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How to Make a Good Presentation Great (Part 2): Designing the Slide Deck

This is the second of a three-part series about how to make a good presentation great. Read the first part about generating and organizing your ideas.


“As you can see on this slide, research suggests that it would be more efficient to ask what services you’re able to provide to your country, as opposed to inquiring about your country’s unique selling proposition, or USP, as it relates to your professional needs.”

—John F. Kennedy, never


Somehow, humans survived thousands of years of civilization without PowerPoint or Google Slides and yet still achieved some impressive things.

But I wonder: Would Leonardo Da Vinci’s most outlandish inventions have been turned into reality if he’d gone on a speaking tour with a medieval slide deck? Could a professional conference have launched the Enlightenment 100 years sooner? Could PowerPoint have helped us sidestep the Great Depression?

Many presentations don’t need a slide deck. But designed well, a slide deck can transform your ideas into usable tactics and make them more memorable. Whether you build it in Google Slides, PowerPoint, Keynote, or Prezi, certain slide deck design rules apply. Here they are.

Slide Deck Rule #1: Give Your Presentation a Shape

The best plays have a shape—a clever mix of short scenes and long scenes, dramatic scenes and funny scenes, scenes with a dozen characters and scenes with only two.

Playwrights understand that audiences, while generous with their praise, have their limits. You must shift gears now and then to keep the crowd on the edge of their seats. If a play or musical keeps the same “tone” for too long, or if every scene is the same length, or if every song is the same rhythm, the audience will fidget and forget.

If it were somehow mapped on a chart, a good presentation would look like a thrilling roller coaster: a high peak followed by three tiny ones, then a loopty-loop followed by a medium drop, then another biggie, and so on.

Good presenters always have something new up their sleeve. They keep their audience wondering—anticipating—what’s next. (Bad presenters barely acknowledge that there is an audience at all, let alone one full of living, feeling, easily distracted humans.)

The shape of your presentation is up to you. It will depend on your topic, content, time limit, personal style, etc. Your presentation’s shape will change as you enhance and improve the talk. But whether it’s a five-minute “ignite talk” or a 90-minute fact-heavy workshop, give your presentation contours and changes of direction. It’s more fun for everyone—including you.

Slide Deck Design Rule #2: Keep the Average Words Per Slide Under 20

Once you have a working draft of your slide deck, perform this simple math equation:

1. Get a word count (slides text only, not speaker notes)

2. Divide the word count by the total number of slides (not counting your title or outro slides)

This is your average words per slide.

If your average words-per-slide is greater than 20, edit until it drops below 20.

After reviewing more than a dozen of the presentations Mighty Citizen has built and delivered (to high audience satisfaction scores, I might add), it seems that 20 is something of a magic number.

But note, many of your slides will have zero words. The more wordless slides you have—i.e., images only—the more words you can use elsewhere. That said, don’t ever include more than 40 words on one slide. You want attendees listening to you, not reading around you.

Slide Deck Design Rule #3: The Four Slides Every Great Presentation Needs


1: Personal Info

Don’t be shy. At a minimum, this slide should include your name, organization name, job title, and email address.

But you can flesh it out further—and make it more fun—by offering some personal or professional trivia. (I list a few industries I worked in before and how long I’ve been in this professional field.)

It can feel awkward to introduce yourself, but it serves two important purposes. First, you get credit for your work. Second, you bolster your credibility and establish your bona fides by answering the question, “Why should I listen to this person?”

2: Agenda

Your agenda slide should be titled, “By the end of this session, you should be able to…”

This framing implies that once you’re done talking, the audience will have changed in some specific way: they can do something new.

Add no more than five bullet points. Each one should begin with an action verb—e.g., “perform” or “create” or “identify.”

3: Summary (or Takeaways)

Tell them what you’re going to tell them. Tell them. Then tell them what you told them.

When you craft this important “summary” slide, don’t try to recreate everything you just spent 45 minutes discussing. Instead, list the most important and specific things you want your audience to remember. Phrase these bullet points as actionable or insightful. Give them the concrete highlights.

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4. A Coda or Final Story

There’s a cognitive bias known as the peak-end rule. It says that humans remember experiences based largely on how they felt at the end of the experience. The peak-end rule explains why you can spend 30 minutes blissfully listening to a recording of a Mahler symphony but remember the experience as annoying if the record scratches in the last five seconds.

End your presentation with something new, surprising, and inevitable. Usually, this will be a story of some sort—one that illustrates the thesis you’ve been building on throughout your presentation. Another technique is to start your presentation with a mystery of some sort and then solve/wrap-up the mystery at the end. Bring it full circle.

Whatever your final moment, leave them delighted and inspired.

Slide Deck Design Rule #4: Add Notes in Notes, Not on the Slide

If you look at one of my slide decks, you’ll notice only 25% of the slides have text. The remainder are images, more or less. If I send a copy of my deck to an audience member after my talk, about 3/4 of the slides are useless without notes.

After all, simply seeing these (actual) slides …

This slide is from the presentation titled “Storytelling for Impact” by Mighty Citizen.

… doesn’t give that audience member any context or tactical info. For the slide above, the notes read:

You are told to imagine the Eiffel Tower. At the same time, we’ve aimed a high-definition camera on you. We notice as you imagine the Eiffel Tower that you looked up ever so slightly—as if you were actually looking up at the tower. This is further proof that the human mind is a powerful simulation machine. Imagining doing something is almost as real, from your brain’s perspective, as actually doing that thing.

I’ve added notes to every slide that doesn’t speak for itself. The notes are included in any version of the deck I send to audience members as a PDF. (This usually means selecting “Print with Notes” from PowerPoint.)

Slide Deck Design Rule #5: Use Animation Carefully

As a “corporate communication” major in college in the early 2000s, I had to take two classes on PowerPoint. Two. It was much simpler software back then, but we were all instantly taken by the animation options. You could make words blink in, fly in, or bounce in. It was the closest we’d ever come to being video game designers.

Slide deck animation giveth, and slide deck animation taketh away. Used too liberally—which is easy to do—animation can distract and confuse.

In the intervening two decades, I’ve learned an important lesson: Slide deck animation giveth, and slide deck animation taketh away. Used too liberally—which is easy to do—animation can distract and confuse.

So in short, use it sparingly. In general, I think there are two instances when animation makes sense:

  • When you want to reveal bullet points individually, allowing you to discuss each one before proceeding to the next. You don’t want people reading ahead.
  • When you want to reveal something surprising.

For example, in my presentation “Storytelling for Impact,” I describe a semi-famous sociological experiment that demonstrates the power of storytelling. In the experiment, a reporter sells items on eBay accompanied by professionally written stories. I ask the audience how much they think the items sold for. They never guess high enough, so when I use animation to let the final price appear on screen, they’re shocked and amused.

Beyond these two instances when animation can be a powerful effect, animation should be looked at suspiciously.

And no matter what you do, don’t let your words bounce on to the screen; that’s the equivalent of using Comic Sans font.

Pro Tip: How to Convert the Audience Right There in the Room

You’re speaking at a conference, in part, to expand your network—to gain contacts you can connect with later. However, getting email addresses from your audience can be tricky. Many conferences won’t share their attendees’ contact info with you.

But there is a way!

On one of the last slides, list your cell phone number along with the message: “Text your email address to get the slides!”

You’ll notice plenty of people in the crowd pulling out their smartphones and texting you. When we do this, we get a minimum of 20-25% response rate. (In an audience of 200, you’ll get at least 40 emails.)

Email them the slide deck, and maybe some additional freebies, right away, within 24 hours, while your session is top of mind. Don’t make a sales pitch. Just say, “Thanks for coming, here are your free slides.”

Thanks for reading. Here are your free slides.

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