17 November 2013

5 Top Tips to Design Technical Presentations

When I share my ideas on presentation design, many people tell me “Yes, you’re right! However, when it comes to making a technical presentation, your approach doesn’t work”. By “your approach” they mean designing simple and highly visual slides.
I believe this is not correct. As a general rule, any presentation should be as simple and as visual as possible, especially technical presentations. This is because when you make a technical presentation you run the risk of boring the audience even more than usual. Technical presentations usually include loads of data and details. Therefore, if you do not design them with the audience in mind, (1) people will get bored (2) they will not understand what you are talking about.

When I was at university I attended a course called Country Analysis. Part of the evaluation was based on studying a country’s economy and presenting the results to other students. It was a technical presentation indeed. Nonetheless, we tried to design our presentation with our audience in mind and below you see the result. I know many of the slides will not tell you much. However, slides are not meant to be self-explanatory. Slides need you! You are the presentation and your slides are only there to amplify your message.

5 tips on how to make any presentation visually captivating        

The following tips can be applied to any kind of presentation. There is no reason why a technical presentation shouldn’t be pleasing to our eyes.

(1) Make data simple
This point is particularly relevant to technical presentations. Make sure your charts and tables only include the essential elements. If something does not add value to your message, leave it out. This strategy will help you achieve the most important of all objectives: letting your audience understand and remember what you are saying.
Also, instead of using generic titles, why not write a short statement summarising your key point? (More on data visualisation here).

The usual grid behind the data you find in may graphs have been removed. The slide background does not disappear behind the graphs. Only the essential elements are shown helping the audience focus on what is important.

(2) Combine images and text
One of the most powerful techniques in visual design and communication is bringing images and text together. When people see something written, they will have troubles remembering it. If you add a picture though, the probability of your audience remembering your point will increase exponentially. However, make sure you choose high-quality images. Instead of searching for them on Google Images (as most people do) why don’t you use your own photos or higher-quality sources like Flickr, for example? 
As a side note, notice how text is sometimes placed at an angle. This creates a more dynamic feeling.

If you want to say that a country's economy is mainly based on tourism, you don't need to show loads of data and text. Just show a beautiful image with one statement. It will then be up to you to inform the audience about the facts. 
(3) Choose one typeface   
When it comes to typefaces, the two mistakes I see most frequently are (1) the use of non-professional fonts (2) the use of too many fonts. Choose one typeface only and stick to it throughout your presentation. Two could be okay too, as long as you have a reason for that. In the presentation above I used Gill Sans, a professional yet young typeface which also fit together with the blackboard background. Gill Sans, like other typefaces, is nice because it comes with a whole type family. This means that you can choose among different weights of the same typeface and that allows you to stress certain words or sentences while keeping a sense of unity. 

In this slide I used three different weights of the same typeface (bold, normal and light). The aim is to use hierarchy to guide the viewer's eyes. The big statement will be noticed first, then you will look at the data and finally you will notice the source.
(4) Use colour wisely  
The thoughtful use of colour is essential in any good design and has implications to the effectiveness of your message too. Colour can be used to highlight certain points, such as the key word of a sentence, or the key bar of a chart. Notice, for example, how I used colour to highlight the subject country of our studythe Bahamasin the bar charts. As soon as you show those slides, peoples’ eyes will first point at that particular bar. It’s a matter of contrast. People are naturally attracted by contrast (in colour, in size, in shape, etc.).

(5) Achieve unity
Finally, what you should be aiming at is to achieve unity. The whole presentation should be greater than the sum of the individual slides. There are many ways to accomplish that and some of them have been pointed out in this article. Using the same typeface, visualising data in a certain way, designing slides in a consistent manner, using colour wisely are all elements which convey a sense of unity. You may think of them as small details, but it all adds up.

Your audience will not consciously understand the design principles behind your slides, but they will understand that there is something different in your presentation. Those design principles will help you convey a sense of unity and harmony, which is the best gift you can give to your audience.