The 4 C's of Effective PowerPoint or Keynote Slide Design - rocketMBA
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The 4 C’s of Effective PowerPoint or Keynote...

The 4 C’s of Effective PowerPoint or Keynote Slide Design

Two months ago I had the honor to give a guest lecture on slide design at the Stanford GSB as part of the MBA class “Strategic Communication”. In this lecture, that was mostly a workshop, I have introduced the 4 C’s that I believe make great PowerPoint and Keynote slides. Effective slides are 1. Consistent, 2. Clean, 3. Clear and 4. Creative.

The 4 C's of Slide Design by Daniel Kob

In this post I will give an overview of what aspects these 4 C’s entail. Stay tuned for future parts covering specific aspects in detail with examples, and step by step tutorials. Let’s begin with the first C:

1. Consistent

The best brands in the world create a great, memorable and authentic customer experience because everything they do is consistent and reinforces the same ideas, values and emotions. If you have ever been to a Disney theme park, you probably have noted how they managed to create this perfect parallel world – the rides, the characters, the landscaping, the restaurants, the shops, the souvenirs, the music, the shows … everything is consistent. How that relates to your PowerPoint slides? Great slide decks are also consistent: Presentations should follow the same design guidelines every time, and the design guidelines should be consistent with the corporate or brand identity. This includes:

  • Fonts – Which Fonts do you use for headlines, text body, objects etc.? What font sizes do you use for the different elements on a slide? How do you format your text where (underline, bold, italics; line and character spacing; style of bullet points)?
  • Colors – What colors do you use for the slide background, text, objects, tables etc.?
  • Slide Layout – Do you use the same (standardized) layouts to display information, e.g. agendas, lists, comparisons, tables?
  • Design of Tables, Diagrams and Objects – Are you using lines, fillings, shadows or other effects consistently? Are your Diagrams and Objects 2D or 3D? Do you use round corners for objects?
  • Image Language – Do the photos on your slides represent your brand well? Are you mostly using clean product shots, action shots, ambient shots? Are the environment and people shown (if any) consistent with your customer and their lifestyle? Are the colors bright and saturated or lighter and less saturated?

The best way to achieve consistency for the first four aspects is to use templates. If you don’t have your own template yet or one provided by your organization, you can easily set up a template from scratch. We will go into all the details in a future post.

2. Clean

You don’t need to be a designer to build effective slides. The fastest and easiest way to improve most slides, is to clean them up and remove anything that distracts or confuses the audience or just creates visual ‘noise’. Here are four ways to clean your slides up:

  • Reduce the amount of text – Slides are supposed to illustrate the points you are making, they are not supposed to cover word by word what you are saying. Your audience can read faster than you can speak, so keep their attention by only having the most essential information on your slides. If the presentation is also supposed to serve as a document your audience can refer to before or after a meeting, create two different slide decks. A handout that contains all relevant information and can be understood without you and a presentation that visually supports your talk but doesn’t replace it.
  • De-clutter diagrams – If you use any form of diagram (bar chart, pie chart etc.), de-clutter it by deleting everything that (depending on the diagram) might not be needed, such as legends, axises, grid lines or chart titles. I also prefer 2D over 3D diagrams, since they are much easier to grasp, and I usually don’t use outlines for diagrams; just fill colors.
  • Use minimal effects – On a similar note, avoid over-using all the special effects PowerPoint has to offer such as shadows, gradients, glows, reflections, 3D rotations etc. For shapes (such as rectangles, circles etc.) I usually just use a fill color and no outline color. For images I tend to use no effects, shadows, reflections etc. – just a fine outline in a neutral color depending on the background color.
  • Align and distribute objects – If you have multiple objects that need to be arranged on a slide, use the Align and Distribute functions (select all the items, click on Arrange > Align) to align them and distribute them evenly.

3. Clear

Every slide in your presentation should have a clear message. Your audience shouldn’t need to interpret the data presented on the slide and come to their own conclusion. Make it crystal clear to them. Here is how:

  • One thought per slide – Refrain from putting multiple thoughts or ideas on one slide as much as you can. You want to keep your audience’s attention with you and the current point you are making, not the last or next one. So, instead of having three or five bullet points – and as a result a pretty dense slide – having three or five slides with only one succinct thought each often works much better. You can still have a summary slide if needed.
  • Talking headlines – The headline of a slide is your place to summarize the key message of a slide in an active and engaging way. Especially when your slides show data or diagrams, guide your audience by putting the conclusion at the top of the chart. So instead of “Sales” write “U.S. sales have increased by 24% in 2016” or whatever your chart is illustrating.
  • Build complicated slides – If you are presenting information in the form of a diagram, a flow chart or some other complex visualization, build the visualization as you talk. Use simple animations (such as “Appear”) or multiple slides for that.
  • Highlight what is important – Whether you are using text, diagrams or images to visualize what you are saying, guide your audience by highlighting the crucial pieces of information. Color or bold a word in a sentence, use a different fill color for the bar or pie piece in diagram, and circle or mask a specific portion of an image.
  • Make it easy to follow you – In order to not lose your audience in a longer presentation, help them see the structure and the progress by either using a rolling agenda (an agenda chart that you show at every major transition with the next topic highlighted), chapter dividers (charts announcing the next chapter) or breadcrumbs (a small navigation on each slide with the current location being highlighted).

4. Creative

You might have realized that everything I have listed so far, doesn’t really require any design talent or a creative eye. If you just follow the first three steps alone, your presentation will be more effective than the majority of slide decks I have seen in my career so far. I’ll keep this last point rather short and follow-up with more posts and examples in the future, so for now just the three major ways to make your slides more creative:

  • Turn thoughts into images – Depending on the context and the audience, using a great photo can be far more powerful to make your point than writing it out. If you use photos to illustrate your presentation, having high-quality, high-resolution and modern photos is key. No one wants to see cliparts, low-resolution images, pictures you ‘sourced’ from Google Image Search or cliche stock photos (that handshake photo). There are many commercial sources for fantastic photos; but if you want to start with a great resource for free photos (many of which you will find in this blog) go to pixabay.com. All photos there are free and don’t require attribution.
  • Use bold typography  – Having a big statement or a statistic on a slide (usually without a headline) can be as powerful as an image. If you need some new, modern looking fonts, have a look at fonts.google.com and dafont.com. Make sure, though, that whatever fonts you use are also installed on the computer you use to give your presentation. Also, experiment with the character spacing, i.e., the space between the letters of a word. Often designers would decrease or increase the character spacing to layout text in a more modern or classy looking way. To do that, highlight the text, click on Format > Font … and then pick the Character Spacing tab. Change the Spacing to Expanded or Condensed and experiment with the points value.
  • Explain concepts with infographics – A lot of magazines and newspapers and many websites nowadays use infographics to illustrate complicated concepts. In a presentation, infographics can sometimes be far more effective than a lengthy text explanation and definitely more engaging to look at. To build my own infographics I typically use a combination of shapes and icons. My favorite resource for icons is thenounproject.com (attribution or payment required). Download the files as PNGs, add them to your slides and you can recolor them by clicking on them, then going on the Picture Format tab, click on Color and pick the color you want. As a starter, here are three ways you can create contrast with icons: big icon vs small icon, partially color an icon, or color some of multiple icons (such as 6 out of 10).

This was an overview of my 4 C’s of Effective Slide Design. Stay tuned for more posts about how to design great presentations with examples, resources and HowTos. Sign up below to not miss a future post!


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Before graduating from Stanford GSB with an MBA in 2016, Dan worked more than five years in media and communications. Dan grew up in Germany and now lives in Los Angeles where he enjoys being surrounded by more beaches, culture and coffee shops than one can ask for. He currently works as Entrepreneur in Residence at different properties of media company Bertelsmann.

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