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Tips for Presentations

What makes a good presentation?

The picture above is the scene everyone has faced before. The oversized room. The giant screen. The just-dark-enough-to-fall-asleep room. You KNOW what’s coming: A boring slideshow presentation, with no thought to design, typography, readability or anything about the audience. So when it’s you in the hot seat, you need to know how to keep them interested, or even awake.

Here are a few tips and tricks to help make your presentation and academic poster sing.


1. Plan your presentation.
Every good presentation, whether it’s a poster, bulletin board, slideshow, video, or lecture, will have one or a few key points. Before you make your presentation materials, ask yourself what the key lesson you want your audience to take away from your presentation.


2. Include good visuals.
Presentation tools are visual aides, not a replacement for the speaker. Therefore, slides should show what the presenter is telling. Think like television. The person is speaking, while the visual is illustrating. This will make presentations much more effective. Click here for a handout I created about creating effective visuals.


3. Think modular.
While presentation tools like PowerPoint and Keynote work in a linear style, the online presentation tool Prezi works in a modular style. With Prezi, presenters can create modules of information to explain how ideas are evolved or are inter-related. I presented tips for using Prezi to teach visual communication concepts at the 2011 AEJMC convention to the Magazine and Visual Communication divisions. To go along with my presentation, I created a handout that explains how to plan visuals for modular presentations.


4. Know your audience
The best presenters take care to know who is listening to his or her presentation. In the planning process, presenters should consider to whom he or she is speaking. Is it academics? Students? Professionals? A mixed audience? Then, the speaker should find ways to connect to the group. Doing this will help the audience remember the speaker and the message.


5. Dress the part.
Some presentations require a suit and tie. Some require jeans and a T-shirt. The best presenters will know the outfit for the occasion.


6. Keep type simple.
Typography is a two edged sword. Good graphic design dictates that designers use three or fewer typefaces in a single project. I have tried to limit myself to one typeface per project. Choose a typeface that’s easy to read, and has a variety of weighs and styles. My recommendations, in no particular order: Bodoni, Helvetica Neue, Bureau Grotesque, Myriad Pro, and Abadi. Note that most of these are sans serif; I like how the sans type looks in presentations, and it is very readable in large sizes that should be used in presentations. As a rule, I won’t use type smaller that 18 point on a poster, and generally use 36 point for body copy there. For slideshow presentations, I won’t go smaller than 28 point.


7. Be careful of color
Color is one of the best tools designers have to classify and illustrate. Color, however, can be too powerful in large doses. Black type on a white background provides the highest readability; color can be used to accent key words or design elements. Choose accent colors that can be seen in any light, and limit your color palate to no more than 5 colors. This Prezi presentation helps explain the color wheel, and how colors work. In addition, designers have to remember that not everyone can see color, so charts have to make sense without the color components. To do that, designers should turn graphics to grayscale in Photoshop and see if they still make sense.


8. Make it big.
Not everyone will see your presentation from the front row. Nor will everyone read your poster from 18 inches away (about the distance between a person’s eyes and their computer screen). Instead, people will be seated in the back of the room, and people will stand a few feet away. Make your text and visuals big enough so people will be able to see them.


9. Make a handout.
If you can, make a handout to explain your presentation to your audience. Handouts are a great way to let your presentation have a lasting impact on the audience; it should contain visuals and explanations of your presentation’s key point. If your handout engages your presentation, then pass it out before the presentation. If it summarizes, distribute it at the end.


10. Leave them wanting more.
As the old adage goes, feed the horse, but don’t give him everything in the barn. Your presentation should summarize your point, and should be a jumping off point for exploration of your idea. Your audience doesn’t need to know everything about the topic, just enough to understand your point.






Reynolds, G. (2010). Presentation Zen: Simple design principles and techniques to enhance your presentations. Berkeley, CA: New Riders.

Without a doubt, the best book I have ever read about giving an effective presentation. Reynolds has a worldwide presence in presentation design and for good reason: his book offers details about how to improve every aspect of a presentation, from type to graphics, to images, to room lighting and handouts.


Williams, R. (2010). The non-designer’s presentation book: Principles for effective presentation design. Berkeley, CA: Peachpit Press.

Williams’ book is strongest is explaining typography and colors for presentations. As the title suggests, this book is for non-designers: it gives simple explanations for those without design backgrounds about what makes for effective use of type, color, images, and graphics. However, designers will appreciate the fundamental approach to creative work.

Witt, C. (2009). Real leaders don’t do PowerPoint: How to sell yourself and your ideas. New York: Crown Publishing.
The title says it all, and the first chapter always makes me laugh. The point is, a good presentation depends on the speaker, not the visuals.


Colin Purrington’s Conference Poster Guide
This website offers a comprehensive look at how to make academic posters an effective tool for presenting information. Even the most seasoned designers can find it difficult to summarize a 25-page paper into a poster, especially one with intriguing visuals. Purrington’s site is a great resource for planning and executing a conference poster

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