On memorable presentations

Posted by Katie McLaughlin on July 17, 2016

Content warning: sarcasm and ranting

I gave my first presentation over 20 years ago. I’m from a generation where one of the tools we were taught in primary school was Microsoft PowerPoint 95.

I specifically recall the version of PowerPoint the school had installed by default on the machines because of one presentation we had to make. PowerPoint 95 had WordArt, and basic transitions. So you can imagine a group of ~10 year olds wanting to get all into the Rainbow WordArt zooming across the page. Back then, that was “state of the art” (and come on, we were 10). However, one kid didn’t have PowerPoint 95. They had access to PowerPoint 97, by way of a techie parent. I know this because they had a 3D-Rotation transition for their WordArt, a feature that wasn’t in PowerPoint 95.

And here’s the thing: I cannot for the life of me remember what the presentation was about, I just remember that transition effect.

When I see a talk, I go to see a talk. Your slides aren’t what I’m there to see; I can see them online later. I’m there to see you. I want to remember what information you’re sharing. You use your slides to accentuate your talk, if you use slides at all. You can have words on your slides, you can have pictures, but it needs to be visible, and it needs to be helpful. A single slide full of code isn’t going to help me when I’m in the back of the room. A slide of dotpoints could be better served as your speakernotes, not what I’m having to read. Use what you want to accent your point, but don’t make that be the only thing I remember from your presentation.

I want to remember what you shared, not your slides.

But here’s the rub. I have seen so many talks that I have somehow acquired an ability to generally guess how old a talk is based on the slides themselves. It’s kinda like carbon-dating, but for style choices:

  • A deck that looks like the old Windows Setup white text on blue with serif italic font? Late 90’s - early 200’s
  • Lobster Font? 2013
  • Default reveal.js, with 3D-rotating transitions and with the arrows still showing? Current day
  • Lato? 2014

Of course, this isn’t an exact science. Some people use the same style of deck of many years, and some people don’t realise they have a choice of other default reveal.js themes to choose from.

But the fact that I’m noticing this and not your message means that there’s a lack of communication happening somewhere.