Once you are accepted to speak at a conference, the anxiety of putting together the presentation sets in. Making interesting, well-organized slides with clear takeaways is hard. Like any skill, it takes a lot of practice to be good at it and even more practice to make them look professional and beautifully designed.
When making slides, it’s important to know that they are a presentation aid. Your speech is the presentation so not all of your content should be on your slides. You want what you’re saying to provide the majority of the value. After all, it was you that got invited to speak, not your slides.
Your slides are an important tool to help your audience follow along, emphasize your key takeaways, and a future artifact your attendees can refer to. Here are some of my tips for creating slides that your audience will get the most out of.
This may be the most universal tip shared with new speakers about slides but that’s because it’s so important. When you’re making your slide deck, focus on creating and organizing your content before you worry about the design of your slides.
It can be challenging to stay with black text on a white background but try not to touch the design until you’ve nailed the content. Get all your ideas into the slide deck, reorder slides, refine the words on the screen, split up lists across slides, and find your transition points. When you feel confident in the content of your slides, then play with color and imagery to make your points pop!
If you have a habit of procrastinating, this tip is even more important! Designing slides sucks up a lot of time; you don’t want to run out before you organize and present all of your actionable takeaways in a memorable flow.
While you’re creating the content of your slides, be sure to take advantage of master slides. Master slides are templates with predefined slide layouts. They exist in every presentation tool: Google Slides (my preferred tool because of the live captioning feature!), Keynote, and Powerpoint. Even when you’re creating default slides with black text on a white background, make sure to choose master slide layouts closest to how you think you want to present the content. Is it a title slide? Should it have a header and body copy? Do you need 2 columns?
When you are ready to start designing your slides, master slides let you make font, size, color, and layout changes in one place. Those changes are then applied to all slides using that layout saving you from having to make layout changes on each slide individually. If you want to increase the width of a text box on all of your title slides, you can make that change on the master slide and it will automatically apply to all of your title slides.
Master slides come in handy if you have to make changes on the fly right before your talk. I had a friend who was giving a workshop and noticed that the presentation screen was a bit short. His footer with his contact info was cut off so attendees couldn’t see it. If he had been using master slides, he could have moved his footer up 20 pixels on the slide master to make it fit on the screen. Unfortunately, he wasn't using master slides and didn’t have time to change the 60+ slides in his deck individually.
Include your contact info on your master slides. Many attendees will take pictures of a slide that resonates with them for future reference and to share on social media. If you have your website or Twitter handle on every slide, you make sure that your content is attributed to you. And it makes it easier for people to find you as content spreads across the Internet.
We all want our slides to look visually interesting. Often, this means playing with color, size, and images. But don’t forget that if someone can’t read your slides they might as well not be there.
It’s trendy to do white text on dark backgrounds. But in some cases where the room has poor presentation lighting, your slides wash out and are hard to read. Dark text on a light background works better in unknown screen resolution and lighting scenarios. This is especially true if you are showing a list or other small text (such as code). When in doubt, choose a light background and dark text. You can also use accessibility checkers, such as WebAIM’s color contrast checker, to check the contrast of your slides (try to shoot for 4.5:1 or higher).
In addition to the color of text and background, be aware of the size of your text. You should always strive to make it as large as possible to ensure everyone in the room can see it no matter how far away they're sitting. This has the added benefit of forcing you to include fewer words per slide and increase the value of your voiceover.
Be mindful of your use of imagery and color to convey meaning. Try not to rely on imagery alone to convey meaning. If you must (sometimes graphs and charts are an impactful way to make your point), be ready to describe the image and include text descriptions on the slide or in your speaker notes. The same goes for color. Color alone is not sufficient for conveying meaning. If you have a list of items where some are written in green for good and red for bad, consider splitting the list and adding headings so that those in your audience who are colorblind receive the same information as everyone else.
Allison Ravenhall wrote a wonderful article for Smashing Magazine outlining even more tips for creating accessible and inclusive slide presentations that I highly recommend.
I am not an advocate for memorizing every word of your talk ahead of time. But I do recommend that you type out your speaker notes in the presentation. (There is an area for speaker notes that attendees don’t see while you’re presenting.) Does it have to be full sentences of everything you’re going to say? No. But it should be more substantive than the little bit of text on your slides. Someone should be able to read your speaker notes and follow along with the meat of your talk, including the important takeaways.
Sharing your slides with speaker notes before you start (see below), is helpful for your audience. Providing speaker notes in the slides helps people with a variety of accessibility needs—low vision, attention deficit disorders, hearing loss, etc. If they can have your notes on their phone or laptop, they can follow along in a way that works best for them.
And providing your notes is a digital curb cut. It can help people who don’t usually have accessibility needs such as people who are taking notes and want to make sure they don’t get lost or tired parents who are struggling to stay awake.
Providing speaker notes can also help live captioners if the conference is staffing people to type out what you’re saying in real-time. They can refer to the notes to help them spell technical words. It also preps them with what you might say so it’s easier to keep up.
And finally, committing to typing your speaker notes beforehand helps you better prepare. Thinking through everything you want to say and writing it down can go a long way in helping you find sticky spots in your content that need to be smoothed out. For me, that’s usually the transitions and the conclusion.
Put your slides somewhere that other people will be able to view and download them. This allows attendees to download them while you're speaking so they can follow along as I mentioned above. And many attendees like to refer to slides later when they’re processing everything they’ve learned that day, when they want to blog about talks they’ve seen, or when they need to present to their team the valuable takeaways from the conference they attended.
Having publicly accessible slides can also help you land future speaking engagements. Event organizers may go look to evaluate your content and get a sense of how well your content is organized or how well it aligns with their event’s goals.
I host my slides on my personal website. Other speakers like Slideshare, Google Drive, Dropbox, and a variety of other document sharing platforms.
During your intro, be sure to share a link to your slides so your audience can download them to take advantage of the wonderful speaker notes and content you’ve put together. Like I mentioned before, allowing people to have access to your slides on their phones or laptops while you’re speaking let’s them follow along in a way that best suits their needs. You are creating a more inclusive space for everyone with just a little bit of forethought and planning.
This last tip may not apply to everyone, but if you’re including code in your slides please don’t screenshot it. Put the text of the code in the slide with appropriate code formatting. Then your attendees will be able to copy/paste it rather than having to re-type it all if they use it later.
Getting the formatting correct in presentation software can be a challenge. My hacky workaround is to copy/paste my code into Google Docs and use the Code Blocks Add-on to format it according to the language and slide design. I tend to prefer a simple theme and use the googlecode theme most of the time.
Slides are an important tool for both you and your audience. A well organized and interesting slide presentation helps your audience follow along, emphasizes your key takeaways, and acts as a future artifact your attendees can refer to. So when you're making slides, try to keep the following in mind.
- Content first!
- Use master slides
- Put your contact info in every slide
- Check your slides for accessibility
- Type out your speaker notes ahead of time
- Upload your slides somewhere shareable
- Include a link to your slides at the beginning of your presentation
- Don’t screenshot code