Build a Slide Deck

Presentation slides, whether they are built using PowerPoint, Keynote or some other program, can really add to your presentation and make it a real success. However, the key to this is in the execution and unfortunately many visual aids are worse than awful and actually detract and distract from the presentation. Hardly a credibility building exercise! Here are some basic tips to help make sure your slide deck actually contributes to the success of your presentation! So here are my thoughts on how to build a slide deck.

Use Slides as a Prompt but not a Teleprompter

The first and foremost tip regarding the use of slides is not to read from them. Keep in mind that your audience can read much faster than you can read aloud and so will be finished long before you are. This is boring and unprofessional.

Ideally, you are using text on the slides to either highlight specific points of your presentation or if you are new to presenting, you can use them to divide your presentation up into segments to keep you on track. Obviously, even in this latter case, the slides need to be meaningful.

Often people err by putting too much information on the screen. Keep in mind that the audience is there to hear you speak, not to read what you have to say as you flip through 50 pages of text. Presentation decks are often well served by the axiom, “less is more”.

Only Have 4 or 5 Bullet Points per Slide

Another key tip is to limit the number of bullet points per slide to no more than four or five. Any more than that and the software package used to create the slides will start decreasing the size of the font so that it all fits in on the screen. While it may appear great that you can get everything you want to say on one slide, few if any in your audience will be able to read it. Keeping your bullets to four or five per page usually keeps the font at a size that is legible to everyone in the room.

Keep It Simple

Any software package designed for presentations offers the user any number of fonts, colors, styles and transitions to play with. While this may be fun to play with, most of the time anything fancy becomes nothing but a distraction for the audience.

I recommend keeping things very simple and if you feel that it would be beneficial to introduce specific points as you speak them – by all means have your bullets appear in order but avoid the more garish effects. Simple is usually the best way to appear professional.

Use Light Text on a
Dark Background

Another issue I see quite regularly is people using dark text on a light background or sometimes even a white background. This is extraordinarily hard on the eyes and unless you want to sear people’s retinas to the back of their eyeballs, you will usually be better served by using light text on a dark background.

I also recommend inquiring if your organization has a standard template to use for presentations as quite often these are already set up by people who know what will look good in the room. In addition, your organization’s logo and other brand elements will in all probability be on the template already making the task of developing the slides even easier.

Pictures are Awesome

Pictures are one of the few things that almost always add impact to a presentation. Of course not all presentations will lend themselves well to pictures but even starting your presentation with a picture of your head office or a collage of pictures from your operation etc. will be more interesting to the viewers than just plain text.

When you use pictures in your presentations make sure that you have permission to use them and that they are labeled. Often people forget that the audience may not be as familiar with a lumber mill or a manufacturing facility or even our corporate head office as we are. Putting a label on the picture allows everyone to have a sense of what they are looking at.

In a perfect world, presentation slides would only consist of labeled pictures or perhaps pictures with a sidebar of text describing the relevance of the picture to the presentation. Pictures are fundamentally interesting for people to look at and are a great complement to your presentation. Just to make an obvious point, the pictures should be of high quality and good exposure. If you have to apologize for them in anyway – they are not worth showing.


Using graphs is another good way of conveying something that might otherwise be difficult to describe. Unfortunately, presenters often get lazy and just import a graph from Excel or another spreadsheet program right into the presentation. This not only has the honor of being black text on white background, it is usually impossible to see properly in a room of any size. Please do not do this.

Very rarely will a presentation be expected to contain the actual data used in your analysis. What people want to see is the trend so ideally you should use the graph maker/presenter built into the presentation package you are using. Yes the numbers may have to be approximate but this is much preferable to highly accurate “real” data that no one can discern.

Remember that any graph should have a title and have the axis labeled and marked and a legend so people know immediately what it is they are looking at. Again it is important to understand that if you are attempting to show eight trend lines on one graph that – at least one of them will be in a color that no one can see and you run a real risk of presenting the audience with something that looks like a plate of spaghetti. Again, understand what it is you are trying to convey and then make sure your presentation slides meet the requirement of supporting that objective.

Spreadsheet Pages and Tables

Spreadsheet tables should never be used in any presentation, period. You cannot make the structure legible and as is the case with Excel graphs – the fonts and lines will be way too small to be seen from the back of the room.

Instead, use the table maker built into your presentation package and present your data in nothing more than a five column by five row matrix. Seriously – if you can’t support what you are trying to say with a five by five matrix, presenting a ten by ten matrix that is too small to be seen, will not help your case. If you do have to “drill into” the data in such a manner – start with a high level perspective to provide context and then highlight the area of the table that you are going to focus on – preferably nothing more than a five by five section!


There is a real trend these days to show videos during presentations. Some of these can be quite entertaining while others are just a waste of time. I recommend against this practice in general because it is often technologically challenging to get it to work properly and when it doesn’t – well then you can find yourself in a bit of a mess. I have seen this happen more than once when a presenter shows up with his video clips in a format that isn’t supported by the computer or projector and all of a sudden – he has nothing to talk about.

If you are planning to show a video, make sure you have legal permission to do so and please make sure it is of “presentation” quality. This basically rules out cell phone videos due to their poor resolution, marginal sound quality and the fact that your hand is usually anything but stable when shooting the video. In general, a poorly represented video will detract tremendously from your presentation.

One other word on this. If you are planning to use more than two video clips, chance are that you have lost the audience anyway. Seriously – they are now more interested in your next clip than anything you have to say. Again it is important for you to understand what you are trying to achieve in making the presentation and your role in accomplishing that objective.

Sounds and Effects

Sounds and other swirling effects don't usually add anything to a presentation and I would recommend leaving them off. This falls under the keep it simple rule above. Unless the whole presentation is about the mating call of a sperm whale, it is probably adding nothing to include sounds in the presentation.

Using a Laser Pointer

Once you are really getting into your presentation you may want to highlight or point out something on the screen with a laser pointer. First of all, make sure you have a pointer that is powerful enough to be seen by the audience. I was at a conference recently where the presenter kept referring to something on the screen using a laser pointer that no one could see! It was very confusing and frustrating and we eventually asked him to use his finger!

The other thing that often happens when using a laser pointer is that our movements are magnified significantly. Even the calmest most professional of speakers will find that their laser pointer is dancing erratically on the screen because of the distance between him and the screen. The first step in managing this is to keep your elbow locked by your side as you are pointing. Often this cuts the jitter down to almost nothing. If that is insufficient however, it may be in your interests to actually rest the base of the pointer or the heel of your and on the podium and then point to your objective from there. This will reduce the jitter to almost nothing.

Keep in mind not to sweep the pointer too quickly as the eyes really lock onto objects they see moving so a gentle circular motion or a gentle underlining motion back and forth will work well. Too slow and it will disappear and too quick, and it becomes difficult to spot. There is no real way of predicting how it will look on the screen until you get there so just pay attention and modify your approach as appropriate.

Try It Out First

Another key point for any presenter is to try out their presentation first in the venue and with the equipment supplied. This will allow you the opportunity to determine if the slides are visible from the back of the room, the lighting in the room, whether the pointer is powerful enough and a number of other checks that should put your mind at ease.

It also gives you a chance to see what is coming up in your presentation! I am not kidding. Quite often associates will have put the slides together for us and when we start our presentation we may well be seeing the slides for the first time! This is a terrible situation that I have seen repeated over and over again. The presenter stands up and starts presenting and then at the fifth slide, he will say something – well this one isn’t relevant so we’ll go by this one, oh – the next one isn’t germane either and so on. I think this is quite disrespectful and shows a lack of care and commitment to the presentation. Of course it is okay to have someone help you put the presentation together. It is not okay for you to have never seen it before until show time!

Be A Class Act

As is the case with the presentation itself, it is a real class act to tailor the slides to the audience. This can be as simple as including the location on your title slide or making some obvious references to the group that you will be presenting to. I have often seen a title slide that indicates not only the title of the presentation and the presenter’s name, but also the location of the presentation and the group being spoken to. It really makes people feel special and requires a very small effort on your part to turn a generic presentation into a personal one.

Better Safe than Sorry!

In these days of travel, you will need to have your slides not only on your computer but on some sort of memory stick as well and of course that memory stick is not with your computer. Of course usually carry on luggage is safe but you never know so it always pays to have a back up. I think this is pretty obvious but I was recently at a conference where one of the presenter’s computer crashed and…you guessed it – no slides, no back up, no anything. It was still a good presentation but it would have been great to see the pictures he was describing to us. Carry a back up!

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