For decades, we have believed that people have “learning styles.” For instance, a “visual learner” might prefer pictures, an auditory learner might learn best from hearing something, etc. Now research tells us something that many educators have known for a long time: Learning styles are a myth. This pervasive concept doesn’t just live in the classroom, though. It’s also infected the corporate conference room where presenters often use a learning styles approach to figure out what to put on presentation slides. And the method has often led them astray – allowing them to use way too much text and then sprinkle a generic image on a slide or two occasionally.
Are there really people who want to “read” slides?
I have always been skeptical of applying learning styles to slide design. How would slapping the “shaking hands” clip art on a slide make the bullets list next to it riveting? Is it really just a matter of sprinkling a stop sign here, a globe there, and then the magic begins? I guess what really bothered me is that using the “learning styles” technique actually made slides worse. The truth is, there is no learning style that prefers boring.
But if research suggests that learning styles don’t really exist – what do we put on slides?
The problem is that presenters need help figuring out what the heck to put on their slides! And there isn’t a lot of guidance out there. But through my work with hundreds of presenters and my study of slide principles I've developed some guidelines for use by people whose main job is not creating presentations.
But first, we have to tell the truth: Up to now, your slides have been your speaker notes
You don’t want to admit, do you? But if you really analyze what’s on your slides you’re going see that you put stuff there not for the audience but for you to remember what to say. You might have rationalized it as “good for reading-based learning styles” but like Walter White in Breaking Bad, it was all for you. But it’s okay! It’s okay to use slides a bit to help you, but there are better ways to help you remember what to say – why not just print up notes if you need them?
Here’s how to make great slides
First, like Fight Club, whose first rule is, well, you know; in Slide Club, first rule is we don’t think about slides. That’s Zen, right? Well here’s what Garr Reynolds of Presentation Zen says…
“I love technology, and I think slideware can be very effective in many situations. But for planning, I say "go analog" — paper and pen, white boards, a note pad in your pocket as you take a walk down the beach with your dog...whatever works for you. Peter Drucker said it best: "The computer is a moron." You and your ideas (and your audience) are all that matter. So try getting away from the computer in the early stages, the time when your creativity is needed most. For me at least, clarity of thinking and a generation of ideas come when my computer and I are far apart.”
Okay, so imagine you have brainstormed a list of points you want to make – whether in Microsoft Word on back of your beer coaster. (As long as it isn’t in PowerPoint yet.) For each point you need to make in your presentation, you need to ask yourself certain questions. For the sake of example, imagine that one point you want to make is “Our competitors spend more on marketing than we do.” Here’s what you nee to ask:
What does my audience need to see before they believe that “Our competitors spend more on marketing than we do.
”Does your audience need to see data? Do they need to see a comparison of what they spend to what we spend – as raw numbers, as percentages, over time, etc. Try to focus on 1 or 2 key data points that they can remember easily -rather than an array of numbers.
Does your audience need to see images? Would a bunch of competitors’ logos help show how many spend more than we do? How about photos or screen shots of their marketing campaigns? Pictures of press articles? If you do use images – make sure the images are large and clear and not weighed down with text.
Does your audience need an analogy? Sometimes an analogy can be a very compelling way of making a point. Imagine that you wanted to make the point that investing less in marketing is hurting your brand. Is your brand the “Clark Kent” that could be made into Superman with more investment? Or is there an underfunded sports team the audience is familiar with? Maybe there is a past investment in your company that paid off and you could use that as an analogy?
Does your audience need quotes? Maybe you have a quote from someone at a competitor talking about their big ROI on marketing spends. Quotes on a slide can have a big impact – especially if they are large and easy to read.
And last – does your audience really need text on a slide? What words do they HAVE to read? Probably very few so put as little text on a slide as possible.
But do pay attention to text on the most important part of the slide: the title Slide titles are usually pretty bad because they don’t give enough info, but instead contain one generic word like “overview” “metrics,” etc. But the slide title is critical to audience engagement with the slide – and can make a difference with how well they remember the content. Consider using a question – audiences love to see their own questions in print and it shows them you are thinking about them. Or try a statement that begins with “How,” or “Why.” (How Company X secured funding for marketing) (Why we need to increase marketing spend.) Whatever you do, think engage with your titles, and not just label.
So instead of learning styles: use this as your guide: Every human being likes information that is easy to understand, easy to relate to, and easy to remember.
Your audiences’ questions are gold!