How to Create a Slide Deck that Won’t Put Your Team to Sleep

The best slide decks can be life-changing experiences. They open you up to new interpretations of data and, when applied with savvy, guide you through the essential information around a new topic. Or they find ways to make you laugh while giving you information you’ll keep with you the rest of your life.

The worst slide decks? Chances are, you struggled hard just to stay awake the whole way through.

If you’re creating a slide deck for your own team, you’ll want to fashion a slide deck much more like the former.

But you also have a lot of information to communicate in a short amount of time. How do you make sure you cover all your bases while crafting a slide deck that’s intriguing, fascinating, even exciting? Let’s start with what you shouldn’t do.

Mistake #1: Use Too Many Words on Every Slide

Ever go hiking? Then you know what it’s like when you make it to the top of one hill, just to find yourself at the bottom of an even larger hill.

That’s the exact experience you don’t want to give your team. But you’re doing it when you create slides full of nothing but text.

Just think about how you would feel if you were watching a slide deck and saw this:

bad slide deck example

Yikes. The long, solid block of text isn’t only uninteresting, but it actively encourages people to stop paying attention. Like the hiker at the bottom of the hill, they’ll want to give up before they’ve even started. If they’re not snoring by the end of that slide, they’re at least wishing they were.

Mistake #2: Asking Too Much from a Goldfish

You wouldn’t stand and give a lecture to a goldfish and expect it to stay put, would you? According to an article in The Telegraph, the average attention span has fallen to about 8 seconds.

Chances are that your team — prepared and focused as they are — are going to give you more than 8 seconds for your slide deck. But considering just how easy it is to lose someone’s attention span in this day and age, you shouldn’t expect that you’ll have that undivided attention for one solid hour block, either.

You can resolve this issue by creating a slide with multiple elements, which you then introduce separately:

  • A visual element like a graph or a chart is a great way to kick off a central point.
  • A statistic or attention hook like asking a question makes an ideal transition to text.
  • Supporting points handled one by one will maintain their attention throughout.

With that in mind, here is a vastly superior slide to the one you saw above:

slide deck example good

On the left, the information is broken up into individual “bites” that you can then expand upon with your presentation. On the right, an illustration is provided to expand on these points. While the information might be essentially the same, this is a big improvement when compared to the block-of-text.

Mistake #3: Overemphasizing Tricks and Fun

It’s great to incorporate humor and fun into your presentation. This breaks up the monotony and predictability of the slide, which in turn captures your team’s attention.

The problem is when you overdo it. A slide with excessive effects will start to become a distraction from the central point rather than a support for it. It’s true that keeping people engaged with humor is about as effective a tactic there is. But when these elements obscure the original content, you begin to lose the point of the presentation.

When you decide to use humor in a presentation, use throwaways. This might include a funny picture on its own slide that you can quickly skip past, or maybe the occasional odd stock photograph.

Now that you know what not to do, let’s focus more on how to build your slide deck presentation from scratch:

Lesson #1: Use Visual Elements Whenever Possible

As an ancient Chinese proverb attests, “What I hear, I forget; what I see, I remember; what I do, I understand.”

You can’t have people do something with a slide deck, but you can do the next best thing: show them. One study showed that only about 10-20% of learning recall was retained after a lecture while 65% was retained from an illustrated lecture.

use visual elements on slides in deck

While the previous paragraph explained this in detail, it still won’t have the impact you get from comparing the statistics with two bars. Seeing “Illustrated Lecture” outperform “Spoken Lecture” on a graph, however, gets the point across immediately while increasing the odds your statistic will actually be remembered. (Hint: To create more visually interesting graphs and charts, use Canva.)

Keep in mind this is not a blank check to use any and all images in your presentation. You want to select something that accomplishes three things:

  • Makes an immediate and obvious statement (i.e., “illustrated lecture beats spoken lecture”)
  • Makes a simple argument that can be summed up in a sentence or less
  • Creates a central point upon which the remainder of your slide will be based

And what about that central point? What exactly does it mean? That’s where the next lesson comes in.

Lesson #2: Think of Each Slide as a Paragraph

To properly organize your slide deck in an intuitive way, it helps to think of each slide as its own paragraph.

In writing classes, you likely learned that a paragraph should contain a topic sentence followed by supporting sentences that are relevant to or support the topic. It works the same way with presentations. Information that is formatted on a topic-by-topic basis is much more digestible than spending three slides on one topic, followed by three topics on one slide.

The best way to achieve this is to plan your slide deck on paper or a word processor before ever committing any words to your slides. As you work through your outline, weigh each point with the following questions:

  • Does this idea deserve its own slide? If not, maybe it’s not important enough to include.
  • How can I demonstrate the idea behind this slide? This encourages you to consider the relevant visual elements.
  • What can I cut? If a point is too large for one slide, feel free to try a “Part 2.” But not before you cut the unessential first.

While it might be important to you to get all relevant information across, what people remember from your presentation is far more important. By being your own strict editor, you’ll vastly improve the quality of your slide deck before you even touch the first slide.

Lesson #3: Use Hooks Liberally

A ‘hook’ is simple: it’s a statistic, question, idea, visual aid, or sentence that grabs attention right off the bat.

As long as you keep these hooks unpredictable from slide to slide, you should have no problem hooking people in to each point. The idea here is to create something compelling at the beginning that entices people to pay attention to the rest of the slide.

Here are some ideas for hooks that grab attention:

  • The “warning bell.” Do you have compelling information that suggests drastic action needs to be taken? Lead with the important data.
  • The vivid illustration. Don’t just tell people why something is important; find a story that illustrates the point. This is why Aesop’s Fables are read to this day.
  • The pattern breaker. Do you have a set of statistics with one fascinating outlier? Or a question that suggests that something needs to change? A pattern breaker is a fascinating way to open up a slide.

In marketing, “AIDA” is a set of four rules for becoming more persuasive. There’s a reason AIDA starts with attention.

Lesson #4: Create a Consistent Theme and Return to It at the End

While focusing on optimizing each individual slide in your deck is important, ultimately, you want to create a central take-away for everyone in your team to remember once the presentation is over.

After all, you can only expect them to recall a certain percentage of what you’ve said. By creating a consistent theme and repeating it at the end, you drastically increase the chances your team will remember your point.

One of the most effective techniques here is the “loop.” Start off your presentation with a question — this opens the loop. At the end, return to this question and answer it — closing the loop. This sense of closure will end your presentation on a strong note while giving you the chance to repeat your most important point.

TV show Breaking Bad was notorious for its unorthodox use of loops. The show’s writers would start with a scene that seemed completely unrelated to the content of the show itself (such as the image of the main character in a desperate situation) until the episode slowly revealed the circumstances that created this event.

The worst slide-decks fail to use loops because they lack a central theme. They go off in every direction, ultimately losing your team’s attention.

The best slide-decks end by echoing or resolving the “loop” presented at the beginning. Maybe they repeat the introduction or simply provide the answer to a question. Either way, this central theme will give your slide deck more power and reward those who paid attention the entire time.

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