Guide on the Side – Presentation Software: Tips and Caveats

Marie Wallace has enjoyed a fulfilling career as a librarian, beginning in 1951 in academia with the University of California and transitioning in 1971 into the private law library world until her 1995 retirement from O’Melveny & Myers. She is the 1997 recipient of the American Association of Law Libraries‘ highest honor, the Marian Gould Gallagher Distinguished Service Award. Throughout her professional life, Marie has been a guiding force in the Southern California Association of Law Libraries, Practising Law Institute’s programs for law librarians and Teaching Legal Research in Private Law Libraries (TRIPLL).

Today, Marie has commenced on a new path she terms “Life in Progress,” which enables her to pursue a diversity of interests as a master swimmer, law librarian, trainer, storyboarder and designer of wearable art. She continues to be a dynamic speaker and prolific writer on such topics as private law library management, presentations and training. She is a member of Toastmasters Internationaland is active with the American Society for Training Development (ASTD) and in continuing education for private law librarians. She devotes her “free” time to various non-profit and civic activities. Always open to new ideas, Marie can be reached at: [email protected].

Presentation software packages provide many helpful tips on screen design and organizing a presentation. More useful tips and caveats can be gleaned from presenters who have learned by doing.

Create a checklist of the sequences to go through to set up your equipment so your pre-presentation jitters do not interfere with your technical procedures and your technical demands do not increase your pre-performance anxieties.

Get feedback on your slide designs for high profile presentations. Contact Claudyne Wilder (617-524-7172 or [email protected]) or view her monthly feature Before & After in Presentations magazine. Readers send their presentations to be critiqued free. Each month she picks one for makeover. You can increase your visual literacy by comparing the before and after designs. Claudyne’s site at is also worth a visit.

Pre-test all equipment for workability and readability before the presentation, fully aware that equipment may pre-test fine and then not function shortly after. If you are not in-house (where re-scheduling is a possibility) and there is a lot riding on the presentation, have a back-up plan such as knowing where you can rent equipment locally. Make friends with the AV staff. Always be prepared to present au naturel without the screens using your speaking skills and handouts.

Test the font size and color combinations in the room at the distances you will use. If the anticipated audience is 600, do not test in a room for 50. It is safer to use a set of eyes other than your own. You know what the screens say and eyesight is highly variable.

Adjust the lights so the audience can see the slides, their notes and you. Place the equipment so you can see the audience and the audience can see the screen and you.

If you have to say “I know you can’t see this slide…,” get rid of it or improve it.

Design your screens for audience interaction. Show a screen and use it to launch a discussion by asking questions:

  • What is wrong with this picture?
  • Is this familiar?
  • If this is true, what does it mean for you?
  • Does anyone know what this is?
  • Do you agree with these figures?
  • Ask for audience participation to complete the blanks on tabular information (percentage of cases are settled out of court? average length of trial?).

Use a laser pointer to direct attention and identify specific features on your screens.

Rehearse your presentation in advance for timing.

  • Allow time for discussion and questions.
  • Vary the pace allowed for each slide. Keep the main ideas to between one and three minutes. Slides which illustrate a point or show examples, such as Internet screens, can move faster.
  • A great presentation can be made using only one or two well-designed, information-laden slides.

Unless you plan to open or end with a visual joke (which can be very effective), plan your introduction and ending without slides. These are the two most important parts of a presentation and you want the power of your persona to beam through.

Design each slide to make a visual point. If a point can be made better via body language or voice inflection, do not use a slide.

Business executives and other head honchos want as few hitches as possible. The mere possibility that some thing could go wrong is enough to make them edgy. In some organizations, bosses frown on presentation software, considering it canned and impersonal. Find out the local preference. For a short briefing, consider using a handout, flip chart or prop. In small rooms, equipment and wires can be disconcerting.

Use audio clips for sound sparingly. Limit them to humor, surprise or identification. “When you hear this sound, it is time to…”

Use color and location to design screens to guide the eye to the main point. Avoid white background. The eye takes about 30 seconds to adjust to a white background, especially if the room is dark.

Type on the screen is not the same as on a page. A font that may be appropriate for print is not always legible for the screen. Some fonts are more readable on the screen than in print. Fonts carry emotional messages. Do not select Olde English to present the operating budget. Save whimsical fonts for party invitations. The size of the font on screens must be at least 20 to 22 point. Do not combine more than two fonts on a screen.

A screen has much lower resolution than a page. A screen filled with text can be much harder to read than a page of text. Words ending the line above and isolated on a line below (widows) are unattractive. Shorten the line above to avoid them. Default to words and phrases rather than sentences.

Many presenters recommend the 6 x 6 rule for the number of lines and words in a line. No more than six words in a line and no more than six lines on a screen.

Avoid putting long quotations on slides. Memorize the quotation and deliver it orally or learn to read it so you sound live like a newscaster. If the quote is especially pertinent, include it in your handout.

Seeing is believing but only if you can see. Some presenters make me want to vent my frustration with a variation of Jerry McGuire’s rebel yell “Show Me the Picture!” Presenters should avoid all the “too”s on this list, lest they hear the rebel yell:

  • Too hard to read the screen
  • Too much text on each slide
  • Too few slides with graphics or meaningful images
  • Too much clutter
  • Too much detail
  • Too many different fonts
  • Too small fonts used
  • Too much color or wrong color combinations
  • Too much clip art used to decorate rather than convey meaning
  • Too many screens in too short a time
  • Too little added by the speaker beyond what is on the screens.

Presentation software is a forceful support for presentations not a replacement for weak or non-existent presentation skills and know-how. Unless there is something to “show” an audience, you may not really need the graphic capability of the software.

A final word about technology. It does make the presenter more vulnerable to Murphy’s Law. Plan ahead but recognize that breakdown is not necessarily a disaster. It may be your finest hour. Two of the very best presentations I have ever experienced were ones where the tested equipment failed at the last minute. Yet the presenters were so skilled in their ability to paint images with words that the absence of technology was no problem. Unless the audience had been told that the equipment failed, they would not have been the wiser.

Posted in: Guide on the Side, Presentation Skills, Presentation Software