Practicing What I Preach on Slide Design: Start of a Series

Creating captivating, informative, and memorable slide decks is HARD.

I know. I used to be bad at creating captivating slides. I don’t really know how memorable they were. Nor informative. If you ask me, my slides were the opposite of “captivating, informative, and memorable”: my slides were boring, opaque, and forgettable. Don’t believe me? Scroll down to the bottom to see an example: those slides were part of my presentations that ended in my successfully finishing a Ph.D. in chemistry. So several professors judged my research content to be sound. When it came to slide design, however …

Why did I produce such awful slides?

Essentially, because although scientists are expected to use slides to present their data, there is no formal instruction on how to write those slides. At least I do not remember any. The closest I could recall is getting tips from colleagues who had done it before, or at least what they could remember of what they had done.

Now, I have been out of research science for more than 10 years, but I know that little has changed: Having worked with many scientists and other technical speakers in the last 15 years, I know there is still little training in how to make good slides.

For the amount of times that scientists use slides to convey information, not having formal training in designing slide decks is a little like not teaching literature students how to write essays.

Of course this is not limited to the sciences – digitally produced slides have become a commodity in professional communication. The slides below are from 2002, so they were made a little over 15 years after PowerPoint was first released. By 2018, more than an entire generation has lived in a world with digitally-produced slides used in presentations. If you count by the average time to get a science Ph.D., nearly five generations of graduate students have seen digitally-produced slides for presentations.

In many circles “a presentation” means a speech made with visual slides on a screen or display. Slide decks are everywhere.

So why bad slides happen is an easily understandable phenomenon of social learning. As I have noted in previous posts, the slide software makes it easy to create bad slides.

When we find ourselves having to produce a report and we are not sure what it should look like, we repeat the design used by others so our product looks like it fits in. If a design is commonly encountered, that suggests the design is accepted, and so it is repeated.


Evidence of frequency is not evidence of quality.

Even if the a common design is numbing in its appeal and muddy when it comes to clarity, it is repeated because everyone else does it – it is “common”. Using commonly used design is essentially an unconscious act.

This suggests writing/building a superior slide deck requires a conscious attention to design detail. But how do you know the choices you are making are good design choices? Especially when they result in slides that look different than most in the field.

I have, and will continue, to write various tips in my blog on creating and delivering superior presentations. But I to show a little of what I tell.

Therefore, over the next few weeks, I will share a slide deck that I created during my research days and how I would revise the slide design as though I were one of my clients. The installments will include:

Here are the slides (pdf format opening to new window) in all of their originally created glory back from 2002.

If you have ever produced slide decks like this, stay tuned – it can get better.

Want to know more tips to improve your presentations? Contact me to learn more about my workshops and 1-on-1 coaching services – I look forward to helping you Put Audiences First.

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