slides ≠ presentation

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How many times have you been told “I’ve got a presentation you can use” or “I’ve emailed you my presentation”?

What they mean is “I’ve got some slides you can use” or “I’ve emailed you my slides”.

It seems a very pedantic thing to point out but it’s a very crucial point. You are the presentation. The slides are there to help you to give your message. They are not a crutch, they are not there to hide behind or to show off or simply to read off the screen.

I came to this realisation a while after start to work in education. At the time this is an example of the kind of ‘presentations’ I was giving:

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53 words and figures in one cramped slide. What was I trying to do here? The information is correct, it shows the stages of taking a clinical history as well as how to take a pain history. But clearly I was relying on this slide. This slide was the teacher not me. I would read this out to my students and that was teaching in my mind. My students would read along with me and that would be learning in their mind and mine.

Yet this is an incredibly ineffective way to try and teach. To understand why we have to appreciate Neuropsychology; ‘the brain in a nutshell’:

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No one can multi-task. It doesn't matter about your gender or intellect. No one can multi-task. Instead, what we thing of as multi-tasking is actually us moving our attention between two things quickly. This is a difficult thing to do. An example of this is when we drive.. We might put the radio on and listen, maybe turn the volume up and sing along. The reason we can do this is if we’re on a regular route or the driving is easy we can switch off a bit and focus on the radio. But what happens if we have to take an unfamiliar route? What happens if we suddenly need to focus more on the road and our driving? If we have to parallel park or make a three point turn? We immediately turn off the radio. That’s because of cognitive load. We only have so much cognitive space to give to any one task. The radio is fun when driving is easy. When we have to focus it’s distracting. This is cognitive overload. The overload is more severe when we are asking more of the same part of the brain. Listening, writing and talking all require the language centre of the brain. Expecting students to listen, read, make notes AND learn is impossible.

Yet we all are guilty of this. Thirty million PowerPoint presentations are made every day. If you’re asked to give a presentation the temptation is to open PowerPoint and start typing away with headings and bullet points before then reading them out to our audience. It makes us feel safe. It shows all our knowledge. It’s convention. We are all the same like characters in the Lego Movie.

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But everything is not awesome. To use any tool is to understand its limitations and the danger of using it. And PowerPoint is dangerous. We’ve all sat in those presentations. A speaker with a stream of slides full of text, monotonously reading them off as we read along. We’re so used to it we expect it. We accept it. We even consider it ‘learning’. The only push back we might make is to call it ‘death by PowerPoint’. But we should push back more.

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Using the only victim of PowerPoint is our audience’s attention and inspiration. But there was a PowerPoint slide that actually helped to kill seven people.

In January 2003 the Space Shuttle Columbia launched. During launch a piece of foam fell from the external fuel tank and hit Columbia’s left wing.

Frame of NASA launch footage showing the moment the foam struck the shuttle’s left wing (Creative Commons)

Frame of NASA launch footage showing the moment the foam struck the shuttle’s left wing (Creative Commons)

It was impossible to tell from Earth how much damage this foam, falling nine times faster than a fired bullet, would have caused when it collided with the wing. Foam falling during launch was nothing new. It had happened on four previous missions and was one of the reasons why the camera was there in the first place. But the tile the foam had struck was on the edge of the wing designed to protect the shuttle from the heat of Earth’s atmosphere during launch and re-entry. In space the shuttle was safe but NASA didn’t know how it would respond to re-entry. There were a number of options. The astronauts could perform a spacewalk and visually inspect the hull. NASA could launch another Space Shuttle to pick the crew up. Or they could risk re-entry.

NASA officials sat down with Boeing Corporation engineers who took them through three reports; a total of 28 slides. The salient point was whilst there was data showing that the tiles on the shuttle wing could tolerate being hit by the foam this was based on test conditions using foam more than 600 times smaller than that that had struck Columbia. This is the slide the engineers chose to illustrate this point:

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NASA managers listened to the engineers and read their PowerPoint and thought this was learning. Boeing read out their slides and thought this was teaching. NASA decided to go for re-entry.

Columbia was scheduled to land at 0916 (EST) on February 1st 2003. At 0912, as Columbia should have been approaching the runway, ground control heard reports from residents near Dallas that the shuttle had been seen disintegrating. Columbia was lost and with it her crew of seven. The oldest crew member was 48.

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Edward Tufte, a Professor at Yale University and expert in communication reviewed the slideshow the Boeing engineers had given NASA, in particular the above slide. His findings were tragically profound.

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Firstly, the slide had a misleadingly reassuring title claiming that test data pointed to the tile being able to withstand the foam strike. This was not the case but the presence of the title, centred in the largest font makes this seem the salient, summary point of this slide. This helped Boeing’s message be lost almost immediately.




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Secondly, the slide contains four different bullet points with no explanation of what they mean. This means that interpretation is left up to the reader. Is number 1 the main bullet point? Do the bullet points become less important or more? It’s not helped that there’s a change in font sizes as well. In all with bullet points and indents six levels of hierarchy were created. This allowed NASA managers to imply a hierarchy of importance in their head: the writing lower down and in smaller font was ignored. Actually, this had been where the contradictory (and most important) information was placed.

Thirdly, there is a huge amount of text, more than 100 words or figures on one screen. Two words, ‘SOFI’ and ‘ramp’ both mean the same thing: the foam. Vague terms are used. Sufficient is used once, significant or significantly, five times with little or no quantifiable data. As a result this left a lot open to audience interpretation. How much is significant? Is it statistical significance you mean or something else?

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Finally the single most important fact, that the foam strike had occurred at forces massively out of test conditions, is hidden at the very bottom. Twelve little words which the audience would have had to wade through more than 100 to get to. If they even managed to keep reading to that point. In the middle it does say that it is possible for the foam to damage the tile. This is in the smallest font, lost.


NASA’s subsequent report criticised technical aspects along with human factors. Their report mentioned an over-reliance on PowerPoint:

“The Board views the endemic use of PowerPoint briefing slides instead of technical papers as an illustration of the problematic methods of technical communication at NASA.”

PowerPoint is not an effective form of communication. We wouldn’t stand at a board writing out hundreds of words and expect our audience to follow us so we shouldn’t do the same with our slides. We have to be aware of the risks of PowerPoint because when we open it up we are presented with a host of templates with obscure backgrounds and hard to read text, making it very easy to fall into the same traps:

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There are a number of formulas out there suggested as ways of giving good presentations. One is the 6x6 rule: no more than 6 lines on a slide, no more than 6 words per line. That is still 36 words. Far too much. Another is the 20 20 rule - 20 slides 20 seconds per slide. Why would you do this? If you only need one slide use one slide. If you don’t need slides, don’t use them.

Let’s remember the crew of Columbia every time we prepare our slides.

Keep it simple.

Your slides are there to help you give your presentation and share your message. if not used properly they actually will hurt your presentation and help your message be lost.

Use one point per slide. Lists don’t work. For example here’s the first twenty elements of the periodic table:

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I’ll read them out and you’ll read with me. What’s number eight? You'll have to look back to check. Even though you’ve just read a list you’ll remember the first and last and little in between.

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One point per slide. What’s the eighth element? You won’t have to look back now.

Respect cognitive load.

Lists are for shopping not for slides.

One point per slide - you don’t need headings.

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Bullets are for guns not for presentations.

slides ≠ presentation

It’s easy to just open PowerPoint and write words and words onto a screen. These 22 slides took me 30 minutes:

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But this is not a presentation. These aren’t slides intended to be used in a presentation. Your slides shouldn’t be a stand alone document. This is a handout.

Realising this point changes how we approach a presentation immediately. People don’t want to watch you reading off a slideshow just as people don’t attend concerts to listen to a recorded album. They come to watch a band perform. Your audience are there to watch you perform.

A presentationalist knows that PowerPoint kills. A presentationalist uses slides only if they help the presentation. If they’re not needed they’re not used. Simple.

audience, audience, audience

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Audience audience audience

Now we’ve established that a presentation is more than just your slides it’s now time to actually start thinking about how to start planning a talk.

Any presentation is not about the speaker.  It’s about the audience; first, second and third.

When you start planning your presentation ask yourself: who are my audience? Why are they going to be there?  It doesn’t matter if you’re giving a keynote speech, presenting at a job interview or presenting an audit at your departmental meeting, starting by thinking about your audience ensures that anything you do will be aimed precisely at them.

If you’ve been asked to give a presentation ask why. It’s very common for invitations to talk to be vague; “oh we’d love to hear about that work you did”.  Once again you need to be precise.  Why have you asked me?  What aspect exactly do you want to know?

If you’re presenting at a conference who is attending? Most conferences have a theme; something like “inspiring excellence”.  Find out the theme and this will help you shape your talk.  

Who else is presenting? Get in touch if possible.  What are they talking about?  Collaborate with them.  All the while making sure you’re building a presentation with your audience first, second and third.

If you’re not sure about the group you’ll be talking to find out at the beginning.  If you don’t know about them talk to people who do.  Ask yourself two questions: “what do they want to know?” “What do they need to know?”

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This may seem like a strange distinction to make but it’s also important.  For example, I teach final year medical students.  Near the end of the year in particular they are always driven by the imminent exams.  What they WANT to  know is anything that will be in their exams and nothing else.  So when I start talking about things that won’t be in exam but will be issues when they’re doctors there’s potential to lose them.  That’s the distinction.  They WANT to know what’s in the exam to become doctors. They NEED to know how to stay doctors once qualified.  That distinction has to be bridged.  Consider if it’s suitable to bridge it there and then.  If it is then you know you’re going to have to be very clear about why they need to know what you’re about to tell them.  Appreciating this at the start is crucial as you begin planning your talk.

Check out where the conference is being held and try and get a feel for the place if possible.  What will work?  What won’t?  Find out how long you have to talk.  Whatever it is take 20% off.  No conference runs to time.  Aim to only need 80% of you allotted time.  The rest will be used up.  Trust me.  Whether it’s other speakers overrunning or questions or delays with technology the time will be taken up.  If not by finishing early you can help keep things flowing and the organisers will love you.  Never overrun.  Ever.

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You may notice that the first two steps are about shifting away.  Step One was about shifting emphasis away from slides.  Step Two has been about shifting emphasis away from you to your audience.  These shifts should be liberating.  By not relying on slides we are encouraged to innovate with our presentations.  By focussing on our audience and not us we ensure the presentation will be compelling.  The point is not to be Luke Skywalker.  The point is be Yoda.  Yoda has a small part of the original Star Wars trilogy.  Yet he opens up a whole new world to Luke which shapes what comes afterwards.  Your audience may never see you again but you have an opportunity in the short time you have with them to open up possibilities they may never have known otherwise.  It’s not about you it’s about them.

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In order to help put our audience first is to understand the mind of an audience member. First, human beings are designed to love patterns.  The first pattern we learn as newborns are faces, those of our parents and then our family and so on.  This love of faces continues so much that we will find them even in photographs of Mars.  More on faces later.

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The next pattern we love are words.  Words are patterns of squiggles (letters) with meaning.  And we love them.  Show your audience words and they will read them.  No matter what they are.  Even if it’s my mobile phone contract.

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Or even if you tell people not to read.

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Words on a screen are there to be read.  Your audience can’t help it.  Put them up there and watch your audience’s eyes move from you to the screen.  As we already discussed you can’t read, listen and learn.  Put words up there and you lose them. We’re addicted to words.  Words are a controlled drug like morphine.  We have to be careful prescribing controlled drugs.  We have to have the same caution when we use words in our slides because we’re dealing with addicts.

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We finally have to consider our audience’s attention span.  There’s a reason TED talks last 18 minutes.  17 minutes is the longest we can hold attention.  One hour long talks are simply pointless.  Luckily, you can reset your audience’s attention with other things.  If you’re doing a workshop break it up with an exercise.  If it’s a keynote speech use a video, music, dance, whatever but break it up.  Afterwards your audience’s attention is reset for another 17 minutes.  

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TED talks use the 18 minute limit to help focus the speaker’s message.  More on that in Step 3.


pick your message

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Every talk should have a message.  This should be clear and explicit.  Your audience needs to know precisely what you have just told them with no confusion as to your intentions.  Remember the case of Columbia and the consequences of ambiguity.  

Your message should be one sentence, one breath.  This is what I am going to talk to you about.  It should be made clear right at the beginning of your talk.  People actually love spoilers. Your message is not a punchline for the end.  It should be there at the beginning.  

Summary slides by definition are therefore poor.  They essentially say “having spoken to you for X amount of time actually these are the key points you should have listened to and taken away.”  Don’t use summary slides.  Instead, imagine what your summary slide would be if that helps.  Then don’t use it.

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It is impossible to cover everything in a talk. Nor should you try.  No subject can be completely covered in a presentation and if you try to do so you’ll fail.  Your presentation should be like an iceberg. You can only show so much.  Present your message and inspire your audience to find out more.  

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People do not learn by just attending one session on one subject and that is it.  We learn by spaced repetition or spaced practice.  Like the name suggests this practice involves the regular repetition of principles and messages over a period of time.  This period of time can be over weeks and should be considered when designing a curriculum.  Or it could be your one key message repeated several times during your presentation.  

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I was lucky enough to see Professor Brian Cox, one of my role models as a teacher, live on tour.  Was he covering everything?  Did we leave knowing everything he knew? Did we know everything there is to know about space and time and quantum mechanics?  No. He knew his audience and he tailored his message for us.  

Brevity is beautiful.  Brevity is also hard.  It goes against our instincts as we want to show everything we know and all about the work we’ve done.  The less time you hard the harder it is.  The hardest talk I’ve ever had to give was a three minute talk on a project.  The project involved me designing a smartphone application for use in simulation sessions and to support my students during their week in the department.  This work had taken over eight months and I was supposed to boil this down to three minutes?  It seemed impossible.

This is why you need to go away and write out everything.  Write a blog or a report or make a handout.  Record a podcast.  Something where everything is.  In that act you’ll spot the key bits to take out and put into your presentation.  The rest your audience can find out afterwards from your blog or your report or your podcast.  This bit has to be done.

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Three really is as magic number.  It is the largest number of objects we can immediately recognise without having to count.  It also forms a nice pattern in our mind.  Look at successful public speakers or slogans and see how they use the rule of threes: “I came, I saw, I conquered”, “Education, Education, Education”, “See it, Say it, Sorted”...the list goes on and on and on.  Three key points in the talk will be memorable to your audience and help form the basis of your story.

So, back to my three minute talk.  Having written out the blog containing all the information I identified the three key parts of the process and with that my message.  My message was how a custom made application could maximise the short time students had with me.  This was right at the beginning.  I then highlighted the three key points at the beginning and went through those.  I signposted to the blog for them to find out more.  

be a storyteller

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The best education is story telling.  Once we have our message we can plan our presentation as if we’re telling a story.  

Anton Chekhov was a Russian play writer.  His rule, known as ‘Chekhov’s gun’, can be used when writing a presentation.  

"Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there.”

When Steve McQueen was given a script to read he would cross out all the lines he didn’t want to say because, “I don’t do exposition.”  If a line wasn’t essential to the plot he didn’t say it.  

We have to be the same when we’re planning our presentation.  Keep only the essential.  

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Traditionally we see stories as a beginning, middle and end. But actually stories have a series of key points to keep the interest of the viewer.  These follow a pattern known as spark lines.

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If we look at the story of Disney’s Lion King we can see how they form a spark line.  There’s the opening scene (Circle of Life), the death of Mufasa, Simba falling in love and then seeing Mufasa’s ghost and returning.  In between things do happen but it’s these key parts that stand out.  

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We can use spark lines to help us view our presentation as a story.  We don’t remember the Lion King scene by scene. We remember the key scenes. We can design our talk so that the key points are easy to remember. Introduce yourself and give the message of your talk. Then tell your audience what points you’re going to cover. Build to your first key point. Emphasise it. Then build to your second and so on:

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Summarise at the end and finish with a precise and memorable sentence encapsulating your central message and signposting for further information.

An important part of public speaking is to persuade our audience.  Presentation guru Nancy Duarte looked at good public speakers and saw how they follow spark lines.  Their speech oscillates  between where we are now and where we could be (their vision). 

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She looked at two different speakers: Martin Luther King and his ‘I have a dream’ speech and Steve Jobs at the launch of the iPhone.  Both speakers moved between the here and now and their vision throughout their speeches before finishing with ‘bliss’ - what life could be.  

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Here’s her presentation:

If the purpose of your talk is to persuade you can use three rhetorical devices from the Greeks; ethos, logos and pathos.

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Ethos comes from the speaker themselves.  This is you, your background and standing and how you come across.  Logos is using logic during your talk.  An example would be, “my project has shown we can save X amount of money by not needing to do pointless blood tests”.  It is also about how clear and easy to follow your message is and how logical it seems. Finally, pathos appeals to the emotions of the audience, their desire to do good and prevent suffering.  You can combine all three to be an effective speaker. 

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who is my audience? what is my message? how should I tell my story?

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Who is my audience?

What is my message?

How should I tell my story?



These are the three questions to answer. In doing so you build your presentation.

Take your time over answering them.

Don’t rush straight to your computer and open up PowerPoint.


Write before you type.


Go analogue.  Get a notebook and pen and start writing. Doodle.  Answer the questions:


Who is my audience?

What is my message?

How should I tell my story?

Ponder while you walk, while you’re at the gym, in the bath.  Wherever. This is a creative process and shouldn’t be rushed.  Could be your office.  If you’re like me it could be your favourite delicatessen.

If you haven’t already written out your blog, or recorded your podcast or whatever it is, make sure you have.  Answer each question and don’t move on to the other until you’re happy you have.

As you make notes and doodle your presentation will take shape.  These are doodles on my iPad with Notability that would form the basis for this whole series of blogs:

You may realise that you don’t need slides.  If that’s the case don’t use them.  Probably the best presentation I ever saw was in Berlin in 2017 from Dr. Annet Alenyo Ngabirano .  She was telling us about a child she saw die when she was a medical student.  For a large part of her talk she stood there with just a black screen and talked.  She didn’t need slides.  She didn’t use them.  And she kept the audience in the palm of her hand.  

I’ve found another, albeit it far less impressive, example of this principle when I teach medical students.  Electrocardiograph (ECG) interpretation is an important part of medical learning.  One very important ECG to identify is one showing the features of dangerously high potassium (hyperkalaemia).  If not treated hyperkalaemia causes cardiac arrest.  So I’ll show this ECG on a slide to my students and tell them the three key features: tall tented T waves, wide QRS and flattened P waves. 

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And they’ll nod.  And the next day I’ll ask them, “what are the three key features of hyperkalaemia?”  And they’ll look blankly at me.  

So now I don’t use the slide.  I use the hyperkalaemia dance.  I get them to stand up.  Most laugh.  A few blush.  All look awkward.  And I get them to copy me doing the hyperkalaemia dance.  And then talk me through it.  Yes it’s weird but it works. 

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The next day, the next week I’ll ask them to tell me the ECG features of hyperkalaemia. The responses are usually the same.  A giggle. A blush. Most mouth the words.  A few even do the movements.  But they can all tell me the three features. It works.  

One my colleagues James Pratt presented about Advance Clinical Practitioners in Emergency Medicine in 2018. This is his introduction:

Cue a round of applause and everyone’s attention immediately grabbed.

If you don’t need a slide don’t use one.

You should never apologise for a slide. If you have to apologise for a slide don’t use it.

Answer the three questions:

Who is my audience?

What is my message?

How should I tell my story?


Who + What + How = Your Presentation 

1 picture > 1000 words

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You know the old saying: A picture is worth a thousand words. I’d say that’s wrong. A picture is worth much more than a thousand words. Use our pictures’ power.

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Pictures can provide a clarity lost by words and language. Look at this cave painting. Looking at it we know that five people; two with bows and three with spears went hunting and found a stag and a doe. If they’d written this out in words or symbols we possibly wouldn’t understand it. The picture however immediately cuts through any language barrier. The pictures we use in our presentation should have a similar clarity. They should add to our presentation, not take away.

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A common mistake we make with our images is to put more than one in a slide. We’ll tell our audience only to look at the heart in the top left but by putting up multiple images not only do we make them smaller and harder to see we also let our audiences’ eyes wander on to other images. All the while we want them to be looking at the heart some of our audience will be looking at the brain bottom right or the lungs top right.

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Another common mistake is unnecessary labelling. I’ve sat in presentations with a consultant presenting to other consultants and they have labelling like this. They put information on the slide defining what shock is. Everyone in that room knew what shock was. There was no point having the information on the slide.

All text is distracting. Pointless annotation is exactly that. Pointless. Don’t use it!

All text is distracting. Pointless annotation is exactly that. Pointless. Don’t use it!

Don’t patronise your audience. Don’t have pointless text on the slide. Think of your audience. They’ll know what the heart is. You don’t need a title. Even if you’re not sure they’ll know what a heart looks like you can actually say, “this is a heart.”

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One image per slide. Let the image dominate. Blend it to the sides. Make it as clear as possible. This slide already says more about the heart than text could. There’s no confusion. I am talking about the heart. This is a heart. I want you to look at it. Here it is.

Pictures are worth more than a thousand words. But they have even more power than that. Pictures can change the world. In 1990 HIV/AIDS had been public knowledge for seven years. There has probably never been a disease as stigmatising for its victims. For most it was a disease of gays, of drug users or immigrants. It wasn’t a disease that would affect us. It wasn’t a disease we could empathise with. The red ribbon campaign was still to come. The US didn’t even have a national AIDS policy. Then in 1990 a photograph was published.

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Think how many thousands, how many millions of words had been written about HIV/AIDS by 1990. This photograph made more impact than all of them together. It shows David Kirby, a young man dying of AIDS, surrounded by his family. A patient with AIDS dying with a father, mother and sister grieving him. This photograph, known as ‘The Face of AIDS’, is credited with changing public opinion immediately. In 1992 it was used as part of a provocative campaign from Benetton, a clothing company. It was taken by Therese Frare, a photographer who befriended David Kirby in the final stages of his illness and was allowed to capture his final moments. Almost biblical, it humanised AIDS. These patients were not outcasts, they were people with loved ones just like everyone else.

Remember the photograph of Alan Kurdi, the three year Syrian refugee who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea. Within 24 hours of its publication the charity Migrant Offshore Aid Station reported a fifteen fold increase in donations.

it is possible to read words and be detached. Unless you are a psychopath it is impossible to look at a photograph like ‘The Face of AIDS’ and not feel something. There’s neuroscience here. Remember we’re programmed to find faces. If there’s a face on the screen we’ll find it and we’ll interpret it. Our neural pathways fire and we’ll empathise with that face. We’ll feel what they feel. This is pathos in action. Using an image like ‘The Face of AIDS’ in your slides cuts through far more than a slide of text.

Patients with abdominal pain scare me. It can be nothing. It can be something benign. Sometimes it’s very serious. So I use a bit of pathos. I ask my audience to imagine being in a small boat at sea. Then you look over and you see something.

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Cue a shudder in the audience as they put themselves in that boat. That’s how I feel with a patient with abdominal pain. There is something there. It might be benign. It might be sinister. This image shows that far better than any words ever could.

We can also manipulate our images in a way that makes them easier for our audience and nicer to look at. Have a look at this image.

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It shows an elderly couple on the swings. It’s nice to look. It looks professional. It’s hard to say why but we like it.

How about this image?

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Suddenly the man is dominating even though he’s not in the middle but we’re drawn to him more.

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Now we’re drawn to the woman.

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This is the rule of thirds. Yes, another case of three being the magic number. Professional photographers divide any picture with three vertical and three horizontal lines like this:

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Where those lines meet forms four ‘power points’. These four places are where you should put your point of interest. This is the difference from amateur photographers who point their subject in the middle. Using the four power points creates interest and tension in the picture.

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Where the man dominates we see his face is near one power point.

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Where the woman dominates we see his face is near another power point.

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In the original we see how both faces are near a power point, the diagonally opposite power points in fact. There is a clear balance. This is why this photograph is nice to look at.

We can use faces and the rule of threes to make powerful slides. This is a slide I use when talking about how abdominal pain in the elderly has an 8 times increased mortality.

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Once we see a face on the slide our eyes follow wherever that face is looking. So we look at this man’s face and then follow his gaze. We can move him so his eye falls on a power point.

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We can then follow his gaze with an arrow and make sure the ‘8x’ is in line and on another power point.

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This creates a slide designed to have impact and be easy to follow.

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In Step Two we put the audience first, second and third. Part of this was to find out where we would be presenting. There is no excuse to have slides that not all your audience can see.

A tip is to look at your slide deck. If you can’t see your slides on the slide deck then your audience won’t be able to see them if you’re in a big hall.

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Garr Reynolds (Presentation Zen) has a brilliant page covering more about visuals in presentations.

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Luckily there’s never been more ways of finding brilliant images. Here’s a few I use:

Pixabay (free)

Unsplash (free)

Pexels (free)

Shutterstock (subscription)

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There’s a reason road signs are in mostly lower case and not capitals. That’s because we don’t read words letter by letter. We read them as a shape.

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If all your letters are capital and the same size you can’t read the ‘shape’ of the word and have to read letter by letter. Use lowercase letters and it makes your words easier for your audience to read and follow and reduces their cognitive load.
For more on the discussion of fonts in presentation there’s a great page by Ross Fisher.

Remember when we started using PowerPoint in school? We’d add sound effects and spinning words and fancy slide transitions. It was annoying then. It’s still annoying. Don’t use them. They distract and might cost you respect/ethos.

Pictures have power. Use them wisely.

dump the data don't data dump

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A very common reason for presenting is to show the results of an audit, or a piece of research. We’ve all sat in those presentations. We’ll have done them ourselves. This very often leads to a slide like this:

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What do we say? “Sorry for this busy slide, I’ll talk you through it.” No. Don’t apologise. if you have to apologise for a slide don’t have it. Just as with any presentation this is about who your audience is, what your message is and how best to tell your story. This kind of slide doesn’t consider your audience at all, it allows your message to be lost and is a terrible way to tell a story. This comes back to presenting like Lego men, about just throwing all your information on one slide and relying on our slides.

We have to simplify. Dump the data, don’t data dump.

Look at this pie chart. Which is biggest? D? E? You can have a hunch but you won’t know for certain. You’ll reading a blog, you’re not an audience member at the mercy of a presenter who at any moment might click to the next slide.

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Even if you put values you still need to read round to compare with the others to find the biggest.

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This graph uses the exact same data as the pie charts. Immediately you can tell that D is biggest. Less than one second and the meaning is clear. D is biggest.

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Remember to pick your message. I made this slide to showcase a made up drug and the common mistakes of data presentation. It shows a table with far too much information. And a graph. What does the presenter say? “Don’t worry, I’ll talk you through it.” And they use a red box to highlight the point that this brand new wonder drug halves mortality. If that is the message make that the focus.

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There. Mortality down 50%. No ambiguity. No audience lost. The message is clear and the slides help you show it.

But what if someone in the audience wants more data? Remember Step Three. You’ll have written a blog, or published a report or put the data into a Dropbox or Google Drive. Signpost your audience there. This isn’t about dumping data this is about presenting your message. My message is that drug halves mortality. If you want more data you can find it here.

Dump the data, don’t data dump.

stand on the shoulders of giants

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“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”

Sir Isaac Newton

Since I’ve been working in education I’ve been fascinated with how we can best educate. When it comes to presenting I don’t think there is one single ‘right way to do it’ and I certainly don’t think I’m the font of all knowledge. But I think presenting is a skill like any other and just as we practice evidence based medicine so we should practice evidence based presenting.

Part of that is to look at those who have gone before to help us.

Garr Reynolds (Presentation Zen) has long blogged and published on the subject and should be essential reading for any presentationalist.

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Active observation of TED talks is another easily accessibly way to improve our skills especially if you can find a talk on a similar topic to yours. One talk which changed how I look at story telling is from Nancy Duarte on sparklines.


Ross Fisher (@ffoillet) is a surgeon who has done a lot of work to spread the message of improving presentations through the ‘p cubed’ model. His website is essential reading.

PowerPoint kills. The work of Edward Tufte, Professor Emeritus at Yale, looking at NASA’s use of PowerPoint and how it perpetuated errors which kills the Columbia astronauts is an eye opening reminder of why blinding putting up slides kills communication.

For resources on educational theory and the best way to prepare a teaching session The Learning Scientists are brilliant.

Look to your educators. These can be famous, two who spring to mind in particular for me are Sir David Attenborough and Professor Brian Cox. Both manage to convey passion and inspire their audience. Both also manage to make potentially difficult subject matters accessible and emotive. These skills are vital for any presentationalist.

But your role models could also be the people you work with and whom you see in action every day.

Notice the good and the bad in other people’s presenting as you would in any aspect of their work. Follow what’s good, lose what isn’t. Do the same for yourself. Get feedback. Keep the good, lose the bad.

don't present, perform

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We all remember our favourite teacher. That really inspirational educator. Imagine them in your mind’s eye now. I bet they all had a few things in common: quiet, monotone voice, no engagement, the amazing ability to send you off to sleep…

What? They didn’t? Funny that.

The presentationalist puts their audience first, second and third. They know that means conveying passion and engaging your audience. A common answer to that is, “well, I’m not outgoing”. I know what you mean, when we imagine someone performing and grabbing an audience we tend to visualise something like this:


Except that Freddie Mercury was actually very shy and cultivated his stage persona bit by bit to help him perform. But even if you don’t think you could ever do that with all the practise in the world have a look at this performance:

Make no mistake, this is a performance. It’s education. It’s a man sat down with no supportive media at all and he manages to hold the whole room, including Hollywood actors, in the palm of his hand just through sheer passion for a subject. He’s telling a story. He cares. So you care. And now you know about how rhinos do dummy charges.

There isn’t only one way to do presentations. The right way is the way that helps you give your message with passion.

So when we present we have to approach it like a performance. This isn’t about just standing there and nervously reading our some bullet points on a screen. If we view it like a performance we can change the way we approach it.

We take to the stage having practised. We know exactly what we’re going to say when we’re going to say it. We have our slides but they’re only there to help. We could actually do the presentation without them. If we can show we care then our audience will care and the rest will flow.

Don’t be held back. Don’t hide behind the lectern. With a USB slide clicker suddenly you have a wand in you hand controlling the slides and you’re free.

My presentation gear. Kensington USB slide clicker, VGA adaptor and bag.

My presentation gear. Kensington USB slide clicker, VGA adaptor and bag.

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There’s a reason why no matter how many times you’ve driven your car you don’t get any closer to being an F1 driver. Deliberate practice is the model for improving at a skill to become an ‘expert’. This involves focused instruction on particular aspects of a performance. Just presenting many times again and again may make you feel happier but to become truly skilled this involves a presentation buddy acting as a coach. They watch your performance, they give feedback, you use that to develop.

Deliberate practice is a highly structured activity, the explicit goal of which is to improve performance. Specific tasks are invented to overcome weaknesses, and performance is carefully monitored to provide cues for ways to improve it further. Through deliberate practice we can get better at any skill. Presenting is a skill. It must be practised deliberately.

Use your presentation buddy. Practice your talk. Be able to do it without slides. Be able to do it blindfolded. Know what you’re going to say and how you’re going to say it.

If your slides are in Keynote will it play in the room? Does it have internet? Make sure your slides are in the right format and that any videos etc will work.

Get a good night sleep the day before your talk. Watch presenters before you. Get a feel for the room and the audience. Enjoy the experience.

Ey oh.

the end is the beginning

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“That was my presentation". Thank you for your time. Any questions?”

And breathe. Job done right? Wrong.

A brilliant presentation is actually the beginning. Remember, you’re Yoda not Luke. Your presentation is an iceberg not the whole. A presentation should inspire your audience to want to know more about your subject.

Your talk is the start of a journey.

Make them want to know more. Show them how to do it.

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Have a blog, a podcast, an article, a document on Dropbox or Google Drive. Something for your audience to go to learn more about your message. Set up a Slideshare account. Get your talk on social media. Share.

The trouble with sharing links is that they are often unwieldy, something like https://mcdreeamiemusings.com/new-blog/2019/4/8/yxssy4hghadxdjtbs50gvil8duwhlb

If you have a link, make it snappy. There are a number of custom URL sites which give you a personalised link. I like TinyURL.com. Using them I was able to make the link https://tinyurl.com/presentationalist to then share to make it easier to find this blog site.

slides ≠ presentation

audience, audience, audience

pick your message

be a storyteller

who, what, how

1 picture > 1000 words

dump the data, don’t data dump

stand on the shoulders of giants

don’t present, perform

the end is the beginning

There isn’t only one way to do a presentation. But what I hope is that through these principles, and an evidence based approach, we can all improve the way we present.

I hope this has inspired you. Please keep in touch @mcdreeamie on Twitter and use the hashtag #iamapresentationalist. Let’s keep this going. 300 million PowerPoint presentations a day are delivered. There’s a way to go but we can do it.

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