Resurrect Your Deck Design: An ode to ugly presentations (and a mission to fix them)

Katie Burkhart is the founder of KBurkhart & Co. and serves as the lead brand strategist and designer. You can follow Katie on Twitter @KBurkhartCo and read her posts on the KBurkhart & Co blog.

Presentation decks are a special interest of mine. Why, you ask? Well, like many people, I spend a decent amount of time listening to presentations, which means I also spend a lot of time looking at decks that leave a lot to be desired.

I’d really like to help fix that.

Let’s be honest. How many of you have sat in the audience going, “Man, this is a great speaker! I’m tweeting quotes left and right. But…what happened to that slide deck? It just doesn’t measure up and I can barely read it…”

Hopefully a few hands went up.

One of the biggest flaws in presentation design, regardless of use case, is the compulsion to write out everything that might possibly come up on the slides themselves. This can often include reproducing the entire talk on the screen – in very small letters.

Taking this approach undermines your ability to deliver your message in an effective or engaging way. What you’ve put on your slides cannot be read or digested, but because you’ve put it there, your audience will likely attempt to read what you’ve written. They will then miss out on what you’re saying, as they can’t read and listen at the same time. Or worse yet, they will be frustrated at the onset and ignore your slides completely.

Additionally, the more you’ve used your deck as a safety net in case you forget something, the more likely you will be to read your slides to the audience (ouch!).  

Given this saga of woe, why is it that we keep creating presentations crammed with text and blurry images?

It’s because we believe that our presentation deck is supposed to be an exact duplicate of our verbal presentation and all of the related pieces of information.

Unfortunately, that’s incorrect.

Presentation decks are meant to support you, not be the presentation itself. You are the presentation.

What does that mean? Well, if your laptop dies five minutes before your keynote, if your file just won’t open on the venue’s technology, or even if the projector you’re supposed to use catches fire, you should still be able to deliver your presentation expertly.

This may sound really simple (and it is) but it requires a reframe in thinking. 

No more should you spend time copying your notes into your deck, or adding links that the audience can’t use anyway. You should spend your time making the content you’re presenting as valuable and as human as it can possibly be.

For some of us, that may mean ditching the deck entirely. Personally, I’d feel a little naked up there without something backing me up. 

So, if you’re going to have a deck — and you don’t want it to be your notes in PowerPoint format — what should you do?

Focus on one thing at a time.

“Every slide should try to do just one job. One,” says Avinash Kaushik in another great article on presentation design.

I could not agree more. It would be better to have more slides than to cram everything into ten.

Start by narrowing down what goes into your deck. Determine which points will be stronger because they’re underscored by a visual behind you, and which points could be communicated equally as well without the added support.

Then look at each slide as its own canvas. Take away everything you can until you only have left exactly what you need – and ensure that what remains has a specific reason for being there. Doing so will provide you the optimum balance of form and function, and will also allow your audience to fully understand the information on the slide without taking their eyes off of you for too long.

Focusing on one thing at a time will not only improve your deck design, but the caliber of your presentation as a whole. It will allow you to determine exactly what matters most, and to explore each point thoroughly – and thus deliver more value.

Limit the amount of statistics you include.

And while you’re working on revising your content, limit the amount of statistics you throw at your audience.

We’ve all watched that presentation that starts with a dozen numbers, and then they keep popping up throughout. You know a lot about the topic on which you’re presenting, but a constant barrage of data can be overwhelming to your audience because it makes no sense without context.

Concentrate on the story, then carefully select a handful of data points that support what you’re sharing. Narrowing it down to the statistics that make the most impact will better serve the story and the deck design.  

Design your presentation to support your brand.

Your deck should absolutely reflect your brand, preferably beyond sticking a tiny version of your logo in the corner.

Think about colors, fonts, and imagery, as well as the overall layout. Perhaps your graphics are linear, or perhaps they’re flat. Maybe your content always aligns to the bottom lefthand corner. Whatever you do, make sure it fits soundly within your brand identity and strategy.

More specifically, when selecting imagery, high-resolution photos are a must as they go a long way to show your level of polish and professionalism. Selecting images that support your brand and brand story go even further.

Consider whether your images should play up certain colors, if they should be black and white, or if perhaps you shouldn’t use images at all, but only graphics and icons instead. Once you know the style, take the time to source good, professional, high-resolution imagery both from an artistic as well as from a file quality perspective.

There are many places to obtain quality stock photos without cost. This likely means they carry a Creative Commons license and can generally be used attribution-free. Now, sometimes you just can’t find what you’re looking for on these sites or feel that you’ve seen the photo you’re planning to use in too many places. You may need to broaden your search to stock photography sites that charge a fee to license the photos, such as Shutterstock or iStock. If none of these options work for your brand, consider working with a photographer to take your own.

Your font selection should still be in line with your brand, but when it comes to presentations, use a standard font. What does that mean? It means that the custom font your brand uses needs to come out. There’s no guarantee that the font you’ve chosen will be installed on the computer from which you’ll be presenting and using a standard font will help you avoid any unexpected or undesired formatting changes.

Also remember to make your type large enough to read and with enough contrast to stand out. A good test is to print your slides out at home in black and white. If you can’t clearly read your text, there isn’t enough contrast.

Your overall layout should coordinate with the identity you’ve created through your other materials. That doesn’t mean it needs to look exactly the same, but it should feel like it belongs. If you’re not a designer, consider working with one to make a base template.

Your deck is an extension of your brand and like any other channel, it should support that brand accurately and consistently.

Embed any media you want to share.

In today’s digital age, it is no surprise that you would want to include video or other media in your deck. The most obvious way is by linking to that media. Avoid the temptation to do so. This method is very disruptive to your presentation, as it literally takes your audience out of your deck, forces them to refocus on something completely different, and then come back to your deck, all the while losing their focus on you. Inevitably, this technique also tends to lead to technical difficulties like error messages, eating up precious time and dinging your credibility because you can’t connect.

If you need to show a video or an infographic, figure out how to embed them into your deck. For example, versions of PowerPoint past 2013 will allow for this right in the program.

This is also a good time to mention that you should think about the file type and format to which you save your final version. This seems really silly to include, except for the fact that I’ve watched both experienced and novice presenters run into problems because they didn’t have their file in a format that worked the day of their presentation.

The best way to know if you’ve got the right type of file at the right aspect ratio is to consult with the venue at which you’ll be presenting. It’s also a great time to make sure they’re able to handle sound or video. Prior preparation prevents poor performance.

Be consistent.

Humans appreciate patterns. In fact, we’re the best when it comes to recognizing them in just about everything. Establishing and leveraging patterns in your deck design will help your audience to better understand your message and to remember you.

Consistency adds dramatically to your audience’s ability to digest the information you’re sharing. For example, use your fonts consistently throughout the deck. Your audience will start to look for the header in the same place, in the same color, if you establish it that way, which will help them grasp your slides with ease. Also consider limiting yourself to two or three fonts. It will make the design more consistent and cohesive.

The same goes for imagery. If you use black and white photos as part of your brand, make sure that they’re all black and white in your deck. More specifically, if you’re a photo-heavy brand, be cautious with the use of graphics, as it may be jarring.

When determining the layouts of your slides, select half a dozen options and stick to them. Seeing content in the same place on your slides will aid in their digestion, as well as the cohesiveness of your deck design.

As a bonus, think about key visual elements you can repeat. It will help your brand to stick in the minds of your audience.

Create a handout.

You do not have to have a handout for your presentation, but if this shift in thinking has made you really nervous that you won’t cover all of your points, think about making a handout (lawyers, I’m looking at you!).

You will undoubtedly know more about your topic than what shows up in the slides directly. Take all of that knowledge and make a nicely designed handout that your audience can take home. Brand it well so that you and your company get the recognition for your effort and thought leadership!

Keep it simple.

This tends to be my golden rule for most things, but it’s absolutely true when it comes to deck design. Putting this rule at the forefront will help you to make strategic design decisions, resulting in better focus and consistency.

It will also help you to make your presentation more human and bring the story to the forefront.

A deck can serve as excellent support to your presentation, engage your audience, and solidify your story. Just remember that you are the presentation, and the deck is a tool that you can make the most of, provided you keep it focused, keep it consistent, and keep it simple.