Tips for Designing Persuasive Slide Presentations

by Ph. D.

Just about everyone who has spent any amount of time in the corporate world has watched someone give a slide presentation that put the whole audience to sleep. Many of us were taught to follow a familiar model of designing presentations that, unfortunately, does not sustain attention or understanding.

You know the type I mean — the text-heavy, bullet point-crammed slides, often covered with dense charts and detailed diagrams that can't possibly be read even at close range, much less from across the room. Throw in a heavy lunch, deliver it in mid-afternoon, and voila! You have a recipe for a coma!

The sad part about presentations like these is that the most valuable information gets distorted, buried, or simply discarded. Between the poor design of the visuals and the lack of story-telling flair, we can make it nearly impossible for our audiences to grasp and retain the meaning of what we're trying to convey.

To help remedy the situation, this article discusses presentation design tips and techniques that can boost your audience's ability to interpret and respond to your proposals, concerns, analyses, and ideas.

How Can We Improve Presentation Design?

The presentations we create must be "high-impact" to get attention, but also "low-bandwidth" in terms of the effort and brain-power required to process them. When we communicate with simple, clearly designed messages, people will more readily:

  • Retain the information
  • Retrieve it from memory under the right circumstances, and
  • Take action on it in the way you intended

Presentation design principles come to the rescue by:

  • Easing the burden on the viewer's brain by reducing the information processing load.
  • Working within the limitations of short-term memory.
  • Using several other extensively researched principles of perception and learning.

Studies published in 1956 by George Miller indicated that our short-term memories can handle about "7 plus or minus 2" chunks of information at a time. Nearly 50 years later, however, Nelson Cowan revisited Miller's and others' studies. After looking a host of new research in 2001, he discovered that we're really only capable of assimilating about 3-4 chunks of information at once. That's not very much processing power!

What exactly do these limitations mean for our presentations?

We Need to Go "Beyond Bullet Points"

Cliff Atkinson is a master of presentation design. His articles, presentations, and newly updated book, Beyond Bullet Points: Using Microsoft Office PowerPoint 2007 to Create Presentations That Inform, Motivate, and Inspire, will completely alter your previous beliefs about using text-based slide shows.

Book cover: Beyond Bullet Points by Cliff Atkinson

Atkinson has pondered PowerPoint presentations with the same zeal and thoroughness that aspiring surgeons have studied anatomy. His findings may surprise you...

Did you know that you can actually reduce your audience's understanding of your material by using slide presentation templates that bear your company logo and identification? (That's because these elements can distract attention from the main content.)

Or that the use of mostly text-based slides, without any illustrations or meaningful organization, can overwhelm short term memory, working against the audience's ability to successfully process, store, and retrieve the material?

Atkinson cites research by Dr. Richard E. Mayer (see Mayer's Multimedia Learning) and others who have experimented with the phenomenon of cognitive overload.

For example, Dr. Mayer found that by simply adding relevant illustrations to text-only presentation materials, learners experienced the following benefits:

  • Retention increased by 23%, and
  • Their ability to later apply the information increased by 89%.

Likewise, even more dramatically, Mayer found that by simplifying the material — which meant removing everything that wasn't directly related to the discussion:

  • Retention increased by 189%, and
  • The ability to later apply the information increased by 105%!

This last finding provides a powerful incentive to avoid including graphics or multimedia effects simply for the sake of including them. If you want the audience to retain the information, less is more. That means incorporating only the graphics that closely relate to your content, and removing all extraneous, distracting details — including company logos.

In contrast, if you simply want to entertain your audiences without worrying about retention, you could potentially go crazy with special effects!

Use a Simple, Graphical, Story-Telling Approach

Drawing on all of this research, Atkinson proposes an entirely different model for presentations. His method emphasizes a cinematic storyboard technique, rich but concise imagery, and verbal narration. He asserts that in order to convey our ideas convincingly, we should apply a movie metaphor to craft a compelling visual and auditory narrative — not an endless stream of bullet-point lists.

Atkinson believes that to help people make informed decisions about complex topics, we need to "blend one part storytelling, one part persuasion, and one part Hollywood screenwriting to create a powerful approach" to presentations.

But instead of infusing our presentations with excessive special effects, Atkinson recommends a methodology to organize our thoughts into compelling, scalable stories that flow like movies. This approach includes breaking the material into meaningful chunks (say, 3-4 main topics or ideas) that your audiences can easily absorb.

Aiming the Spotlights

Atkinson's formula parallels a three-act play:

  • Act I sets the stage by giving a short overview of a conflict that the protagonists (your audiences) are experiencing, and recommends a solution.
  • Act II then "develops the action" by elaborating on three to four main points of the solution. Here, you would present each main point and then summarize it before moving on to the next main point, which strengthens understanding and retention. Depending on the total amount of time available to present, you can expand or reduce your Act II discussion accordingly.
  • Act III recaps the problem and the solution to help the audience fully digest the story. This short segment summarizes and completes the presentation.

Further, Atkinson says, each content slide should:

  • Cover only one central idea.
  • Use a single, complete sentence as a heading.
  • Avoid or minimize the use of bulleted lists of text.
  • Include a relevant image or simplified diagram to boost retention and recall.

In conclusion, with any type of presentation — persuasive, informational, technical, or instructional — you can use these guidelines to strengthen your logical case and emotional connection. You can thereby leave your audiences with clearer and more compelling reasons to embrace and retain your ideas, and take appropriate actions.

Copyright © Business Performance Inc., Adele Sommers, All Rights Reserved.

About the Author
Adele Sommers

Adele Sommers, Ph.D. is the creator of the "Straight Talk on Boosting Business Performance" success program. To learn more about her book and sign up for more free tips like these, visit her site at

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