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The 10 Commandments of Presentation Design

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Editor's Notes

  • DISCLAIMER: This blog post is not intended to give you an abbreviated design education. It won’t tell you how big to make your fonts or hit you with lots of information about resolution and color schemes. It’s not even going to touch on layout and hierarchy. And while all these things matter (and trust me, I really do care about them), a great presentation isn’t about fundamentals in design structure — it’s about conveying your message to your audience in a clear, concise, and meaningful way.

    In honor of that sentiment (and since I grew up Lutheran) here are the 10 Commandments of Great Presentation Design. These insights address some of the most common mistakes speakers make when creating their presentation. It might feel a bit like you’ve been lured here under false pretenses, but just hear me out, I'm channeling Moses' inner designer.

  • 1. Thou shalt NOT be selfish.
    Let me explain. Good presentations boil down to ONE thing: your ability to put yourself last. Every piece of your presentation should consider what’s best for your audience.
  • Have you ever heard a presenter say something like…
  • "if you could read this slide, you'd see that..." SELFISH.
  • SELFISH.
  • Ever seen them blame the technology for formatting issues?
  • SELFISH. It's all about prioritization of your audience over yourself.
  • Your presentation is a gift for your audience. Make it a gift worth giving!
  • 2. Thou shalt NOT design first.
    While it may seem counterintuitive, whipping out a good ole’ fashion piece of paper and writing down everything you want to say is EXACTLY where you should begin.
  • Get it all out there and figure out what your audience needs to hear before you even touch a keyboard. Brainstorm your messaging before you open Powerpoint.

    Opening up a Powerpoint document right out of the gates is a sure fire way to box yourself into a linear way of thinking.
  • We recommend the Know, Feel, Do strategy to begin molding your presentation into it’s finest shape.
  • 3. Honor thy screen by keeping it holy.
    Your slides are not your notecards. They are a reinforcement of the information you’re presenting, not the script.

    People will read faster than you talk. If you’re reading information on a slide, you’re not listening to the presenter. Make it easy on your audience by keeping it light on screen. Your audience should never struggle to decipher anything up there, no matter how far back in the nosebleed section they are.
  • Your slides are not your notecards. They are a reinforcement of the information you’re presenting, not the script.

    They are a reinforcement of the information you’re presenting, not the script. Have a conversation with your audience, don’t read your slides to them.
  • 4. Thou shalt NOT covet thy neighbor’s charts.
    You don’t have to use them, I swear. Instead, really think about what that chart actually means for your audience.
  • Dissect it down to the parts that apply to their lives — don’t leave them trying to interpret the screen in the middle of your speech.
  • 5. Thou shalt NOT steal.
    Your presentation is an extension of you. It represents your individual ideas, style and is authentically yours. Don’t try to be something you’re not, and don’t present work that’s not your own.
  • This goes for design too. Make sure you’re using licensed imagery and design elements in your deck. Stealing images on the web seems like a forgivable offense, but just remember, someone else worked hard to create those and they're not yours for the taking.
  • *Citation may be required.
  • 6. Thou shalt NOT misuse thy tools.
    You wouldn’t use a hammer to put a screw in the wall, would you?
  • You wouldn’t use a hammer to put a screw in the wall, would you?
  • Your slide deck is meant to be used with you, not in place of you. It’s your backup. Your chapter markers. Your structure and basic outline.
  • If you must explain something in detail—give your audience a printout of the specifics or send a follow up email or document.
  • 7. Thou shalt abide by a theme.
    One of the most common mistakes people make when presenting is leaving out a definitive directive for their audience. Assigning one goal or ‘theme’ for your presentation gives you the ability to reference and tie in all your points to one clear and central purpose.

    The same goes for your design. Having one unified theme and style helps unite your presentation as a cohesive whole. Limit your use of fonts, colors, image styles, etc to keep your whole deck looking polished and professional.

    This post and accompanying deck are unified under the 10 Commandments theme. It dictated the worn look as well as the progression of each point.

  • 8. Thy shalt break them out, when thy are in doubt.
    This might be hard to hear, but you're the only one who cares how many slides you have. Slide count has no bearing on quality!

    In the written word, if your idea changes, you hit the return button and start a new paragraph. The same goes for a presentation—advance that slide and move on! Sharing all your ideas on one slide is like trying to drink from a firehose. Serve up your ideas one bite at a time. It helps your audience digest and process them and BONUS: it keeps you on a structured track and your presentation is spoiler free.
  • 8. Thy shalt break them out, when thy are in doubt.
    This might be hard to hear, but you're the only one who cares how many slides you have. Slide count has no bearing on quality!

    Your audience can read faster than you can speak.

    They could be reading your last point while you’re still talking about your first.

    In the written word, if your idea changes, you hit the return button and start a new paragraph. The same goes for a presentation—advance that slide and move on! Sharing all your ideas on one slide is like trying to drink from a firehose. Serve up your ideas one bite at a time. It helps your audience digest and process them and BONUS: it keeps you on a structured track and your presentation is spoiler free.

  • 9. Just because thy can, doesn’t mean thy should.
  • Powerpoint and Keynote provide you with all the whiz bang under the sun—and we’ll admit, sometimes it’s kind of cool! But we’re here to tell you that the best place to be drop the anvil effects on your audience is likely not a professional presentation setting. Cool it with the special effects. This is a live presentation, not CGI! Use these types of effects sparingly.

    Using too much smoke and mirrors can leave your audience feeling a little distracted and draw attention to your presentation in a negative way. It may look like you spent all your time focusing on the wrong part of your presentation and people may discredit your information for it.
  • 10. Thine enemy is perfection.
    Let’s be honest. If you’re reading this, you’re probably not a graphic designer (unless your name is Derek Rudel) and you’re just looking for tips to get better.
  • The truth is, no one expects your slides to be amazing! Done beats perfect any day of the week.
  • Your focus should be on perfecting your content, not deliberating on colors and point size.
  • For more information, visit SquarePlanet.com
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