Making the Best Use of PowerPoint Slides

This week, I presented at the InsightOut conference in Tokyo, Japan. The experience has been amazing. I met a lot of interesting people from different database platforms. I would like to share some lessons I learned from presenting to an audience that does not speak my language.

The conference was mostly targeted at a Japanese participants, and that meant I had to use synchronous translators. It is only the second time I have done this – and doing it three more presentations like this really taught me something about my own presentation style. Hearing your own words translated, even when you cannot understand them, helps you understand a lot about the pace you speak, and how clear your points are.

Another major learning was my use of slides. As I carefully explained my slides to prepare the translators for the session, I discovered things that would confuse my audience, even the ones that speak my language.

Here are the lessons I took away (and some general observations about presentations)

Text on slides is just a distraction, get rid of it: The translators have to translate BOTH the text and your words. This makes it extremely hard for the audience to keep track of your points.

Furthermore, going over the slide text with the translators before the session made me reflect on that fact that text really is redundant or should be kept to very small sentences. If you have anything to say: say it, don’t write it.

Avoid the use of vendor specific acronyms: I presented to both SQL Server, Oracle and PostgreSQL people. You are not doing yourself any favours by using acronyms like: PDW (Parallel Data Warehouse), RG (Resource Governor) and FT (Fast Track)

This may work for an “in-crowd” – but it will not work for a new audience unfamiliar with your terminology. Hearing the translator say the acronym in English, in the middle of a Japanese sentence, sticks out like a sore thumb.

If you are stuffing your slides with acronyms, you are also making it hard for people to share the slide deck with others.

Always annotate graphs: When people look at a graph, they should be able to immediately understand what the axes represent. Use your spoken words to describe what the MEANING of the data is, not WHAT the data it is. If you say: “What you are looking at here is…” – you already made a mistake. For example, take the illustration below, a real example from my deck. imageThe graphs lacks both horizontal and vertical axis information. These omissions makes decoding the information difficult, and makes the translator’s job harder. It also makes it nearly impossible to share the slides with others.

Pictures REALLY matter: A picture is worth much more than a thousand words to an international audience. No matter where you are from – you can “read” a picture. Since visual input is the preferred learning method for most people, pictures make your points much clearer.

In fact, I think it is well worth the time to replace text with good pictures whenever possible.

Pointing with your finger (or laser pointer) does not require translation: Using pictures instead of text, allowed me to illustrate complex problems with less chance of getting things lost in translation.

Use tables, not text, for data points that cannot be shown in a graph: I tend to put data points in bullet form, in-lined with the text on the slides. This is wrong. Mixing numbers and text makes for a VERY poor translations, and also decreases readability.

Take this poor slide (my own) as an example. This is just wrong:image

A much better way to represent the same information is:


By the way, use alternating colours on the table rows – it makes them easier to read.

If it does not look good in gray scale, change the colour scheme: I saw a lot of people carrying printed slides to the session (including my translators). Many printouts where in black and white. For an audience that tries to prepare themselves by reading slide before they show up, you should respect them by making sure the slides look good in gray scale.

Below is a real example of a slide I used, along with how it looks when printed in black and white:



The Original Slide

The printed version

Clearly, important information is lost here!

Write compression rates as 1:X instead of Y%. What does it mean that you get 10% compression? Does it mean that the data shrinks by 10% or that the data is 10% of the original size?

If I write 10:1, it is unambiguous that the data becomes 10 times smaller.

Be consistent in your choice of colours: If you use one colour to illustrate a concept, keep using that colour for the same concept throughout the presentation.

Here is an example: I used this slide to illustrate distributed vs. replicated tables in Parallel Data Warehouse:


The red tables are replicated, the green one is distributed. Five slides later, in the same deck, I used this slide:


Now, the red table is distributed, and the purple table is replicated. Clearly, I am not doing my audience any favours.

Use white backgrounds and high contrast imagines for your slides: Similar argument as the above guidance: printing a black background slide looks horrible. A high contrast colour scheme (black text on white background) makes it easier for people in the back of the room to read your slides.

Here is a real example that I made the mistake of using:



The original slide

A printed, blurred version


Here are my takeaways to implement in my future presentations. I will:

  • Stick to pictures and short sentences in every slide
  • Make the slides “pointer friendly”
  • Use high contrast, white background and simple slide layouts
  • Use consistent colour schemes that look good in gray scale
  • Carefully annotate graphs
  • Use tables and graphs, instead of text, to illustrate points