It’s hard to believe that it is already time for the traditional academic year to begin. It seems like commencement was yesterday, but instead this week marks new student orientation and preparing to teach my first class of the fall semester on Monday. Unlike the common perception that faculty really don’t do much during the summer, I averaged one trip per week for research and meetings, taught a class, and tried to do as much writing as possible while still taking a few days off.
All of this meant that I spent a lot of time preparing and watching presentations. There was tremendous variety in presentations, with some being wonderful and some being not so wonderful. And I am particularly sensitive to how presentations are conducted, as I have a hard time with small font and weak color contrasts. (I had two eye surgeries as a child, and sudden motion and depth perception have always been an issue for me.)
My visual limitations aside, nearly every person presenting information to a professional audience would benefit from trying to keep their slides as simple as possible. I offer a few recommendations in this post.
(1) Prepare slides for a challenging audiovisual setup. I always advise my students to prepare for any presentation as if they will be in a large room with a small projector screen. While presenters will sometimes know the room they are using well, in many cases they will be walking into an unknown situation. Making sure that slides can be easily read in the back of a large room is far better than having people unable to read your slides because the font is too small. (After all, people tend to gravitate to the back of the room for most presentations!)
(2) Don’t overload slides with text. Novice presenters often compensate for their nervousness by putting everything they want to say on the slide—and then reading off of it. When the audience sees lots of information on a slide, their inclination is to try to read through it as quickly as possible in case the presenter goes on to the next slide. This results in nobody paying attention to the presenter—and everyone starting to pay attention to their phones instead.
(3) Think about colorblindness and other vision issues. Another concern to consider is whether your audience members will be able to see your text or graphics as intended. Color blindness affects millions of Americans, which can make a number of colors look similar. A classic example of this that I use in my teaching came from a game that the New York (ahem, New Jersey) Jets and Buffalo Bills played with all-green versus all-red uniforms. Color-blind viewers couldn’t tell which team was which. (Here is a resource to check your slides for color contrast issues.) I also think of my wonderful friend and Temple University economist Doug Webber, who is legally blind. I struggle with reading slides more than most people, but my goal is to have slides that can be read by nearly everyone.
(4) There is no need for fancy transitions or dancing clip art. I grew up with that dancing Microsoft Office paper clip of the 1990s, and I was not at all sad to see Clippy hit the unemployment line during the recession of 2001. Clip art like Clippy never served a useful purpose and only serves to distract people at best and scramble their circuits at the worst. Prezi slide presentations are the exact same thing—the sudden and violent transitions make me physically ill and they add no value to presentations. A solid presenter can make people pay attention to their words instead of their (not-so) stunning visuals.
(5) If possible, raise concerns about readability of slides. Presenters usually make their slides while sitting close to a computer screen, which makes slides much easier to read than they are for most audience members. And unless someone has vision issues or a close friend with vision issues, they have probably never considered the accessibility of their slides. This means that someone has to tell them that there are issues with their slides. As a newly-tenured faculty member, I am perfectly comfortable going directly to the presenter and sharing my concerns, but junior people may wish to go to someone else who can speak to the presenter.
Finally, I remind my students that the bar to clear to give a competent presentation in higher education is reasonably low (after all, most people are socially awkward like me). By keeping slides simple and trying to deliver a few key messages reasonably well, presenters will look quite good even when they don’t feel fully confident in their abilities.