What makes an effective presentation?

Have you ever left a powerpoint presentation and thought “WOW!”? I didn’t think so. Powerpoints are designed to be presentation aids. When we try and use them as a way getting lots of information across they can be terribly boring! So what makes a great presentation?

#1) A lesson from Sesame Street

Sesame Street is an example of a presentation (TV) that requires government and private funding. In order to get this they need to prove that their content is memorable.

At first, Cookie Monster would run around with, say, the letter ‘D’. He would be dancing all around the ‘D’. The funny thing was, kids didn’t learn the letter. There were too many distractions! The children’s eyes just followed the Cookie Monster around. After additional research, they found that if the character was HOLDING the letter ‘d’, or if the letter to be learned was animated, learning resulted. Learning increased even more when Cookie Monster was teaching ‘C’. This is because C was always in close proximity to cookie monster.

How does this relate to our presentations?

When we want students or viewers to internalize something, nothing should move but the most important idea. Transitions that aren’t relevant will distract from the main idea and memory retention will fall.

Instead, keep the slide simple and place related items close together. If want to show that cookies make kids happy, then place a smily face near a cookie. The closer things are together, the faster the brain creats an association and locks it in memory.

Images combined with text is more effective. We have heard that a picture tells a thousand words. A concept is more memorable and more comprehensive with both images and text.


#2) Chunking Information

  • Take a bunch of information and break it down into bite size chunks that people can understand.
Slides with a small amount of information will be digested faster. Instead of presenting 4 items on a single slide, break it down into 4, 5, 6 or more slides. That doesn’t mean that the time spent on the topic increases, just that you’ll be switching slides more often.

Advanced Organizers

  • Use headings, or other methods to give the learner a heads up on what we are going to learn.
Many people love to see the end from the beginning, and when this doesn’t happen they spend the entire presentation trying to guess what’s going to happen. By giving a brief introduction and roadmap at the beginning, and providing relevant headings helps these students and viewers stay on focus and know what to expect. It’s a simple thing that will help keep a larger percentage of people engaged in your presentation.

Transitions & Glammor

  • Use transitions very, very sparingly. Watch TV. How many times do they dissolve or flame away? Most times the camera just sharply moves from one camera to the next. It doesn’t bother us.


  • Use very large fonts with good contrast.
Far too many presentations fill pages with text. That’s bad. But what’s even worse is when the contrast is terrible and fonts are too small to read from the back of the room. The presenter doesn’t even know this is a problem. After all, he wrote it! Avoid themes with deep colours or contrasting text. My presentations often use nothing but a while or light gray with very large fonts. Often only a few words per slide!
bad powerpoint example

Terrible! The text is small, the contrast is hurting my eyes, and some of the text disappears into the background.

better example of powerpoint

This example uses a simple image and small amount of text. It even has a header. This is a great example.


#3 Competing Modalities

  • Avoid reading text on a slide.

This brings up a good point. Competing Modalities. What is it? It means that your senses (visual and auditory mostly) are competing!

If you have no choice but to put a quote or long text box on your slide, DON’T READ IT! Take a few moments and let the student or viewer process that information. If you read it, your audience is going to read it at the same time, and retention will go out the window! Their ears will be competing against their eyes.


Great presentations!

Now you can go out and make a great presentation! If you have any success stories, or have a particularly terrible powerpoint story you want to share, please leave a comment!  🙂


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