Originally published with the Forbes Coaches Council at Forbes.com on August 23, 2017.
When I teach a seminar, I often ask about the attendees’ process of putting together a presentation. “How many here start their preparation by opening up a new PowerPoint, or pulling out an old slide deck and repurposing it, or taking a colleague’s slide deck and adapting that?” Usually, all hands go up. Then I tell the group, “We’re never going to do that again.”
Instead, I tell everyone I coach to create the slide deck at the end of the preparatory process. To effectively communicate, you first need to cultivate awareness, assess your audience, and use a method that works for you to refine your message. Some people find storyboarding to be effective, for example, and my company uses what we call the GAP method, which stands for: know your goals, understand your audience, and map your plan.
Without these first steps, a slide deck will at best add little value for your audience, and will at worst undermine the power and persuasiveness of your argument. After all, if you don’t know the key points you want to emphasize, then how will those points appear in the slide deck? And then, subsequently, how will your audience know what you are trying to say?
When you have a strong, clear message, it will be much easier to create clean, compelling slides that reinforce that message without distracting from the most important element in the presentation — you.
What’s the key to a memorable slide deck? Here are a few strategies to keep in mind:
Consistency is key. In any slide deck, be rigorous about keeping each element of each slide (header, footer, text box) in the same spot. Always include page numbers. Don’t fiddle with font sizes (this will keep you honest about concision, too). Maintain a consistent margin.
The cleaner and more precise your slides are, the more impact their information will have — the focus stays on the substance, not on a logo that jumps around. The reverse is also true: An audience tends to see a sloppy deck as a reflection of a sloppy mind. If the slides look thrown together, how rigorous can the analysis be?
My habit is to open a slide deck on my screen, put my finger on the first bullet point on the first slide, and then click through the whole deck to make sure everything stays in the same place on every slide.
Be concise. Avoid complete sentences and keep bullet points to a single line. Remember, the slide deck is not the speaker’s script. What’s on the screen is a visual aid to the audience, not a way to remember your secondary and tertiary points.
It’s useful to think of slides as signposts on a trail. You have to get to each signpost — your key points — but how you get there isn’t as important. Don’t map out every footstep.
Eliminate unnecessary slides. For each slide, try to finish these two statements: “I’m including this slide because…” and “The key point on this slide is….” If you can’t immediately end those sentences, get rid of the slide.
Keep it simple. Every slide should be easy to read with a clearly recognizable key point. No one wants to have to spend time puzzling over a visual. When your audience can recognize your point easily, they’ll also be more likely to retain that information. And if the audience has to struggle to interpret the slide, guess what they are not doing at that moment? Listening to you.
Repeat, and then repeat again. As with your message, crafting a strong, simple opening and closing slide can help ensure that your key points come through loud and clear. Everyone is busy and overloaded with meetings. The more easily your audience can walk away with a two- or three-sentence summary of your presentation in their head, the more persuasive you will be.
Slide decks are the supporting player to your leading role, but remember: They can either help you shine or steal your thunder. A clear, compelling message is key. With that in hand, you’ll be better able to create a slide deck that convinces without confusion.