Make Your (Power) Point

This article, which I coauthored with Lora Keenan, originally appeared in the November 2017 issue of the Oregon State Bar Bulletin.

It’s happened to all of us. You’re at a CLE, looking forward to learning about an interesting topic from a dynamic speaker. Maybe you’ll even get some written materials that you can take back to the office to help you review the key points. Then the lights dim, the speaker is obscured in shadow, the PowerPoint slides packed with text begin to march by … and you’re fast asleep. That’s OK, you figure. “I’ll just read the written materials to get the overview.” But the “written materials” turn out to just be a black-and-white printout of those PowerPoint slides. You couldn’t make them out on the screen, and you certainly aren’t motivated to read them in even smaller type in varying shades of grey. Another epic PowerPoint fail.

“PowerPoint makes us stupid,” quipped Marine Corps Gen. James N. Mattis when he was commander of the U.S. Joint Forces in 2010. We agree with Mattis—now the Secretary of Defense—to a point. PowerPoint can make us stupid, as presenters and as audience members. But it can also make us more engaged, help us communicate and understand complex information and relieve our overly verbal lawyer brains. The trick is understanding how to design a good presentation and how PowerPoint can (and can’t) support a good presentation.

Choosing a pithy quotation that supports your message and displaying it with a high-quality photo is more effective than simply listing your main ideas as bullet points.

Choosing a pithy quotation that supports your message and displaying it with a high-quality photo is more effective than simply listing your main ideas as bullet points.

Here’s how many of us design presentations: We get a phone call asking us to speak at a CLE. It’s six months off, so we say yes. We put it on our calendar and forget about it until we get a reminder from the sponsor that they need our “slides and written materials” in two days. We stay up until midnight dumping everything we can think of into a slide deck, read through it a few times and tell the sponsor to use our slide deck as our written materials. We figure that preparing the slides did enough to prepare us to speak, as well, so we don’t run through our oral remarks. At the CLE, we realize—too late—that we don’t really know what we’re going to say, so we rely on our slides, hoping that our audience won’t notice that we’re stealing a peek at each slide and then, more or less verbatim, orally delivering the same information that’s on the slide.

This is backwards. It makes your PowerPoint the most important part of your presentation. But the most important part of the presentation is actually the people involved: you and your audience. The goal of every presentation is for the speaker to communicate a message that the audience needs. A good presentation requires that you:

  • Identify your audience, their background and their needs (why are they attending your presentation?).
  • Pinpoint what information they need to know (not what you need to tell them).
  • Figure out the best way to communicate the appropriate pieces of information in the time available.

In other words, to create a good presentation, you should design your content and practice your delivery before you start working on your PowerPoint slides. (“The Decker Grid,” available at decker.com—under What We Do, click on The Decker Method—can help organize your thoughts as you design presentation content.)

Only once you have a handle on your content and delivery should you start thinking about PowerPoint. First, think about whether you need slides at all. PowerPoint is a visual medium. It’s good at communicating things that can be expressed and understood visually (e.g., spatial relationships, graphs, maps). In fact, once you’ve designed the content and practiced the delivery, you may find that visual illustrations won’t help your audience understand any part of your message. That’s OK. Not every presentation needs PowerPoint.

Nancy Duarte, a design professional and author of slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations, observes that good slides “reinforce the content visually rather than create distraction.” And what’s the most distracting kind of slide? A slide that contains too much text. Such slides are distracting, not reinforcing, because of how our brains process information. When we listen to someone speak, we use our auditory cortex. And when we read, we also use our auditory cortex (because our alphabet is phonetic). So, if your slide is a transcript of what you are saying, it does not reinforce your message as you might think. Instead, it overburdens the audience members’ auditory cortices because they are trying to read the slide and listen to you at the same time. And they end up retaining less information. Alternatively, the audience may simply stop listening to you since they can read the slide faster than you can speak. They then have to wait for you to catch up—and perceive you as a slow presenter.

Putting an excerpt of a statute on the above slide is not an effective use of PowerPoint. There is too much text on the slide, the size of the text is too small, and the firm logo and gradient background add unnecessary visual clutter.

Putting an excerpt of a statute on the above slide is not an effective use of PowerPoint. There is too much text on the slide, the size of the text is too small, and the firm logo and gradient background add unnecessary visual clutter.

Admittedly, law is a wordy profession, and CLEs and other legal presentations will often involve a lot of written words. If part of what you need to communicate to your audience is text-heavy, put it into a written handout (one that is designed to be printed—not a thumbnail of your slides!). If it’s important for your audience to understand that written message during your presentation, give them time to read the handout, and then continue with your presentation. You might even consider starting the presentation with 10 minutes of “study hall,” which gives the audience a chance to read the printed materials and mentally prepare themselves for your presentation.

This slide is more effective because it has a descriptive title, includes only the key words of the statute and visually reinforces the four main elements with simple icons. The citation to the statute is included (and the full statutory text could be provided in a separate handout).

This slide is more effective because it has a descriptive title, includes only the key words of the statute and visually reinforces the four main elements with simple icons. The citation to the statute is included (and the full statutory text could be provided in a separate handout).

If you identify points in your presentation that would benefit from visual illustration, educate yourself about basic design principles. As Duarte notes, when people are exposed to “crudely constructed” media, they are either unconsciously agitated or—worse—mistrustful of the speaker. Either way, you aren’t making a good impression on your audience, and you are less likely to communicate your message. Creating good slides requires thinking visually (like an artist or a designer), not verbally (like most lawyers).

Designing the Slides

Here are some basic design dos and don’ts for slides:

  • Keep it simple. Each slide should have one main point. Don’t try to fit too much on one slide. Also, use a simple color scheme—white on black or black on white (depending on the lighting and how formal you want to be). Don’t put your firm’s logo on each slide. Omit as much clutter as possible. Blank space is your friend.
  • Use high-quality stock photos to illustrate slides. Do not use clip art or cheesy stock photos. If you can’t find an authentic photo to illustrate your point (or a metaphor that supports your point), perhaps it doesn’t need illustration. If cost is an issue, check out some of the many free websites such as unsplash.com.
  • If parts of your presentation don’t have images, insert a black slide into your deck. That will have the effect of “turning off” the projector until you are ready to advance to your next point.
  • Keep your font size large. Just how large? It depends on many factors (slide contrast, room lighting, quality of the projector, distance from the audience, etc.), but if you need a rule of thumb, stick with 30 points or larger.
  • If you need to use your slides as a crutch for what you are going to say, use the notes section below the slide. You can read off of the notes without the audience getting a preview of what you are about to say.
  • If you can’t use your own computer to give the presentation, stick with a very standard font that you can be sure the presentation computer will have installed.
  • If you’re using more than one font, be consistent. Each font should have a purpose (headings, body text, captions, etc.), and they should be different enough so that it is easy to tell them apart (e.g., a serif vs. a sans serif). If you’re new to typography, stick with two fonts, max.
  • Get rid of as many bullet points as possible. For a one-level list, simply adding some space between each line works just as well and reduces visual clutter. If you must use bullet points, try to keep it to a two-level list. If it’s more complicated than that, break the information down on a series of slides.
  • Use special effects and animation sparingly—or, better yet, not at all (unless you really know what you are doing).

Giving a good presentation is hard. After reading these tips, your takeaway might be that you should accept fewer speaking engagements! But when a speaking opportunity comes along that is worth your time, you should put in the extra effort to make sure the audience retains as much of what you say as possible. That means setting aside time to think about who the audience is and what you want them to learn before you sit down in front of PowerPoint.

Once you have an outline of what you are going to say, identify which of your points could be reinforced with a visual aid (a graph, timeline, illustration, etc.). Set aside time to create those visuals or search for appropriate stock photos. If you have a fair amount of text that you need to communicate to the audience verbatim (e.g., the text of a statute or regulation), put that in a separate Word document or PDF, which will become a physical handout. And, perhaps most importantly, practice your presentation and seek out candid feedback afterward. These tips will put you in charge of PowerPoint (not the other way around) and lead to better presentations for your audience.