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  • e.wulfe

Are we Using our Slides as a Prop or a Crutch?

Updated: Dec 30, 2021

I am a communication coach because I unequivocally believe that everything we do and say communicates who we are and what we stand for. When we are making a presentation that is accompanied by visuals, each slide either flourishes or fails as a vehicle for galvanizing our message.


Our slides also make an impression on our audience of who we are. Paul Arden was the long-time creative director of Satchi & Satchi, one of the largest and most highly respected communications and advertising companies in the world. I remain inspired by his quote: “The more strikingly visual our presentation is, the more people will remember it. And more importantly, they will remember us.”


Attendees of my workshops and classes, and professionals I work with to create visuals for their key presentations, know that I devote a considerable amount of time to creating clean, clear, and captivating visuals. There is an art to creating the ideal visual to propel our message and make it stick. Since we never get a second chance to make a first impression, I think it is one of the most critical time and thought investments we can make.


There are many slide creation principles I practice and preach. Here are three.


Our slides are not our presentation, we are.

As a presenter, we should not relegate our role and responsibility as merely the person to introduce our slides. Our slides are not our presentation. We are. In fact, we should be able to deliver our stories without any slides. James Humes, in one of my favorite books, Speak Like Churchill Stand Like Lincoln, encourages us to think of our slides as our prop, not our crutch. He explains that our slides are our visual aids and intended to reinforce, not replace, what we say and how we say it. Otherwise, we should just share the slides and let people read them on their own time.


Think of storytelling with our slides like dancing the tango.

The tango is one of the most famous partner dances. Each partner supports the other. The exchange is playful and intended to grip the audience’s attention. These same qualities characterize the storytelling magic when the storyteller and the slides work together, and build off each other. When our slides are too busy, we are competing for the audience’s attention. The result is like two people trying to dance the lead.


The best slides are designed like billboards.

I thank Nancy Duarte for this sage advice. Her billboard analogy in her Harvard Business Review Article, “Do Your Slides Pass the Glance Test?” is my litmus test. Duarte explains, “Billboards are designed so that when people drive by, they only have to briefly take their eyes off their main focus - the road - to process billboard information.” When we use this same approach in the design of our slides, the audience can immediately get the point of the slide and return their attention to us, and what we are saying.

Laser pointers are for poorly designed slides.

If our slides are designed properly, we never need a laser pointer to draw the audience’s attention to something on our slide. Our slides should already be designed so our audience immediately knows where their eyes should focus and what to take away from the slide. This is why a slide with one perfect image is more impactful and less distracting than one with multiple images.


I respect my audience too much to read to them.

If an audience sees a slide with text, they are going to try to read it. I find it distracting and difficult to try to read and listen at the same time. I will not read any text on a slide to my audience that they are fully capable of reading on their own. If there is a perfect quote or statement for the audience to read verbatim for impact, I pause in my speaking and invite them to read the slide before I continue. I might even break the quote or list of items to read on to successive slides. The quiet, as they read, is an extraordinary way to draw attention to these slides and engage the audience.


White space on slides is immensely powerful.

Slides are for delivering information in a way that will resonate and remain with an audience. To do that, I am a huge “less is more” proponent. Information design guru Edward Tufte famously said, “There is no such thing as information overload, just bad design. Graphical excellence is that which gives to the viewer the greatest number of ideas in the shortest time with the least ink in the smallest space.” The less clutter we have on our slides, the easier it is for our audience to focus and the more impactful our slides will be.


The time we spend on our slides is time well spent. Strategically and thoughtfully designed slides emphatically bolster our message, engage our audience, and improve presentation retention. They also possess the power to leave a lasting impression of who we are as a communicator.


I teach a class on the power of storytelling with visuals. In that class, I delve into 14 slide rules for success. To learn more about my classes and my presentation support services, please click here.



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