6 dos and don’ts for next-level slides, from a TED presentation expert

Jun 13, 2019 /

Want to prevent yawns and glazed-over eyes? Before you deliver your next speech, pitch or address, learn how to create exceptional slides by following these rules (complete with real before-and-afters).

Slides are an expected and crucial part of most speeches, presentations, pitches and addresses. They can simplify complex information or messages, showcase relevant images, and help hold an audience’s attention. But quite often, the best slides aren’t those that make people sit up and comment on how good they are; instead, they’re the ones that people take in without really noticing because the content is effortlessly conveyed and matches the speaker’s words so well.

These days, showing high-quality slides is more important than ever. “We’re living in a visual culture,” says Paul Jurczynski, the cofounder of Improve Presentation and one of the people who works with TED speakers to overhaul their slides. “Everything is visual. Instagram is on fire, and you don’t often see bad images on there. The same trend has come to presentations.”

He says there is no “right” number of slides. However, it’s important that every single one shown — even the blank ones (more on those later) — be, as Jurczynski puts it, “connected with the story you’re telling.” Here, he shares 6 specific tips for creating the most effective slides. (Note: All of the examples below were taken from the actual slides of TED speakers.)

1. Do keep your slides simple and succinct

“The most common mistake I see is slides that are overcrowded. People tend to want to spell everything out and cover too much information,” says Jurczynski. Not only are these everything-but-the-kitchen-sink slides unattractive and amateurish, they also divert your audience’s attention away from what you’re saying. You want them to listen to the words that you slaved over, not get distracted by unscrambling a jam-packed slide.

“The golden rule is to have one claim or idea per slide. If you have more to say, put it on the next slide,” says Jurczynski. Another hallmark of a successful slide: The words and images are placed in a way that begins where the audience’s eyes naturally go and then follows their gaze. Use the position, size, shape and color of your visuals to make it clear what should come first, second and so on. “You don’t just control what the audience sees; you have to control how they see it,” says Jurczynski.

BEFORE: Too crowded 

AFTER: Easy to absorb

2. Do choose colors and fonts with care

Colors and fonts are like the herbs and spices of your presentation. When used wisely and with intention, they’ll enhance your slides; but when tossed in haphazardly, they’ll make it an unappealing mess.

Let’s start with color. “Color is a key way to communicate visually and to evoke emotion,” says Jurczynski. “It can be a game changer.” Your impulse might be to pick your favorite hue and start from there, but he advises, “it’s important to use color with a purpose.” For example, if you’re giving a presentation about a positive topic, you’ll want to use bright, playful colors. But if you’re speaking about a serious subject such as gun violence or lung cancer, you’d probably go for darker or neutral colors.

While it’s fine to use a variety of colors in your presentation, overall you should adhere to a consistent color scheme, or palette. “The good news is you don’t need a degree in color theory to build a palette,” says Jurczynski. Check out one of the many free sites — such as Coolors or Color Hunt — that can help you assemble color schemes.

With fonts, settle on just one or two, and make sure they match the tone of your presentation. “You don’t have to stick to the fonts that you have in PowerPoint,” or whatever program you’re using, says Jurczynski. “People are now designing and sharing fonts that are easy to install in different programs. It’s been an amazing breakthrough.” Experiment. Try swapping a commonly used font like Arial for Lato or Bebas, two of many lesser known fonts available online. Most important: “Use a big enough font, which people often forget to do,” advises Jurczynski. Your text has to be both legible and large enough to read from the back of the room, he recommends — about 30 points or so.

BEFORE: Weak and hard-to-read font, muddy colors 



AFTER: Strong font, color that’s striking but not jarring


3. Don’t settle for visual cliches

When you’re attempting to illustrate concepts, go beyond the first idea that comes to your mind. Why? The reason it appears so readily may be because it’s a cliché. For example, “a light bulb as a symbol for innovation has gotten really tired,” says Jurczynski. Other oft-used metaphors include a bull’s-eye target or shaking hands. After you’ve come up with your symbol or idea, he advises people to resist the lure of Google images (where there are too many low-quality and clichéd choices) and browse other free image sites such as Unsplash to find more unique visuals. One trick: If you do use stock, amp it up with a color overlay (as in the pic at the top of this article) or tweak it in some other way to keep it from looking generic.

One potential source of pictures is much closer at hand. “If it fits the storyline, I encourage people to use their own images,” says Jurczynski. “Like one TED Talk where the speaker, a doctor, used photos of his experience treating people in Africa. That was all he needed. They were very powerful.” Caveat: Any personal photos must support your speech or presentation. Do not squander your audience’s precious time by showing them a gratuitous picture of your children or grandparents — beautiful as they may be.

BEFORE: Fake-looking stock photo to illustrate teamwork 

AFTER: Eye-catching photo of nature to illustrate teamwork

4. Don’t get bogged down by charts and graphs

Less is also more when it comes to data visualization. Keep any charts or graphs streamlined. When building them, ask yourself these questions:

What do I want the audience to take away from my infographic?

Why is it important for them to know this?

How does it tie into my overall story or message?

You may need to highlight key numbers or data points by using color, bolding, enlarging or some other visual treatment that makes them pop.

Maps are another commonly used infographic. Again, exercise restraint and use them only if they enhance your talk. “Sometimes, people put a map because they don’t know what else to show,” says Jurczynski. He suggests employing labels, color schemes or highlighting to direct your audience where to look. He adds, if you have the skill or know an artist, “you may even consider a hand-drawn map.”

BEFORE: Yikes! What’s important?!?
AFTER: The takeaway is clear

5. Don’t be scared of blank slides

It may seem counterintuitive, but at certain points in your speech or pitch, the best visual is … no visual at all. “At the beginning, I was not a fan of blank slides,” says Jurczynski. “But the more talks I’ve seen, the more a fan I am of them, because sometimes you want all the attention on yourself and you don’t want people distracted by what they see in the slides. Or, you might use them to give the audience a visual break from a series of slides. Or maybe you want to shift the mood or tempo of the presentation.”

The blank slide is the visual equivalent of a pause, and most stories could use at least one. And with blank slides, Jurczynski has one main “don’t”: “You cannot use white blank slides, because if you do, people will see it and think something is broken.”

Casey Gerald speaks at TED2016 – Dream, February 15-19, 2016, Vancouver Convention Center, Vancouver, Canada. Photo: Bret Hartman / TED

6. Do remember to practice

The easiest way to figure out if your slides really work? Recruit a colleague, friend or family member, and run through your entire presentation with them. Sometimes, people can get so carried away with rehearsing their delivery and memorizing their words that they forget to make sure their slides complement and synch up with what they’re saying.

“Even if you have the best visuals in the world, you need to practice in front of someone else. Once you start practicing, you may see, ‘I’m talking about a sad story, but on the slide behind me, I have something funny and that doesn’t make sense,'” says Jurczynski. “Or, ‘Oh, this could be a good place for a blank slide.’”