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Designing an Effective Presentation

Your guide to designing a great presentation.

Attendees tell us their most memorable session experiences weave together a clear narrative with discussion, interaction, and thought-provoking commentary around a story, project, or theme. The following pointers will help you design a compelling presentation.

Especially for Online Presentations

Online presentations require additional consideration and preparation to engage the audience. If you will be using our Adobe Connect interface, be sure to avail yourself of the presenter coaching resources  developed with you in mind!

1. Leverage your voice . Online, your voice and delivery must convey the movement, hand gestures, and facial expressions of in-person presentations. Avoid long pauses and speak with energy, confidence, and a smile.

2. Build a virtual connection . Remove the temptation to multitask by fostering a virtual connection. Keep a conversational tone. Share your picture or use a webcam. Provide your biographical information and ask participants about theirs.

3. Take the group's temperature at intervals throughout . Use different tools to get a sense of participant presence. Include polls and comment on the results. Encourage chat and acknowledge comments by name.

Especially for Poster Presentations

Poster sessions are informal, allowing you to share your work on a one-to-one basis. They are an excellent opportunity to discuss innovations and work in progress. A good poster centers on a main theme, presents useful information, and stimulates discussion. Don't forget to upload a digital copy of your poster to the digital poster gallery for this event. Your poster and good work will be on display long after the event concludes.

1. Keep it simple. Keep your poster simple and uncluttered. Limit to one or two fonts. Avoid using all capitals, which are more difficult to read. Use complementary colors with high contrast to alleviate eye strain.

2. Make it visually interesting. Use graphics, photos, and diagrams with a high degree of relevancy to add depth, meaning and visual interest for your topic.

3. Make it readable . Make text readable from 5 feet or more away. Use bullets for main points. Details can be included in your conversation, on a handout, or on a Web site on display during the session. Provide the URL in any other resource materials.

4. Create a compelling title . Include a title, institution/organization name, and brief summary so participants will know if your topic is of interest to them. Often title/summary will be upper left and institution lower right.

5. Use technology. If you plan to use a laptop for demonstration purposes, ensure participants will be able to read the screen. 

The Concierge Recommends

Top Ten Slide Design Tips by Garr Reynolds

Make a Powerful Point FassForward resources

Create a Presentation Your Audience Will Care About by Nancy Duarte

Poster Sessions by the Writing Center at Colorado State University

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4 tips to design better presentations

Author picture: Tee Tran

Whether presenting important updates at a board meeting, internally documenting information for an employee handbook, or sharing the new marketing strategy proposal — presentation design matters. Knowing how to design presentations that are both effective and visually stunning is a skill set valuable not just for designers, but for everyone in the modern workplace. 

I'm one of Pitch's senior visual designers, and one of my main roles is to oversee the design of our presentation templates . When creating presentation templates, I constantly need to keep in mind the balance between looks and usability. Something can look really nice, but if it doesn't communicate the messages well, then it doesn't matter how beautiful it is. From readability to presenting information effectively, I'll share some of the basic principles of presentation design and my tips for designing better presentations .

1. Readability

Have you ever seen those slides that are filled with so much content and background noise you don’t even want to bother reading? A presentation that looks nice is great, but the viewer has to be able to easily read the slide and digest the content to make it useful. Here are a few tips for designing readable presentations.

White space is your friend.

Make sure there is enough margin around your text to keep it from feeling cramped.

When writing, try to be clear and concise.

Huge blocks of texts can be intimidating. If you're writing paragraphs, limit it to 12 words per line for optimum readability (reading a long line of text causes fatigue).

Pay attention to height.

Typefaces with higher x-heights are much easier to read, especially at smaller sizes.

Proper line-height is also important.

Too tight makes it hard to read/claustrophobic. Too loose makes it feel like the paragraph is no longer a cohesive unit.

When dealing with readability, think about how people will see it. Presentations aren’t just for giving talks on stage or in meeting rooms. Today, they’re often used for information sharing, internal updates , and company documentation. If you’re not there to present in person, good layout and structure are your best form of nonverbal, effective communication.

Making presentations for internal use is often easier because these presentations are essentially used as documents. When you’re working on a screen to be viewed on screens, what you see is pretty much what you get. But, if you’re making a presentation for a conference , you also have to consider what it will look like on a big screen.

Is your copy readable from afar and from different angles? Is there enough contrast for your audience to see important details without squinting? Whether it's for the big screen, mobile, or meant to be printed out – these mediums will all have different considerations that will impact your design decisions.

2. Presenting information effectively

Presentations don't have to be filled with complicated charts and difficult-to-digest diagrams. Designed correctly, visuals make complex data or information easy to understand. Today, there are many options for presenting information beyond charts and graphs: You can embed videos, use GIFS, or link out to other resources to expand on your point. 

Use the rule of 3's when organizing information on a slide.

You can easily turn a cramped slide of text into a well-organized visual simply by breaking apart the information into three main points.

Use emphasis and hierarchy for the most important points.

Visually highlight points you definitely don’t want your viewers to miss – by enlarging the font size, making it a different color, or bolding it.

Don’t add extra visuals just because.

Visuals should support, not distract from, your point. Too many causes a slide to look cluttered.

3. Creating visual consistency in your presentation

Slides don't exist in a silo. When designing presentations slide by slide, you often end up with a bunch of slides that work individually, but lack cohesion as a unit. This can lead to painful revisions to content, layout, structure, and of course, design. It's important to build visual consistency into your presentation from the get go, and to keep it in mind as you design.

Backgrounds and slide frames can help you create consistency across your slide deck . Whether solid or gradient, filled with shapes or photos or even patterns, keeping your backgrounds the same (or similar) across slides helps them feel more cohesive as people navigate through. Another way to achieve this is by framing your slides with a topbar or sidebar.

In Pitch, you can easily keep your slides consistent with styles. Simply create a presentation , or choose a template from our template gallery , add your brand elements — like colors and custom fonts — directly to Pitch, and create an on-brand design in minutes. Not only is this good for getting started, but it’s also great for collaborating with a team. Designers can easily update messaging, colors, and typography, and distribute them to others right away.

4. Consider the context

Last but not least...the best presentation design always depends on the context. Your audience and objective impact everything from font choice to colors. For example, if you're designing an Annual Report for a long-established corporate bank, you might not want to use hot pink, but something more professional and serious, like a deep blue.

Keeping context in mind is important, not only in the beginning stages of coming up with a concept but throughout the process of designing a presentation.

That being said, here's a quick recap of our presentation design tips, and the top takeaways to remember when you're designing your next deck:

You can see these principles in practice from nine designer presentations that won a Dribbble Playoff Competition sponsored by Pitch. If you want to get started on your own presentations, explore our template gallery and sign up for free !

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How to Design a Presentation

Camille del Rosario

Camille del Rosario

designing an effective presentation

Great presentations inform, educate, persuade, and even inspire. Perhaps it’s the fusion of live audio and supportive visual elements. Maybe it’s the perfect blend of audience interactivity and speaker control. From small businesses to freelancers, most people often need to create presentations for various reasons. Whatever it is, a well-designed presentation is still one of the best ways to pitch ideas, showcase facts, or sell products to potential clients.

When it comes to your presentation decks, it takes two important aspects to tango: the content and the design. Many of us struggle to create sufficiently engaging, informational, memorable presentation slides. How do you strike a balance between professional and engaging? How do you avoid crossing the line from data-rich to overwhelming?

Read on to discover the six elements of an ideal and engaging presentation — or watch and listen to the video below to get the best presentation design tips!

You already have a deck but want to improve it further? Check out these proven tips on improving PowerPoint presentations from actual designers!

1. A Compelling Introduction

First, it’s important to let your audience know why they should care — or remind them why they already do. The beginning of your presentation is for provoking emotion, eliciting surprise, and engaging people enough so that they want to know more.

Don’t forget to introduce yourself to establish authority and familiarity. But don’t spend too much time talking about yourself unless the presentation is about you.

You can set the mood by starting with a relevant story or situation. Again, imagine that your audience is asking you why this subject matters. Communicating the main idea or the key message in the beginning will help you draw attention and keep your audience engaged.

But it’s not time to make your final pitch yet. Prioritize authenticity over immediate hard-selling for a successful presentation.

2. Charts and Infographics

People are drawn to moving stories and organic, conversational approaches. That’s why your presentation starts with a compelling introduction. But if you aim to have your audience come to a decision by the end of your presentation, they will want to go through a more logical, data-driven thought process. It’s your job to walk them through that.

Pull facts from reliable sources such as peer-reviewed articles or books. As much as possible, avoid making statements you can’t prove.

Use charts, graphs, and infographics to illustrate facts more effectively. For example, pie charts may be better visual aids than simple percentage numbers. A line graph is the best way to show numerical information that changes over time.

Use the simplest possible chart or graph design. Remember that your presentation is usually a visual aid on a large screen. Tiny text or complex details might be lost on the audience, so use large shapes and high-contrast blocks of color for maximum clarity. Remember, it is more important that your audience can understand the data at first glance than the aesthetics of your charts.

3. Large Text

Your presentation’s slideshow is not a set of pages from a textbook. Slides support your presentation. It’s not something for you to read out loud, nor should it compel audiences to take too much time reading instead of focusing on you.

Set a minimum text size. A 30- to 40-point font size generally works for headers, while “smaller” text can be around a 20-point font, but there are no strict guidelines.

You can adjust text sizes depending on the setting of your presentation slides. For example, err on the side of too-large text when you have senior audience members. If it’s a webinar and people will be on their screens, slightly smaller text may be acceptable.

Limit your ideas to one major concept per slide. Use simple sentences or phrases. Remember, the audience shouldn’t spend too much time reading the slide behind you. With that in mind, you can set your own maximum number of words per slide. Negative space, or white space, is your friend, don’t hesitate to use it generously.

Bullet points are going out of fashion. If you absolutely need bullets, you may have too much text on the slide. Consider using bullets for main points only and avoid text-heavy slides. The goal is to showcase keywords that reinforce — not dictate — your delivery.

4. Overall Simplicity

No matter how complex your subject is, the presentation should be kept as simple as possible. Limit the number of slides and the time you spend presenting each slide. Practicing your delivery will also help you prevent digressions or going overtime during the actual presentation.

Begin with an outline — or if it’s difficult for you to brainstorm with a purely textual outline, a concept map. Don’t be afraid to start out messy and simplify as you go.

Is your topic truly complex? That’s still no reason to overload your slides with hard-to-read details. Instead, you can create accompanying printouts to distribute to your audience so they have an in-depth resource to refer to during or after your presentation.

Read more about presentation do’s and don’ts here .

5. Consistent Design

Your presentation design must be consistent across all slides. Color scheme, fonts, and brand elements should appear to follow the same rules from beginning to end.

If you have a branding guide, use it as a starting point for designing presentations. In the absence of one, let your topic and audience demographic be the basis of your decisions and visual consistency. (Need help creating a branding guide? Download a free step-by-step guide !)

Just because you can do something in a presentation doesn’t mean you should. There’s no need to use all the free clipart and stock photos or showcase your wide variety of font combinations. Resist the temptation to add too many animations, transitions, and sound effects.

A professional-looking presentation template gives you authority. Things like careful alignment, thoughtfully selected graphics , powerful visuals, color palette of your brand, and highly readable elements make your presentation much more believable.

Lastly, you are the most important part of a great presentation. Be confident and prepared — this takes practice and research. Internalize your subject and polish your public speaking skills. You don’t need to commit to an absolutely perfect delivery.

There will be technical difficulties and little bloopers now and then. But poise can be practiced. Learn to chuckle at your own mistakes because the show must go on!

Learn to connect with your audience. Even if you’re the one standing front and center, the presentation is about them, not you. Show them that you’re sensitive to their time and concerns. One way to do this is to let them know, during the introduction, when you’ll be taking questions (the best time is at the end of your presentation).

Author and entrepreneur Guy Kawasaki advocates the 10-20-30 Rule , which means the entire presentation should be exactly 10 slides, presented in a maximum of 20 minutes, while using a minimum of 30-point size text. While 10-20-30 is by no means a strict requirement, it’s definitely a good rule of thumb if you want to keep things short and sweet.

Ready to Craft Your Next Presentation?

Fear of public speaking is one of the most common phobias in the world. So for some people, being expected to present, write, and design a good presentation can feel like way too much. Even though it is possible to use a presentation software or a pre-made PowerPoint template to create your own presentation, you may still end up with an inconsistent slide deck that could cause losing your audience’s attention.

Design Pickle’s Presentation Design service can help you create professional, visually compelling slideshows that will wow your audience. You’ll take care of the content and delivery — we’ll handle creating presentations that are on-brand, compelling, and credible.

Presentation Design gives you access to unlimited custom decks, free presentation templates, same-day design concepts, real-time Slack communication, editable slide formats, Microsoft PowerPoint or Google Slides, animations, and so much more. Check out our Graphics Pro plan to find out more.

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Resource Tips for Making Effective PowerPoint Presentations

Slideshows are quick to produce, easy to update and an effective way to inject visual interest into almost any presentation.

However, slideshows can also spell disaster even for experienced presenters. The key to success is to make certain your slideshow is a visual aid and not a visual distraction.

Tips for Making Effective PowerPoint Presentations

The Seven Deadly Sins of PowerPoint Presentations

By Joseph Sommerville

It’s not surprising PowerPoint© slideshows have become the norm for visuals in most business presentations. Slideshows are quick to produce, easy to update and effective to inject visual interest into the presentation. However, slideshows can also spell disaster even for experienced presenters. The key to success is to make certain your slide show is a visual aid and not a visual distraction. For the best results, avoid these common “seven deadly sins” of PowerPoint© presentations.

Joseph Sommerville has earned the title “The Presentation Expert” for helping professionals design, develop and deliver more effective presentations. He is the principal of Peak Communication Performance, a Houston-based firm working worldwide to help professionals develop skills in strategic communication.

Tips for Effective PowerPoint Presentations

Design and Graphical Images

General Presentation

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Northern Illinois University Effective Presentation Skills Tutorial

designing an effective presentation

Visual aids can enhance a presentation by illustrating complex content, sometimes better than actually talking about it. However, visual aids can detract from an oral presentation if they do not support the message or are used inappropriately.

Depending on the type of presentation and delivery technologies available, you will have to select appropriate presentation tools or audio-visual aids to deliver your presentation.

The audio-visual aids in general can be presentation slides, audio (music, sounds, narration), video clips, real or scaled objects, etc.

The audio-visuals you select must be suitable for the size of the audience, room layout, lighting, sound system, etc. For example, in a large auditorium with an audience of several hundred people, showing a video clip with audio may not work well if there is no sound system.

You should have a good idea about the presentation set up from the preparation stage to select the appropriate audio-visual aids for delivery.

Did You Know?

People remember 65 percent of information from a visual and oral presentation, 35 percent from a visual presentation, and 10 percent from an oral-only presentation.

Audio-Visual Aid Design Principles

The following are general principles to remember in designing audio-visual aids:

Use simple or no background in presentation materials

Keep your presentation materials simple. Do not use complicated background designs that can distract from the content.

Use colors that provide adequate contrast and make it easier to read

For example, use dark letters on a light background; and do not use light letters on a light background or dark letters on a dark background. It is better to use black or dark blue letters on a white background.

If colors used have meaning, remember that people with color blindness or visual impairment may not recognize the meaning.

Use adequate font size that allows easy reading of text from the last row of the room

Prepare a sample presentation screen, and see if you are able to view it from the last row of the room (if you know the location and have advance access to it).

Use distinct font sizes for titles and section headings

Use distinct font sizes for titles or section headings compared to points covered in those sections, and make sure they are consistent throughout. Turn off any "auto size" feature in presentation software to help with this.

Limit bullet points to four to five points per slide, and not more than seven bullet points

Limit each point to no more than two, or at most three, lines of text.

Do not have whole paragraphs of text on the screen as the audience may not be able to read it.

Note that bullet points need not be complete sentences (unless it is a quote or a definition) and can be partial sentences or phrases.

Ensure images are legible from the last row of the room and convey the intended content

If you have a large figure, show a high-level outline of the figure and then focus on the specific details of the figure on the following slide.

Ensure animations or transitions don't distract

When using animations or transitions in presentation materials, make sure they do not distract from the content and do not have a jarring effect, as some transition styles can cause seizures for people with certain disabilities.

Ensure chart scales don't mislead

If you use graphs or charts in your presentation materials, make sure axis scales do not mislead the audience on the trends. Stacked bar graphs are also difficult for the audience to comprehend when you move through the slide quickly.

Example graphs below show the same data in both charts but the first chart can mislead the audience about the data trend.

Show video clips at easily viewable size

If you include video clips, make sure the size of the clip (¼, ½, or full size) on the screen is viewable for the audience.

Do not use offensive or stereotypical visuals

If you use cartoons or animations or clip arts, make sure they are not offensive and do not stereotype people.

Play audio at easily heard levels

If you use audio clips, the sound system in the room should be adequate for the audience to hear.

Share real or scaled objects at easily viewed sizes

If you show real or scaled objects during your presentation, make sure they are viewable from the last row or use a document camera to display it.

Test audio-visual aids in advance

Test the audio-visual aids, especially if you use special plug-ins or players or different versions of software for display.

Design your audio-visuals so all members can experience them

If you will have audience members with particular disabilities, then you will have to design the audio-visuals accordingly. Common disabilities may include color-blindness, visual impairment, hearing impairment, etc.

Proofread and spell-check

Proofread and spell-check presentation materials for grammar and spelling errors. Even minor errors will be glaring on a large screen!

When using the board or flip charts, write large text and in a logical flow

If you plan to use the board or flip charts, learn to write in big letters or draw appropriately-sized figures so that the audience can view the information easily.

When writing on the board or flip charts, write from left to write and from top to bottom, so the audience can follow the logical flow of information.

Cite sources properly

If you include content from external sources in your presentation, include in-text citations where necessary and list the corresponding references at the end of the presentation materials.

Acknowledge your contributors

Acknowledge those who helped you with the presentation, including your team members, at the end of the presentation materials.

Remember your visuals are to enhance and not distract

Most importantly, design materials to enhance your presentation and help you deliver the content effectively, not to distract from it!



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Purdue Online Writing Lab College of Liberal Arts

designing an effective presentation

Designing an Effective PowerPoint Presentation: Quick Guide

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This page is brought to you by the OWL at Purdue University. When printing this page, you must include the entire legal notice.

Copyright ©1995-2018 by The Writing Lab & The OWL at Purdue and Purdue University. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, reproduced, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without permission. Use of this site constitutes acceptance of our terms and conditions of fair use.

This powerpoint resource, broken up into four parts, provides an excellent overview of how to design effective powerpoint presentations.

This resource is enhanced by a PowerPoint file. If you have a Microsoft Account, you can view this file with   PowerPoint Online

This presentation is designed to quickly introduce you into the world of PowerPoint creation. It covers concepts of visual rhetoric, design, and good presentation skills.

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Open Access

Ten simple rules for effective presentation slides

* E-mail: [email protected]

Affiliation Biomedical Engineering and the Center for Public Health Genomics, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia, United States of America

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Published: December 2, 2021

Fig 1

Citation: Naegle KM (2021) Ten simple rules for effective presentation slides. PLoS Comput Biol 17(12): e1009554. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pcbi.1009554

Copyright: © 2021 Kristen M. Naegle. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License , which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

Funding: The author received no specific funding for this work.

Competing interests: The author has declared no competing interests exist.


The “presentation slide” is the building block of all academic presentations, whether they are journal clubs, thesis committee meetings, short conference talks, or hour-long seminars. A slide is a single page projected on a screen, usually built on the premise of a title, body, and figures or tables and includes both what is shown and what is spoken about that slide. Multiple slides are strung together to tell the larger story of the presentation. While there have been excellent 10 simple rules on giving entire presentations [ 1 , 2 ], there was an absence in the fine details of how to design a slide for optimal effect—such as the design elements that allow slides to convey meaningful information, to keep the audience engaged and informed, and to deliver the information intended and in the time frame allowed. As all research presentations seek to teach, effective slide design borrows from the same principles as effective teaching, including the consideration of cognitive processing your audience is relying on to organize, process, and retain information. This is written for anyone who needs to prepare slides from any length scale and for most purposes of conveying research to broad audiences. The rules are broken into 3 primary areas. Rules 1 to 5 are about optimizing the scope of each slide. Rules 6 to 8 are about principles around designing elements of the slide. Rules 9 to 10 are about preparing for your presentation, with the slides as the central focus of that preparation.

Rule 1: Include only one idea per slide

Each slide should have one central objective to deliver—the main idea or question [ 3 – 5 ]. Often, this means breaking complex ideas down into manageable pieces (see Fig 1 , where “background” information has been split into 2 key concepts). In another example, if you are presenting a complex computational approach in a large flow diagram, introduce it in smaller units, building it up until you finish with the entire diagram. The progressive buildup of complex information means that audiences are prepared to understand the whole picture, once you have dedicated time to each of the parts. You can accomplish the buildup of components in several ways—for example, using presentation software to cover/uncover information. Personally, I choose to create separate slides for each piece of information content I introduce—where the final slide has the entire diagram, and I use cropping or a cover on duplicated slides that come before to hide what I’m not yet ready to include. I use this method in order to ensure that each slide in my deck truly presents one specific idea (the new content) and the amount of the new information on that slide can be described in 1 minute (Rule 2), but it comes with the trade-off—a change to the format of one of the slides in the series often means changes to all slides.


Top left: A background slide that describes the background material on a project from my lab. The slide was created using a PowerPoint Design Template, which had to be modified to increase default text sizes for this figure (i.e., the default text sizes are even worse than shown here). Bottom row: The 2 new slides that break up the content into 2 explicit ideas about the background, using a central graphic. In the first slide, the graphic is an explicit example of the SH2 domain of PI3-kinase interacting with a phosphorylation site (Y754) on the PDGFR to describe the important details of what an SH2 domain and phosphotyrosine ligand are and how they interact. I use that same graphic in the second slide to generalize all binding events and include redundant text to drive home the central message (a lot of possible interactions might occur in the human proteome, more than we can currently measure). Top right highlights which rules were used to move from the original slide to the new slide. Specific changes as highlighted by Rule 7 include increasing contrast by changing the background color, increasing font size, changing to sans serif fonts, and removing all capital text and underlining (using bold to draw attention). PDGFR, platelet-derived growth factor receptor.


Rule 2: Spend only 1 minute per slide

When you present your slide in the talk, it should take 1 minute or less to discuss. This rule is really helpful for planning purposes—a 20-minute presentation should have somewhere around 20 slides. Also, frequently giving your audience new information to feast on helps keep them engaged. During practice, if you find yourself spending more than a minute on a slide, there’s too much for that one slide—it’s time to break up the content into multiple slides or even remove information that is not wholly central to the story you are trying to tell. Reduce, reduce, reduce, until you get to a single message, clearly described, which takes less than 1 minute to present.

Rule 3: Make use of your heading

When each slide conveys only one message, use the heading of that slide to write exactly the message you are trying to deliver. Instead of titling the slide “Results,” try “CTNND1 is central to metastasis” or “False-positive rates are highly sample specific.” Use this landmark signpost to ensure that all the content on that slide is related exactly to the heading and only the heading. Think of the slide heading as the introductory or concluding sentence of a paragraph and the slide content the rest of the paragraph that supports the main point of the paragraph. An audience member should be able to follow along with you in the “paragraph” and come to the same conclusion sentence as your header at the end of the slide.

Rule 4: Include only essential points

While you are speaking, audience members’ eyes and minds will be wandering over your slide. If you have a comment, detail, or figure on a slide, have a plan to explicitly identify and talk about it. If you don’t think it’s important enough to spend time on, then don’t have it on your slide. This is especially important when faculty are present. I often tell students that thesis committee members are like cats: If you put a shiny bauble in front of them, they’ll go after it. Be sure to only put the shiny baubles on slides that you want them to focus on. Putting together a thesis meeting for only faculty is really an exercise in herding cats (if you have cats, you know this is no easy feat). Clear and concise slide design will go a long way in helping you corral those easily distracted faculty members.

Rule 5: Give credit, where credit is due

An exception to Rule 4 is to include proper citations or references to work on your slide. When adding citations, names of other researchers, or other types of credit, use a consistent style and method for adding this information to your slides. Your audience will then be able to easily partition this information from the other content. A common mistake people make is to think “I’ll add that reference later,” but I highly recommend you put the proper reference on the slide at the time you make it, before you forget where it came from. Finally, in certain kinds of presentations, credits can make it clear who did the work. For the faculty members heading labs, it is an effective way to connect your audience with the personnel in the lab who did the work, which is a great career booster for that person. For graduate students, it is an effective way to delineate your contribution to the work, especially in meetings where the goal is to establish your credentials for meeting the rigors of a PhD checkpoint.

Rule 6: Use graphics effectively

As a rule, you should almost never have slides that only contain text. Build your slides around good visualizations. It is a visual presentation after all, and as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. However, on the flip side, don’t muddy the point of the slide by putting too many complex graphics on a single slide. A multipanel figure that you might include in a manuscript should often be broken into 1 panel per slide (see Rule 1 ). One way to ensure that you use the graphics effectively is to make a point to introduce the figure and its elements to the audience verbally, especially for data figures. For example, you might say the following: “This graph here shows the measured false-positive rate for an experiment and each point is a replicate of the experiment, the graph demonstrates …” If you have put too much on one slide to present in 1 minute (see Rule 2 ), then the complexity or number of the visualizations is too much for just one slide.

Rule 7: Design to avoid cognitive overload

The type of slide elements, the number of them, and how you present them all impact the ability for the audience to intake, organize, and remember the content. For example, a frequent mistake in slide design is to include full sentences, but reading and verbal processing use the same cognitive channels—therefore, an audience member can either read the slide, listen to you, or do some part of both (each poorly), as a result of cognitive overload [ 4 ]. The visual channel is separate, allowing images/videos to be processed with auditory information without cognitive overload [ 6 ] (Rule 6). As presentations are an exercise in listening, and not reading, do what you can to optimize the ability of the audience to listen. Use words sparingly as “guide posts” to you and the audience about major points of the slide. In fact, you can add short text fragments, redundant with the verbal component of the presentation, which has been shown to improve retention [ 7 ] (see Fig 1 for an example of redundant text that avoids cognitive overload). Be careful in the selection of a slide template to minimize accidentally adding elements that the audience must process, but are unimportant. David JP Phillips argues (and effectively demonstrates in his TEDx talk [ 5 ]) that the human brain can easily interpret 6 elements and more than that requires a 500% increase in human cognition load—so keep the total number of elements on the slide to 6 or less. Finally, in addition to the use of short text, white space, and the effective use of graphics/images, you can improve ease of cognitive processing further by considering color choices and font type and size. Here are a few suggestions for improving the experience for your audience, highlighting the importance of these elements for some specific groups:

Rule 8: Design the slide so that a distracted person gets the main takeaway

It is very difficult to stay focused on a presentation, especially if it is long or if it is part of a longer series of talks at a conference. Audience members may get distracted by an important email, or they may start dreaming of lunch. So, it’s important to look at your slide and ask “If they heard nothing I said, will they understand the key concept of this slide?” The other rules are set up to help with this, including clarity of the single point of the slide (Rule 1), titling it with a major conclusion (Rule 3), and the use of figures (Rule 6) and short text redundant to your verbal description (Rule 7). However, with each slide, step back and ask whether its main conclusion is conveyed, even if someone didn’t hear your accompanying dialog. Importantly, ask if the information on the slide is at the right level of abstraction. For example, do you have too many details about the experiment, which hides the conclusion of the experiment (i.e., breaking Rule 1)? If you are worried about not having enough details, keep a slide at the end of your slide deck (after your conclusions and acknowledgments) with the more detailed information that you can refer to during a question and answer period.

Rule 9: Iteratively improve slide design through practice

Well-designed slides that follow the first 8 rules are intended to help you deliver the message you intend and in the amount of time you intend to deliver it in. The best way to ensure that you nailed slide design for your presentation is to practice, typically a lot. The most important aspects of practicing a new presentation, with an eye toward slide design, are the following 2 key points: (1) practice to ensure that you hit, each time through, the most important points (for example, the text guide posts you left yourself and the title of the slide); and (2) practice to ensure that as you conclude the end of one slide, it leads directly to the next slide. Slide transitions, what you say as you end one slide and begin the next, are important to keeping the flow of the “story.” Practice is when I discover that the order of my presentation is poor or that I left myself too few guideposts to remember what was coming next. Additionally, during practice, the most frequent things I have to improve relate to Rule 2 (the slide takes too long to present, usually because I broke Rule 1, and I’m delivering too much information for one slide), Rule 4 (I have a nonessential detail on the slide), and Rule 5 (I forgot to give a key reference). The very best type of practice is in front of an audience (for example, your lab or peers), where, with fresh perspectives, they can help you identify places for improving slide content, design, and connections across the entirety of your talk.

Rule 10: Design to mitigate the impact of technical disasters

The real presentation almost never goes as we planned in our heads or during our practice. Maybe the speaker before you went over time and now you need to adjust. Maybe the computer the organizer is having you use won’t show your video. Maybe your internet is poor on the day you are giving a virtual presentation at a conference. Technical problems are routinely part of the practice of sharing your work through presentations. Hence, you can design your slides to limit the impact certain kinds of technical disasters create and also prepare alternate approaches. Here are just a few examples of the preparation you can do that will take you a long way toward avoiding a complete fiasco:


These rules are just a start in creating more engaging presentations that increase audience retention of your material. However, there are wonderful resources on continuing on the journey of becoming an amazing public speaker, which includes understanding the psychology and neuroscience behind human perception and learning. For example, as highlighted in Rule 7, David JP Phillips has a wonderful TEDx talk on the subject [ 5 ], and “PowerPoint presentation flaws and failures: A psychological analysis,” by Kosslyn and colleagues is deeply detailed about a number of aspects of human cognition and presentation style [ 4 ]. There are many books on the topic, including the popular “Presentation Zen” by Garr Reynolds [ 11 ]. Finally, although briefly touched on here, the visualization of data is an entire topic of its own that is worth perfecting for both written and oral presentations of work, with fantastic resources like Edward Tufte’s “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information” [ 12 ] or the article “Visualization of Biomedical Data” by O’Donoghue and colleagues [ 13 ].


I would like to thank the countless presenters, colleagues, students, and mentors from which I have learned a great deal from on effective presentations. Also, a thank you to the wonderful resources published by organizations on how to increase inclusivity. A special thanks to Dr. Jason Papin and Dr. Michael Guertin on early feedback of this editorial.


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