Why do people make bad slides?

For years experts in psychology, design and even technology have decried Powerpoint and its many evils.  Every few months another blog post, or presenter, explains in detailed outrage why the a presentation they saw was a a horror show of bulleted lists, overwrought diagrams and ancient templates (including this recent story NSA/Prism story).

prism

So why then are bad slides so popular?

  • Bad slides are less work. Nearly everything in the world we know to be stupid is easier to do than the right thing. Ignorance is often less of an issue that the lack of interest in doing the extra work to be better. For unpleasant things, most people, most of the time, are happy to do just enough not to be horrible, and move on.
  • The slide is used for more than the presentation alone. Garr Reynold’s calls this a slideument, a reference to how the slide deck is expected to function without the speaker, sent around in emails. In large bureaucracies is common for the slide deck to be circulated before, and after, the presentation itself.
  • Organizational tradition demands bad slides. If most people at an event do the same old boring, hard to understand, ugly distracting template, bulleted list wall of death, to do the right thing requires standing out and taking a risk, something most speakers do not want to do. They want to fit in and take few risks. The rule makers are often those most out of touch with what good presentations, and their slides, should be like.
  • It makes it look like you’ve done tons of work. To the average eye, a dense, heavy, slide deck looks like more work has been done that the refined, clear, clean slides heralded by the best speakers. It’s a fast way to make it appear that you’ve done much work, when in reality a simple, clear, concise slide deck requires much more work. People are often impressed, at least at first, by volume, rather than quality.
  • They really don’t know there’s an alternative. Some people don’t get out much. They don’t see many presentations. Even if they’ve seen a TED talk online they don’t make the connection that what they do in their workplace can borrow some of those choices. So when it’s their turn they pull up an average of all the ones they’ve seen and try to use their presentation software, tools that promote bullet lists above all else, to approximate it.
  • They’re asked for bad slides. Some event organizers ask to review slides, as if that’s a good quality control measure.  When handed a slide deck of 15 pictures, they have no idea what the speaker is going to talk about, and this makes them nervous. It’s not uncommon for speakers with slides that follow Garr Reynold’s advice to get feedback that make their slides worse.
  • Speakers use slides as their own notes. Slides should be for the audience, not the speaker. But many speakers destroy their slides by cramming back-up information that would only be used by the speaker.  It’s ok to leave cues for yourself in slides, but they must be minimal enough they don’t ruin the audiences experience.

I’m convinced there will always be bad slides. There will always be ugly, bullet laden slide decks, or Powerpoint abused visuals, filled with text and diagrams few will read much less understand. Until conference organizers, professors, and bosses explicitly encourage a new, improved style of communication, we’ll be living with these complaints for a long time.

I deliberately didn’t spend much time in my book Confessions of a Public Speaker on slide design, since if you plan a talk properly you focus on slides last, and they come out simpler and better since they’re never the focus. And of course Presentation Zen and Slide:ology do a good job of explaining slide design craft.

Chris Atherton‘s excellent presentation at TCUK09 details the cognitive psychology of good slides – why aren’t these concepts and research more well known?

What do you think needs to happen to help presentations, and slides, evolve?

[Note: post updated 6/6/2013]

26 Responses to “Why do people make bad slides?”

  1. Ben Scofield

    I think point #1 can’t be overstated – it takes a lot of work to be a good presenter, and as has been mentioned on the blog before, most people don’t have “presenter” as an explicit part of their job description. That means that presentation skills, including slide design, get short shrift (I love that word), and we end up with bad slides and bad sessions.

    Reply
  2. Scott

    Ben: I love the word shrift too. It’s soooo fun to say. Especially with it’s little friend ‘short’ by it’s side.

    But if bad slides are less work, are we doomed to see bad slides dominate for ever? Somehow it must be possible to raise the average quality of slide decks.

    I think it starts with the organizers of events, or bosses who have subordinates speak, since they set the bar.

    Reply
  3. Ben Scofield

    I think the key is to convince people of the benefits of putting in the time and effort to become a good presenter. Once you’ve seen the results of doing a great job, it’s much harder to fall back into bad habits – and as more and more people do better jobs of speaking, the bar will rise and poor presentations will be less tolerated.

    Or at least, that’s what I’m hoping for.

    Reply
  4. Natasha Lloyd

    I think the most powerful way to make people want to create better slides is to set a good example. I’ve seen a lot of slides improve after seeing a great presentation that broke the rules of bulleted lists. I personally put a lot of effort into my slides in the hope that someone out there in the audience will appreciate the change from the norm and will try to do the same next time they present.

    Reply
  5. Marti

    A related question: when producing notetaking handouts, why does anybody use PowerPoint’s automatically generated notes pages? They are usually illegible.

    Reply
  6. Scott

    Marti: Good question.

    I think it’s a similiar answer. This is the easiest way to create handouts. Three clicks and you’re done.

    From experience I know many people who are paying for an event/conference complain if they don’t get handouts – but often don’t use them. They just want to feel like they got their money’s worth and a handout is an easy way to make them feel they got something.

    Reply
    • Graham Gosling

      What I find amusing is when the handouts are given at the start of the presentation. People flip through to the final few slides and sit there with a grin on their face because they ‘know’ what is coming and are no longer really paying attention.

      Reply
  7. Stephen Lead

    Related to the last point is the habit of conference organisers to make the slides available for download after the event.

    Speakers try to design the slides to be read after the event, rather than as a backdrop to the actual presentation.

    I see this all the time in my industry, with densely-filled slides which are illegible on-screen. The joke is that they’re mostly un-useable as a download, too, without the speaker to explain what’s going on in the diagrams.

    A summary document would be so much more useful as a download, with a good quality presentation used on the day. But as you say, this requires a ton of extra work.

    Reply
  8. Percy

    Another reason for bad slides could be that company may want the slides to be a certain way to keep it consistent with the corporate policy or a manager’s whims. I’ve seen bad color combinations and/or huge logos being used with no awareness of how bad a slide looks or how much “real estate” is wasted. One graphic designer that I worked with created “rich” slides which had huge images and bright colors — both company-related — because the marketing head and CEO wanted something that looked good.

    I also think that awareness (point #4) is a terrific point. If you don’t know any better, you’ll keep doing what you’re doing unless you take the time to explore alternatives or are exposed to a different way of doing things.

    Reply
  9. Oliver Ruehl

    You have to check this out to fully understand what is going on in the world today: Why America is fucked ;-)

    (Scott’s note: this video is a story about the lowering of design quality in America, it’s a good story, but the guy uses the word fuck about 25 times, so mildly NSFW).

    Reply
  10. Gordon

    I used to teach in Taiwan. Predominantly Chinese culture. When I gave a lesson (presentation, workshop etc.), and I had no hard copies or other materials to dish out willy-nilly, the perception was that there was no learning taking place. Same with Slides: an image with one large word on it would never impress a CEO — “too simplistic.” There’s a lot of cultural stuff that needs to be considered (age, sex, a third-party introduction of one’s credential: “I was involved with NASA,” all add or detract from how good the presentation will be received! I guess the lesson here is, of course, know your audience.

    Reply
  11. Chris Atherton

    Hi Scott,

    Thanks for the hat-tip! :)

    I love that people are starting to question the Death By Powerpoint approach; I think exciting people by showing them alternative ways of presenting/teaching is one of the best ways to incite this kind of revolution, though I suspect it won’t reach everybody. But maybe all that’s needed is a critical mass before audiences and students realise that it doesn’t need to be like that, and start demanding more from their presenters/lecturers.

    Keep shaking it up!

    Chris

    Reply
  12. Dan Ward

    I think part of the thing is that many of us were never taught how to do it well. It’s not a subject that came up in any of my three engineering degrees (and I just finished a master’s in March!) – even though most of the classes I took involved some kind of class presentation.

    Instead of thoughtful lessons on effective communication as part of a technical education, we tend to get no discussion about presentations at all… and lots of teaching-by-example of the PowerPoint Death By Bullets…

    So I’m going to say our schools should probably step up to the plate – and they could even use Garr Reynold’s book as a textbook!

    Reply
  13. María Elena

    Gracias Chris, siento como si hubiera tenida una revelación! voy a empezar a practicar. I feel like a had a revelation! now I will practice on my next presentation. Thank you. From Guatemala, Central America.

    Reply
  14. ezra

    articles like this contribute, cause they don’t clearly and easily tell the reader what to do better – the links provided are not very good.
    articles like this contribute, casue they state generalitys (powerpoint is well known to be bad) without specifics
    articles like this contribute, casue they don’t acknolwedge – as some prior posts do – that making a good presentation is a lot of hard work, and that it requries a bit of showman ship on the part of the presenter

    Reply
  15. Derek Simmel

    Powerpoint (and similar computer-based slide presentation media) failings are not newly-discovered phenomena – yet their widespread use persists :( No media can solve the communication incompetencies of speakers – truly talented speakers can use media to complement their presentations, but do not rely on media to deliver meaning.

    I suggest folks read Edward Tufte’s commentaries on the failings of Powerpoint and similar computer-based slide presentation media for communication – see:

    http://www.edwardtufte.com/tufte/powerpoint

    Also:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2003/12/14/magazine/2003-the-3rd-annual-year-in-ideas-powerpoint-makes-you-dumb.html?incamp=archive:search

    I do not benefit in any way by these suggestions – I just agree with the author.

    - Derek

    Reply
  16. Scott

    Ezra: Pointing out a problem might not solve it, but it can’t make it worse . The only way to make it worse would be to give people worse advice, or convince them it’s not really a problem.

    But yes, I agree this post doesn’t offer a play by play of solutions. I’ll fix that.

    Reply
  17. idij

    Sometimes though you just want the presenter to impart information. With enough detail that you can usefully refer to them later with slides good enough to be given to someone who hasn’t seen the presentation.

    Now obviously it varies, but sometimes “the devil is in the details”, and if the slideset focuses only on the big picture you are going to be left wanting even if they covered the details in the talk. This is particularly true for technical training type presentations.

    Long after I’ve stopped admiring your color scheme, or your cute image, I’m going to want to know how exactly to do thing X. If the slides don’t tell, then that’s a few thousand bucks per head wasted by the employer. I might remember what you looked like, but I’m sure as hell not going to remember what you said.

    You may say slides should not be course notes, but the reality is that “slides are the course notes”, for every course I’ve done in 15 years of employment.

    Reply
  18. Abe Singer

    You may find this presentation of interest, it’s been received quite well when I’ve presented it.

    It’s got some nice examples of bad slides, and some avice that I think improves presentation. It’s gone over quite well when I’ve presented it:

    http://www.ligo.caltech.edu/~asinger/readable-powerpoint.ppt

    Read the notes pages for detailed commentary and distribution permissions.

    Reply

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