Practicing slide:ology

As a marketing professional, the favorite part of my job is the time I spend with customers. This past week I was asked to host a senior government delegation in our Executive Briefing Center. Since the 45 minute slot was supposed to encourage conversation, I brought a single slide as a visual aid. Imagine my surprise when I was told that the previous day another vendor had used 75 slides to accomplish the same outcome.

Why do people rely so heavily on PowerPoint for their presentations? And why are most PowerPoints really bad? In slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations, Nancy Duarte, who did Al Gore’s slides for “Inconvenient Truth,” makes the case that most of us confuse presentations with documents, that we don’t spend enough time preparing for presentations, and that we don’t apply the basic rules of design to our presentations.  Here’s Nancy summarizing the book:

The book divides presentations into three types:

  1. Documents
    Slides contain more than 75 words each which are essentially a word document in another format.
  2. Teleprompter
    Slides with ~50 words each which are primarily used to guide an un- or under-prepared speaker.
  3. True presentation
    Slides that are mostly visual which reinforce the presenter’s message.

To support this last point, Nancy reminds us that “…listening and reading are conflicting activities. However, it is natural for people to simultaneously pay attention to both verbal and visual communication. That’s why great slides serve as a visual aid that reinforces the speaker’s message.”

Most of the book focuses on how to create slides by thinking like a designer. The basics of good presentation design (contrast, flow, hierarchy, proximity, unity, and whitespace) are covered in enough detail to understand them without overwhelming you. However, there’s also a great recommendation for how to develop your presentation flow: write on Post-It notes since you’ll be forced to condense complex thoughts into a series of single ideas and rearrange the note until you have the best flow.

None of this is easy. Creating good slides requires work and forces us to have better presentation skills.  After all, without the teleprompter you have to practice a lot more.

(Thanks to Vinay for pointing out the book to me)

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9 Responses to Practicing slide:ology

  1. Torsten August 24, 2009 at 9:04 am #


    Thanks for pointing out this ulcer of the corporate world.
    Have a look here:

    Storytelling 101View more documents from Scott Schwertly.

  2. Timo Elliott August 26, 2009 at 8:07 am #

    Thanks for the balanced overview, and not just the normal ill-informed “Powerpoint is bad” rant. Just for the sake of balance: I LOVE Powerpoint. I’m a big believer in story-telling, and I believe pictures and visuals make for a much more interesting story than voice alone (you don’t believe me? how much TV do you watch compared to listening to the radio?). I typically turn up with over two slides per minute of presentation — but yes, they are the “true presentation” type, with little or no words, and used to enhance what I’m saying, not distract from it. Interestingly enough, among the only time I use dense slides with lots of text is when they are the “standard corporate slides” that one is not allowed to alter!

  3. Jonathan August 26, 2009 at 9:43 am #

    Timo, I’ve seen you present and you indeed tell stories which would fit into the third category above: “true presentations”. But your presentations could just as easily have been produced with Word as PPT. I don’t see why you “LOVE Powerpoint” — you love good presentations.

  4. Timo Elliott August 27, 2009 at 1:42 am #

    No animations in Word! 🙂

  5. Steve Graham September 1, 2009 at 4:16 am #

    Hi Jonathan,

    Thanks for posting – she provides some very useful tips. I agree that PowerPoint can be a useful medium, but has huge shortcomings when used as a document or used to present data. Some years back I attended a course by Edward Tufte and subsequently read his books on the topic of presenting data. I like his approach, and he has some good insights on the shortcomings of using powerpoint as a document – in case anyone is interested

  6. Jonathan September 1, 2009 at 9:27 am #

    Steve, thanks for mentioning Tufte. For those that have worked with me in previous companies, you know that I’m a huge fan. He introduced me to what I think is one of the best visualizations ever (Napolean’s march in Russia ). And I’m still surprised that more people haven’t adopted SparkLines.

  7. Michelle September 6, 2009 at 5:26 pm #

    Jonathan, very good work – as always an informative and enjoyable read.

    I went to the book launch of “slide:ology”!

    Great book and concept; I’ve also read “Presentation Zen” referenced in “slide:ology”.

    Are you also familiar with ‘Pecha Kucha’ in which the presentation is limited to 20 minimalist slides to which the presenter devotes no more than 20 seconds each. Instead of 45 minutes you’re done in 6 minutes and 40 seconds – the elevator pitch in the board room!

    The main site is

    I do understand some could question this formats true benefit, but the power of persuasion and action is going to win out as things need to move quickly in these times. And with a 6 min, 40 sec presentation that leaves 38 min, 20 sec for Q&A if you still had the full 45 min to use up for your use alone. Or, move forward to the next item on the agenda!

  8. Arte May 3, 2011 at 11:16 pm #

    This post makes a valid point about using PowerPoint effectively. Though the use of “styles” is debatable. A presenter needs to craft his presentation based on audience and not on some pre-defined style that does not bother to take the type of presentation or audience into account.

    Going beyond using pictures in slides, this article talks about how even though presenters use pictures, they end up being ineffective


  1. Let me tell you a story… « Crossderry Blog - September 7, 2009

    […] that end, Jonathan Becher here passes along some great tips on creating compelling presentations from Nancy Duarte.  Duarte makes […]

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