Presentation Hack: Evidence-Based Slide Design?


This week, as with most weeks, I followed some professional conferences via Twitter. This live-tweet phenomenon has attendees using event hashtags to share quotes from the speakers, pithy commentary, and of course...photos of presenters' projected slides. 

And yet again, I see a trend: Terrible slide design. Terrible. As in violating a list of the so-called rules of PowerPoint. Or Keynote. Or whatever software is used.

When I posted the following tweet:


I was only half joking about evidence-based slide design. It did seem to be the bulk of crappy slides were from smart university academic-types. The slides were filled with small text, photo collages, cluttered graphs, and raw data. 

Then Sara Wood replied:


I follow Sara because of her posts about slide design, formatting, charts, presenting data, and other cool tricks of transmitting information to audiences. 

She tweeted a research article PowerPoint Presentation Flaws and Failures: A Psychological Analysis. The article highlights three (3) studies that list common mistakes made in slide show presentations. The authors list eight (8) principles or laws:
  1. Discriminability,
  2. Perceptual Organization,
  3. Salience,
  4. Limited Capacity,
  5. Informative Change,
  6. Appropriate Knowledge,
  7. Compatibility,
  8. Relevance.
The authors go into great detail about each of these laws and examples of complying or violating them. 

I suggest you read the article. (NOTE: This is not easy reading for a knuckle-dragger like me. I admittedly skipped over the portion outlining the details of each of the three (3) studies, but did read all which came before and after that portion. I don't feel the need to limp through the scientific method and academic gobbletegook -- just give me the useful information.) 

Any reader who is serious about slide design will find gold nuggets of information on creating a better slide deck - through actual research this time! 

In the Discussion portion of the article, I enjoyed this disclaimer:

It is worth noting that respecting the principles and rules we have described will not produce “optimal” presentations. Instead, respecting the principles and rules will ensure that presentations are not flawed in these specific ways. Simply avoiding the glitches that we document will not ensure that the presentation is good, but including such glitches will make a presentation bad (or at least not as good as it could be). Given that the principles and rules are rooted in the empirical literature, avoiding violating them will improve a presentation.

And for you academics: This article has 72 references! If that doesn't prove this is seriously scholarly stuff, how many citations would it have taken?!? 

All provoking aside, it's time we take our slide design as serious as the rest of our work. Otherwise it may go to waste...


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Aside from writing about a variety of topics, I publish a column of blog posts under the label Presentation Hack. Check them out for ideas, tips, and tricks to better public speaking experiences!


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Lou Hayes, Jr. is a police training unit supervisor in suburban Chicago. He studies human performance & decision-making, creativity, emotional intelligence, and adaptability. Follow Lou on Twitter at @LouHayesJr or on LinkedInHe also maintains a LinkedIn page for The Illinois Model.

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