good design reason.

Resources
> Difference between Serif and Sans Serif 
> Typography FAQ
> The Elements of Typographic Style (book)
> Accessible Fonts

Use high-quality images and graphics. Consider the purpose of an image. Images should complement what you are saying. Avoid clipart, low-resolution images, generic stock images and images that have white backgrounds. 

Consider copyright when selecting images. If you are searching for an image, don’t just right-click and save the image. Fair use permits classroom use of copyrighted works, but it limits what you can do with such material outside the classroom.

A better approach is to look for images on sites that are designed for legitimate use. 

Resources
> Library guide to images
> Five ways to verify an image and identify the copyright owner
> Creative Commons
> Pixabay
> Unsplash
> Envato Elements
> Shutterstock
> 123RF

Keep your color palette simple. Limit presentations to three or four main colors and two secondary/accent colors.

A slide showing three main colors and two accent colors.

Resources
> Say It With Presentations (e-book)
> Top Ten Slide Tips
> Teaching Tip: Designing Online Lectures and Recorded Presentations

Making accessible presentations 

No matter the topic or message you are trying to convey with your presentation, it should always be accessible. While you may think that this should have been the very first tip mentioned, if you adhere to the previous tips, you will naturally make your presentation accessible. Still, there are a few things to consider.

Choose the right font size. Readability is essential for accessibility. Type size is key to readability and accessibility. No matter what device students use to view your presentation, text should be large enough to read. The general rule is to stick with a minimum of 24 points. If you use each slide to make a single point, you should have room for larger text sizes. 

Keep your sentences and text short. While sighted students can quickly read two or three sentences, low-vision students will spend twice as long reading the same text. If you find yourself running out of room, chances are you may need to condense or break up your slide. It is best practice to read out loud any text that everyone must “read.”

Use high contrast. Use lighter text on darker backgrounds and darker text on lighter backgrounds. Avoid red-green combinations. This is especially true for graphs. You should be able to address this concern if you choose an appropriate color palette from the very start.

The difference between low and high contrast color pairings.

Do not use color alone to convey meaning. Colors are often used to represent meanings and emotions. While many students may understand the use of some colors to represent a meaning, low-vision or blind students will not. When using colors to represent something or convey an emotion, use thoughtful color choice and a visual cue tied to its meaning. This is especially true when using graphs and charts. 

Red-green, a commonly used color palette, is problematic for the color blind, many of whom cannot distinguish the two. 

It is common practice to use red for:

  • high levels
  • decrease
  • loss
  • bad
  • danger

and green for:

  • low levels
  • increase
  • profit
  • good
  • safe

This graph uses three colors to represent a particular group. The first image is not accessible because two of the lines are red and green and there are no additional labels. The second image is accessible because the lines have been replaced with two dotted lines and one solid, with labels for each. The red line was also changed to magenta.

A graph using red and green lines.
A graph using green and pink lines and different line styles.

Resources

Check color contrast:
> Duke Branding and Color Accessibility Guidelines
> Colourcontrast.cc
> webaim.org
> Contrast-ration.com
> Chars and Accessibility from Penn St University
> Types of color blindness

Color accessibility:
> Color Oracle
> Sim Daltonism

Be consistent with text and image placement. Keep the placement of images and text in the same location every time. This improves visual consistency and accommodates low vision students. If you have an image on the left and text on the right keep the order the same throughout. 

Below is an example where on one slide the image is on the left and the text on the right. The next slide switches the text and image around. This layout change requires students to make more effort to adjust.

Slide with a photo on the left and text on the right.
Slide with text on the left and photo on the right.

Add alternative text to images. If you plan on making your slide presentation available for download, it is important to add alternative text, or alt text, to images and charts. Alt text is what assistive technologies, such as screen readers, use to describe images, graphs and charts. 

Screen readers read the entire alt text out loud. So it’s best to keep the alt text description as short as possible but detailed enough to convey the necessary information. If an image is purely for aesthetics, you do not need to add alt text.

While this is not an exhaustive list, the following are some best practices when adding alt text.

  • Aim for 125 characters or less
  • Describe the image and be specific
  • Don’t start with “image of” or “picture of”, screen readers will identify this on their own
  • Use proper spelling, grammar, capitalization and spacing
  • If text is embedded in the image, add it in your description
  • Do not rely on PowerPoint’s automatic alt text description. This image illustrates the limitations of PowerPoint’s automatic alt texts.
Screenshot showing an inaccurate automatically generated alt text description.

Resources
> How Do I Address Accessibility Concerns?
> How to Write Alt Text and Image Descriptions for the Visually Impaired
> Complex Images for All Learners
> Working with Images in Keynote