Focus on Communication
Creating Impactful Slides
By Cynthia L. Lewis, Ed.D.
Whether presenting slides to executives, to citizens, or during a training course, presenters want to ensure they deliver a clear message viewers understand and retain. Overusing slides or displaying too much information on them can distract from the main message. The audience may begin reading the slides and not paying attention to what the presenter is saying. Further, attendees may relate what they are reading to their own experiences, deciding whether they agree or disagree with the information and tuning out the speaker.
When a slide is crammed with information or images, viewers try to discern where to look and how best to take it all in. Their eyes go from one area of the slide to another, and they likely do not hear the speaker while trying to process information visually. Clear and concise slides that highlight the presenter’s main points and appear organized help ensure attendees understand and retain information.
Following some suggestions can aid presenters in ensuring their slides add to the presentation rather than distract the audience.
Words and Images
A general rule to follow for text on slides is the 6-by-6 rule: they should have no more than six lines and six words per line. Presenters who make fonts smaller to fit all the words can ask themselves: Could the information continue on an additional slide? Should the lines appear one at a time, giving the presenter a chance to talk about an idea without distracting the audience by displaying the next talking point?
First drafts of slide presentations may contain too many words; therefore, during revisions, keeping only major words and points can prove valuable for viewers. This may mean deleting articles, such as a, an, or the, and keeping one idea per slide.
Speakers may also deliver their main points and capture the audience by using only images to convey their message. Pictures may be easier to recall.1 However, as with the number of words, slides should not be overloaded with too many images. Further, some presenters may choose to strategically display specific words or images in certain areas of the slide (e.g., in the middle or on the periphery) or make some larger with the intention of influencing viewers.2 Creating slides with a combination of text and images is also effective.3
Using a 24-point or larger font allows for easier reading and helps limit the number of words per slide. This same guidance applies to slides in virtual delivery as well. Choosing the software’s default may be the best choice as the company has likely surveyed users for favorites. Fonts too wide or narrow may be difficult to read. Perhaps even more important, creating slides must allow for viewers with reading or comprehension difficulties. Research has shown certain fonts may be more challenging to read for those who experience visual perception distortion.4
Choosing appropriate background and font colors is key. What looks crisp and clear when creating slides on a laptop or tablet may not appear the same when projected on a larger screen during in-person events. Projector bulbs and screens may slightly alter colors and clarity.
High-contrast colors for backgrounds and fonts work best.5 People may see colors differently or have color blindness. Slides with color-blindness-friendly palettes help ensure viewers have less concerns about accurately reading slides. In addition, slide text and images should not flash or have animation, which can distract and confuse viewers.
“Clear and concise slides that highlight the presenter’s main points and appear organized help ensure attendees understand and retain information.”
How many slides should a presentation have? It depends. Common guidance is one slide per minute, a helpful technique to ensure presentations do not overload attendees. Many presentations effectively deliver messages with fewer slides.
Advancing too quickly from one slide to the next can confuse or distract audiences. Each slide should have a purpose that enhances viewers’ understanding of a topic.
Some software companies suggest a variety of slide designs. While they may offer creative and impactful options, presenters should ensure suggestions align with best practices for fonts and colors. Some design options default to small fonts that should be increased to a minimum 24 point.
Gradient background color may also result in limiting visibility of certain font colors. For example, some options have background colors appear darker at the top left of a slide and gradually become lighter toward the bottom right corner. A light-colored font may be easy to read at the top left but too closely blend with the bottom right.
Presenters who intend to share their slides should consider creating two versions: one to use during the presentation and another to send to attendees afterward or to those who could not attend. Because presenters often plan to share slides later, they may include too much information on them while presenting.
Rather than cluttering slides shown during the presentation, they can write additional information or even a script on the slides or in the slides’ notes to share later. This practice can be particularly helpful with virtual delivery when viewers may have less time or be unable to ask questions or make comments.
“Attendees can become distracted by errors.”
Attendees can become distracted by errors. Presenters should use their software’s spelling and grammar check features but not stop there. They should carefully proofread each slide, line, and word. Further, having at least one additional person review slides before the presentation can help eliminate mistakes. Slide creators may be so familiar with their topics that they overlook errors or confusing details. If time permits, having several people review slides can offer presenters additional value. They can look for spelling and grammar issues as well as review for content and understandability.6
The presentation is the focus — not the slides. Creating slides and sharing them during both in-person and virtual presentations can add clarity and credibility, be more persuasive, and help attendees retain information. While slides are not always necessary, following a few basic tips when using them can result in more impactful presentations.
In virtual environments, slides may be all the attendees see if the presenter and attendees do not have their video cameras turned on. Webinars have grown in popularity, and this will likely continue as organizations can share information with larger audiences who may not be able to attend events in person for various reasons (e.g., location, work shifts).
Using an easy-to-read font size and type and high contrast colors for the background and fonts will help ensure viewers do not struggle to see text. In addition to limiting images and text on slides, which may contribute to confusion, presenters should be mindful of having too many slides. Attendees may be easily distracted by reading slides or trying to put images into perspective if overwhelmed by them.
Presenters may find numerous benefits from seeking opinions from others on design and content prior to delivery. Their goals can be better achieved with clear slides that highlight key takeaways and avoid design flaws.
“The presentation is the focus — not the slides.”
Dr. Lewis is an FBI National Academy instructor in the bureau’s Leadership Education Unit. She can be reached at email@example.com.
1 Pauline Dewan, “Words Versus Pictures: Leveraging the Research on Visual Communication,” Partnership: The Canadian Journal of Library and Information Practice and Research 10, no. 1 (2015), https://journal.lib.uoguelph.ca/index.php/perj/article/view/3137/3473.
2 Eric R.W. Knight, Sotirios Paroutis, and Loizos Heracleous, “The Power of PowerPoint: A Visual Perspective on Meaning Making in Strategy,” Strategic Management Journal 39, no. 3 (March 2018): 894-921, https://doi.org/10.1002/smj.2727.
3 Anny Fritzen Case, “Creating Pedagogically Effective and Visually Appealing Instructional Slides: Design Tips for Language Educators,” Journal of English Learner Education 14, no. 2 (2022), https://stars.library.ucf.edu/jele/vol14/iss2/5.
4 Fonita Theresia Yoliando, “A Comparative Study of Dyslexic Style Guides in Improving Readability for People with Dyslexia,” in Advances in Social Science, Education and Humanities Research, vol. 502, Proceedings of the International Conference of Innovation in Media and Visual Design (Paris: Atlantis Press, 2020), https://www.atlantis-press.com/proceedings/imdes-20/125947156; and Christine Bachmann and Lauro Mengheri. “Dyslexia and Fonts: Is a Specific Font Useful?” Brain Sciences 8, no. 5 (2018): 89, https://doi.org/10.3390/brainsci8050089.
5 Robert Lane, “Combining Colors in PowerPoint — Mistakes to Avoid,” Support, Microsoft, accessed January 3, 2024, https://support.microsoft.com/en-us/office/combining-colors-in-powerpoint-mistakes-to-avoid-555e1689-85a7-4b2e-aa89-db5270528852.
6 Sabra E. Brock et al., “Updating PowerPoint for the New Business Classroom,” in Proceedings of the Informing Science + Information Technology Education Conference, Jerusalem, Israel (Santa Rosa, CA: Informing Science Institute, 2019), 353-369, http://proceedings.informingscience.org/InSITE2019/InSITE19p353-369Brock5314.pdf.