my thoughts on slide deck design (what are yours?)

I wrote a comment on Cindi’s post about slide sets at ALA TechSource which you may never see there, because their spam filter is hyperactive and insane. Why does it hate me so? Whatever. I’m posting it here:

But the most effective slide decks cannot be effectively uncoupled from the talks that they accompany without additional work.

Oh, so happy to see someone talk about this. I want to get a SlideShare account, really. But when I design slides, they are so tightly coupled with the audience and the things I intend to say when I present them that they just don’t stand on their own. And whenever I think about the amount of work it would take to put them on SlideShare with enough context that they would make sense…ugh.

I’m really interested in others’ thoughts on this, actually. Do you make different slide sets for SlideShare/your web site/etc. versus the version for the talk? Do you design slides differently if you know before the talk that you intend to upload them? Do you just put up whatever you used for the talk and if it doesn’t make a lot of sense on their own there’s still some benefit to you in doing so because…um…[fill in the blank; I have no idea]?

I have mixed feelings on the whole minimal-text, gripping-image thing that’s the trend these days, though. I mean, yes, text-heavy slides are evil, bullet points are not meant to be complete sentences, etc. Totally with you there. But the strongly image-oriented thing seems to have this implicit idea that talks are meant to be emotionally gripping, but not necessarily analytically so. The Twitter of slide sets, if you will — brief, punchy, thought-provoking, but not necessarily in-depth. There are times that’s the right kind of talk, but it isn’t always.

And also for me…I’m such a visual thinker. I don’t process the voiceover parts of a talk well unless the speaker is unusually charismatic, and if I depart at all for my own thought process I lose the thread of the talk and it’s hard to get it back. So for me, having some amount of text on the slides is tremendously helpful. Not much — if there’s too much text I will spend all my time reading it and I won’t hear the speaker at all — but enough to give me a basic outline that helps me contextualize what the speaker is saying and lets me find the thread of the talk again if I have wandered off on my own tangents. Pictures, since their connection to the talk is typically more emotional or entertaining than analytical, don’t do that for me.

My slides are definitely more pictorial than they used to be, but I can’t see myself getting away from using text as a structural/outlining element. Too useful to me both as an audience member and as a creator.

Dear readers: talk to me. What are your thoughts about slide deck design?

9 thoughts on “my thoughts on slide deck design (what are yours?)

  1. My first thought is, you don’t have to choose between “graphical” and “analytical”! Statistical graphics of actual data relevant to your point are, I’d argue, obligatory if you are actually dealing with data.

    I have spent the last decade or so in a world where “analysis” means quantitative data, almost exclusively. It’s entirely possible that this isn’t true in every culture where you’d be needing a set of slides!


    1. Yeah, I encounter very little quantitative these days ;). I mean analytical as a frame of mind or habit of thought or story-organizing principle here, not a research methodology.


  2. I’m not familiar with the term “slide deck”, though I can see that it’s a reasonable one. In any case, the subject is important, and I wish that people got more training in how to design talks well (ideally based on measured data). With that in mind, I just recently came across the following “assertion-evidence” structure for slide/talk design:

    I haven’t tested it yet myself, but it looks pretty good to my eye with a nice interplay of text and visuals. They claim to have at least some actual data on effectiveness (though I don’t entirely buy that the cited experiment was a fair test).


    1. Hm, interesting.

      I’m finding it hard to resonate with this link, and then I realize it’s the same thing I am always ranting about when it comes to library services — that different disciplines use libraries in very different ways, and that that’s something that needs to be kept in mind when talking about service design, policy, etc. (My math-major and classics-major selves are totally whipsawed by thinking about “how one interacts with the library” — and my math-major side was always having to raise contrarian arguments when my classmates, who are overwhelmingly from English & history backgrounds, talked about How People Use The Library like it’s universal. Of course, my classics-major side gets into a similar-but-opposite argument with software people…)

      So yeah. This design has the implicit assumption that the reason people give talks is to advance an argument which is centered in some sort of hypothesis and data. Which is certainly a reason people give talks, but it doesn’t characterize most of the talks I see in libraryland. (Those are more likely to be either advancing theories/ideas, or discussing practice.)

      The idea of metrizing slide effectiveness is fascinating, though, and one I’ve never seen before (even though now that you mention it, isn’t it obvious there should be more of that? huh).


  3. Great post, Andromeda. Sorry about the comment filter–I hope we can improve that soon!

    Yes, you make a great point, that the visuals that accompany a talk should be driven by the purpose of that talk. I really like the comment that you make about being a visual learner; would the perfect set of slides resonate with all types of learners? What would that look like? *That’s* the $64,000 question…


    1. I should note that, for all that I think I’m kind of a visual learner, I’m highly skeptical of a lot of learning styles theory and I think it’s overplayed…but people *do* seem to preferentially process material in different ways (and, of course, as a teacher I’ve met people with auditory processing or nonverbal learning disabilities).

      Which is preface to saying: I don’t really think about it in terms of the perfect slide deck, because I don’t think about producing slide decks; I think about producing presentations. Ideally the text, images, voiceover, personality, and body language all reinforce each other, to create a message that’s stronger than the sum of its parts and that, moreover, reinforces content in different modalities, so the people who zoned out on one of them still have the thread of the thing.

      This, of course, is why I find it utterly impossible to think about putting my presentations on SlideShare; there’s just too much content in my presentations that isn’t in the slide set. The slides reinforce what I’m saying and vice versa, the slides are organized along the lines of my argument or lesson, but they don’t necessarily contain enough context to be comprehensible alone. Were I designing slides from scratch for an Internet setting, they’d be very different (and much more text-heavy or note-enriched, to provide that context).

      Thanks for commenting!


  4. “Ideally the text, images, voiceover, personality, and body language all reinforce each other, to create a message that’s stronger than the sum of its parts and that, moreover, reinforces content in different modalities, so the people who zoned out on one of them still have the thread of the thing.”


    I put presentations on slideshare knowing that it’s only part of the picture, but with the hope that attendees might find them useful. Perhaps non-attendees will get inspiration from the way I’ve designed things…


    1. So I’m really curious about the slideshare thing. Do you put the presentations up exactly as-is? Do you add some notes for context? Do you think non-attendees can understand the content much or that they’re mostly useful to them as design exemplars? I’m going to have to go find your slideshare now…


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