12 Rules For Making Engaging Slides and Engaging Presentations

Creating powerpoints is a task most people tend to dread. Hell, most people don’t like powerpoint slides when they’re viewing a presentation. They are stuffed with boring bullet points, images that add nothing to the presentation, and monotone speakers that knock you out like an Ambien.

This is the wrong way to approach a presentation. This is the wrong way to build a presentation, and this post is intended to help you build a killer presentation utilizing slides that keeps people on their toes and in baited breath for what you’re going to say next.

Using the example presentation below (it’s the slide set I used for my presentation at the Kellogg School of Business), I’m going to outline 12 tips for building unique slides for engaging and successful presentations. And as a side note, if you want to see this type of presentation in action, I will be speaking at the Facebook Developer Garage tomorrow (Feb. 20th) at the headquarters of Where I’ve Been.

Kellogg Presentation

1. You Make the Key Points, Not the Slides

The first rule is the most important – YOU are presenting, not the projector. If you put all of your points, thoughts, and statements on the slides, it will become the focus of the audience. Avoid this at all costs You want the audience to focus on you, not the presentation. Notice how I only use sentences when I’m posting quotes – I want people to focus on the sentences coming out of my mouth, not on the screen.

2. Limit the Information On Slides

The corollary to rule #1 is to limit the amount of information on slides. You do NOT need to tell the story on the slides. In fact, it should be the opposite. The slides should only be a prompt, an image, a graph, or some other visual cue that either sums up what you’re talking about or is an aid to show information that is hard to digest orally. If a person has to take even 30 seconds to read an entire slide, you’ve lost them for several minutes, because they are not listening to you.

3. Try to Keep the Font Over 28px

Not everyone has 20/20 vision. People sit in the back of auditoriums and classrooms. Older people lose their sight, I’m sorry to say. Remember all of this when making slides. If all of your slides are bullets in 12 point font, you’ve taken away more than half of the audience from the experience of your presentation. Guy Kawasaki recommend about 30px; that’s the ballpark minimum. It’s just more appealing. Notice how slides like #7, #8, #9, and #11 use 80px font and very few words to make their point.

4. Use Images Liberally

Images, images, images. Talking about the Empire State Building? Use an image of it instead of a bullet. Talking about Mark Zuckerberg (like I do in slide #12)? Use an image of him. People are visual creatures. What’s more entertaining – a slide with bullet points about Google’s stock price drop, or a slide with the actual graph (Slide #21)?

As another note, use videos if it helps you make a point. Slide #2 was actually an embedded YouTube video to spur the discussion over Web 2.0 business models.

5. Try One-line Slides

Most ideas can be distilled into five words. Seriously, almost any business or idea can be distilled into very pithy statements. I was able to talk about entire business models using just the prompts “Growth Models” and “Not Revenue Models.” It’s easy to convey your point without spelling it out, so don’t. Instead, use slides to give the audience the general idea or use them to emphasize your key point.

6. If You Must Use Bullets, No More than Five Bullets

In fact, five bullets is too much, but there are special situations. I used five bullets once, four bullets once, and almost no bullets otherwise. Why? Because when you place too much information for the user to read, all at once, people stop listening to you. If you have multiple bullets, show them ONE AT A TIME and make sure to make your point before moving on to the next bullet.

By the way, yes, I realize slide #22 has a lot of bullets, but it was designed for shock value more than a point-by-point explanation. There are exceptions to rules.

7. If You Must Use Bullets, No More than Five Words a Bullet

Same issue as before – information overload is a top killer of presentations. Slide #17, on Twitter, just puts out the numbers necessary for people to understand my point. Slide #34, on efficiency, only gives one or two word prompts that I speak about in greater length. Once again, you don’t need to put sentences about companies are lowering their burn rate – that should be for the oral portion.

8. Always Keep Yourself, Not The Slides, The Focus

This is tough for a lot of people. When you overload with information, put up zany animations, or read off each and every slide, you are taking away concentration that should be focused on you. The audience cannot listen to you AND read your slides. So don’t let them read for more than a few seconds. If you need people to read a slide for some reason, do it and you shut up before continuing. You should be the focus.

9. Animate, But Don’t Overwhelm

Animations are nice tools. Bullets appear from wacky directions. Images hover in. Then the slides spin out of control. I use animations to compartmentalize information – slide #22 faded in layoffs to emphasize the shock value while I talked. Slide #12 was designed as a step-by-step history of Web 2.0, so I utilized animations to show each part one at a time. Animate for a purpose, not because it’s cool. It wastes your time otherwise.

10. Make Slides Interactive With the Audience

In slide #47, I asked the audience the question of “What’s the difference between Facebook applications and iPhone applications?” After a couple guesses, someone gets it right, and my slide screams “Bingo!” It’s a simple visual that makes the audience smile and makes them feel engaged. Ask questions, and when they answer them, use visual cues to reward them. Plan out how you can engage the audience, and make the slides match them.

11. Have “Backup” Slides to Answer Common Questions

Think about a few questions the audience may ask you after the presentation (if there is a Q&A), and make slides for them. If people asked for my contact information, I went to slide #69 (just type in the slide number and press enter to slide jump). If someone asked about what startups they should watch for, I took them to slides #70 and #72. This is especially useful if you’re trying to convince someone to invest, because you can pull other numbers you couldn’t include in the main presentation.

12. You Must Practice For This To Work

My final rule: Practice! This type of presentation means you’re going to have to talk without many cues. Know what you’re talking about, talk with passion, and practice with your slides. It’s apparent if you don’t. But if you do practice, and you use this type of powerpoint to present your arguments, you are going to have the audience in the palm of your hand.

I hope these rules help you become a better presenter. If there’s one theme to my rules, it’s this: don’t let the slides dominate the presentation. They came to see you, not the damn powerpoint.

– Ben