Make Every Pixel Count

Yesterday, we discussed the importance of putting the design of the slide deck on hold until you know exactly what you wish to say and how you want to express it. The slides, if needed, are there as a visual aid; they must add to the experience you aim to create. Your presentation should complement your talk, not echo it. 

I am often asked, “OK, but what should be in each slide?” How many words are too many? Should I go with a minimal design, or can I add many details? Can I add a nice picture? Is a table full of data too much? You get the picture. 

All these are important questions, and the fact that they’re even asked is a good sign. The people asking these questions know the importance of making some design decisions when creating the slides. But today, I will not address any of these questions specifically. Instead, we will define a general rule to help you answer these questions yourself: Make every pixel count. Here’s what you should do. 

Step 1: Identify a place where a slide is needed. 

Remember, the slides should never be designed to help you. They should also not be designed to capture notes of what you say for your audience. The only reason to create a slide is when it adds something to the experience, for example, by capturing a complex concept in a simple visual form. 

If that means you will have only one slide for a 60-minute talk, so be it. If it means you will have 30 slides, that’s fine, too, as long as each slide has value. 

Step 2: Start with a blank slide. 

This may sound trivial, but if you’ve ever worked with PowerPoint or Apple’s Keynote, you know you must do something actively to achieve that. By default, when you add a new slide, it is created from a template. I’m not talking about the brand colors and a small logo. A new (apparently blank) slide typically has a placeholder for the title, a box for some bullets, a place to add a picture, and so on. All of these encapsulate design decisions you did not make. 

When I add a new slide to my presentation, I create an empty one: a slide without any placeholders or hints that will create a bias toward adding something I am not convinced has value. 

If you want to take this a step further, don’t create a new slide at all. Instead, use pen and paper and create a storyboard of your slides. This will help you avoid the bias of the built-in tools and templates in your presentation software. 

Step 3: Add one element at a time as long as it adds value.

Next, start adding elements gradually as long as each element adds to the value of the slide. Better still, as long as each component adds the most value to the slide. 

Let’s say I am talking about the percentage of people frustrated by workplace communication. I already know that I am going to say that 70% of managers think meetings are ineffective. I know that because I’ve already designed the content of my talk. Will writing this statement on the slide add any value? It might catch more attention because people will use their visual sense to read what’s on the screen in addition to listening to me. On the other hand, this might also be a distraction. And in terms of memorability, a textual statement written on screen has little added value. 

Still, I want to emphasize this piece of data. I want people to remember this striking number. I want it to make an impact. So, instead of writing it in words, I will add a simple visual of ten circles (representing ten managers), seven of which are red. This visual is bound to draw attention, but it takes less time to process, and it has a more significant impact. The red color dominates the slide. It intentionally creates the sense that most people have a negative feeling regarding the topic we are discussing. At the same time, the visual is not distracting. A photo of a frustrated manager, for example, will make the audience concentrate on the figure, leaving them less attentive to me, but at the same time, it will not create the sense that the majority of managers share this feeling. 

This is the essence of making every pixel count. We add things that serve the message (not repeat it) and, therefore, have value. 

Step 4: Remove redundancy.

After the slide draft is ready, it is time to review it. Maybe, despite our intentions, there is some redundancy. As a general rule, redundancy must be removed, although there are some exceptions. 

Step 5: Perfect visuals and phrasing. 

Steps 3 and 4 are hard to nail on the first attempt. They are likely to involve several iterations and experiments. Thus, I typically don’t invest much in perfecting the design of each element until I am sure I know what the slide should look like. 

Once the slide’s content satisfies your needs, it is an excellent time to go back to each element and improve it to reach a “production level.” If I’ve used a rough sketch, now it is time to polish it. If I’ve added some text, now is the time to proofread it and maybe rephrase it. 

Step 6: Review the flow of the entire presentation together with the spoken content. 

Lastly, once the draft of the entire slide deck is ready, we must review it as a whole. We must ensure the flow makes sense and there is no redundancy across slides. But probably the most important thing to verify is that the slides match the flow of your talk. Just like the stage design in a play, your slide deck should seamlessly serve the script.

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