Building less shitty slides using a bowl of M&M’s

I don’t consider myself a good presenter. In fact, I almost failed my Realschulabschluss because of a tragically bad presentation. Part of my problem was (and still is) to figure out what I want to say (and what to leave out), in which order I should say it, and then not cramming walls of text onto my slides 1.

So I’ve come up with a strategy which keeps me from messing up my slides completely, which I’ll explain on the basis of slides I recently created for a university presentation.
This surely isn’t for everyone, but maybe it helps.

What you’ll need

  • a bowl of M&M’s (or other tasty, tiny treats)
  • the slidemaking tool of your choice
  • way more time than you thought you would

How it works

1. Sort your content.

Think about what you want to talk about. If you were to tell a friend about it in a crowded bar after two beers (in case you drink), where would you start and how would the conversation go? Jot that down quickly. This is your outline.

I like to create a slide for each point of my outline, containing only a few words, turning them sort of into “chapter separators”. This way, I have a nice skeleton that I can work with, like so:

Skeleton

2. Start filling out the outline.

You don’t have to do it linearly, but ideally, tackle one chapter at a time.

I usually leave the chapter slides empty (except for the headline), and use them to transition between different aspects as I speak. Sometimes, a “chapter” doesn’t need follow-up slides, so I either leave the slide as is or add a nice, unobtrusive background image in a desperate attempt to humour the audience. In most cases, though, chapters do need follow-up slides, usually for more in-depth discussion.

Now, each time you start a new slide, take 5 M&M’s out of your bowl and put them where you can see them. As you fill your slide with content, put M&M’s back according to the following penalty scheme:

1 For each bullet point

2 For each additional line on a bullet point

3 For each detail which takes more than 5 minutes to explain and is not vital to your presentation flow or topic

3 For each decorative image on a slide that has bullet points on it

2 For each explanatory image on a slide that has bullet points on it

If you run out of M&M’s, rethink your slide:
If a bullet point needs 4 sub-bullet points, it might be so important that you should dedicate a new slide to explain just that point. Or, you’re just writing down details which you’ll be telling your audience as you’re talking about said bullet point. Chances are that they’ll half-listen and half-read and won’t get any of it in the end.
If your point spans across several lines, chances are people will not listen to what you’re saying because they’re busy reading the wall of text you just threw at them. When this happens to me, I try to boil it down to a few words or– again – create a dedicated slide.

As you’ll notice, it’s considerably cheaper (chocolate-wise) to create a slide illustrating what you want to say instead of quickly writing it down in a few bullet points. Turning our thoughts into understandable pictures is hard for most of us, so it will most likely be more expensive time-wise. But it’ll help you to reflect on on the point you’re trying to get across and it’ll help your audience to relate to what you’re trying to explain. Consider the following two sets of slides:

First attempt
Second attempt

They are both about the exact same topic. The upper set was my first attempt at getting my point across. When I was done, I looked at my vanishing M&Ms, kicked myself, moved the entire text into the speaker notes and got to work drawing what you’re seeing in the lower set. Now, I was able to show what I meant as I was speaking, pointing to various parts of the graphs as I rambled on.

With topics that can’t be compressed into an image, I’ve found that it can help me stay on track to have very short bullet points to outline the flow of what I’m trying to explain. However, when I do this, I try to add those one by one as I go along, again to avoid the reading-not-listening situation for the audience.

Of course there are always situations in which it makes sense to skip some or all of the limitations suggested above. These guidelines are not set in stone, they’re just there to help identify those corner cases. They force you to justify why you’re not just being lazy but actually need that image next to your bullet points, instead of dedicating a fresh slide to it.

And, obviously, when you’re done with a slide, you’ll get to eat all the M&M’s that are left.

Tools and resources

Really, use whatever is comfortable for you. In case you’re looking for some pointers, here’s a list of things I like to use:

Images and Illustrations

  • the noun project has proven to be indispensable when it comes to providing simple illustrations to piece together visualizations.
  • Flickr’s image search makes it super easy to find Creative Commons-licensed images.
  • Inkscape, Omnigraffle and Illustrator are great to piece together your noun project pictograms into fully-fledged visualizations.
  • In case you’re curious, you can find the whole set of slides here. (Yes, I missed out on a lot of M&Ms towards the end. After all, I’m still learning. ;) )

Tools

  • I’ve been starting to use Deckset and I love it, although it does lack customizability and you do sometimes have to tweak the slides to make them work the way you want them to.
  • I’ve written a small reference-managing script which may come in handy if you’re creating your slides in markdown.
  • Keynude is a great starting point to create Keynote themes from.
  • I’ve never used it, but this LaTeX Beamer theme looks awesome: Clean, crisp and to the point.

Tips

  • great tips to improve the readability of your slides.
  • How to remove visual clutter in your charts and make them more readable: for bar charts, pie charts and tables (The tagline is cringe-inducing, I know).

I’m curious: How do you keep your slides tidy? Which nifty tools and resources do you use? What do you think is a bad idea about my approach, and how could I improve it?

Notes:

  1. I have a special hatred for LaTeX Beamer because it encourages its users to do this.

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2 comments Write a comment

  1. My presentations usually suffer from wall of text syndrome. The M&M idea gave me the needed push in the right direction.

    I am still using google present to create slides, but want to create them from markdown in the future. But still have not found “the right tool”(tm) for Linux.

    Nice selection of trips and tricks in your blog post, thanks for sharing!

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