I once taught an undergraduate course on microscopy, every semester for 3 years. In the six semesters I taught the course, amounting to 168 lectures delivered twice weekly over 84 weeks, I used presentation slides in all but one lecture— and only because I could not get the projector in the hall to work. At the time, I was sweating in panic and felt very much like a failure, but I put on a brave face and carried on.
Surprisingly, I learned from that experience that I didn’t really need slides to deliver a good lecture. I learned that people can be engaged simply by giving them a reason to listen actively. (In this instance, I was making eye contact with each student and calling people out by name so I can imagine the students were on high alert!) There are also other ways to get audience engaged, such as preparing good hooks which I posted on previously here.
I wondered afterwards, what if I delivered more lectures without slides? But I never got around to trying it out again, because after all, slides do make the job easier in many ways. Slides can be an excellent visual aid, act as a reference, an anchor to draw attention, and a canvas for any number of eye catching devices like gifs, online quizzes and so on.
That said, without careful preparation, slides can actually work against a speaker. While amazing slides cannot salvage an abysmal talk, poorly made slides can seriously reduce the effectiveness of an otherwise great talk. With great Power(point), comes great responsibility.
So how can we use these powerful tools for good?
The following are three powerful pointers on slides (yes, pun intended!):
- Less is more. On each slide, only have one main thing you want people’s attention to focus on at a time. This is not to say you can only have one thing (although it’s best to have fewer things), but that you only reveal each object as you are mentioning them. Needless to say, numerous bullet points of text that are also your talking points should be avoided at all costs! Similarly, having 50 slides for a 10 minute talk is a sure fire way to be rushing and running out of time.
- Choose colors and fonts wisely. While color choice can be subjective, having too many colors and more than one font or haphazard font sizing can be very distracting. Slides should support, not compete with you as the speaker for the audience’s attention. Preset themes can be useful, but only if you can commit to the theme throughout the deck. Otherwise, stick to the simple: plenty of white background, a standard sans serif font in black or a dark color, and use limited colors to highlight or emphasize key points.
- Use high quality images and graphics. What good are visual aids if you don’t use them to display good visuals? When using images or graphics, ensure that the important details are visible to the audience whether they are closer or further from the stage, viewing from their laptop, or on their phones. This means having the figures large enough – sometimes covering whole slides, and having them in sufficient resolution.
There are plenty of other ways to enhance the cosmetic appeal of slides, but the most important thing is to ensure that your slides work to support you, not against you or become a burden to you. This is where practicing your talk while flipping the slides is useful. If you find yourself searching for key points in a slide, struggling with too many animations to click on, or that what you want to say is not strengthened or aligned with what the slide is showing, it is likely that your audience will feel the same. As with anything, plan, prepare, practice and edit! Ensure your slides serve to add value to your presentation, and not just act as a convenient crutch.