How to Make the Greatest Slide Deck

Vance MacEwen

A monkey staring at its reflection in a compact mirror it's holding
Andrew Copeland at MICA UP/Start

December 16, 2020

Do you need to make an effective slide deck? This fun, collaborative process has helped my teams ace presentations in academic, group project, and professional settings.

If you have experience with design thinking, you know how powerful a whiteboard and some sticky notes can be. Whether used to pitch executives of a Fortune 100 company or present a final in grad school, this method has always served me well. I’m going to give you a simple trick you can use every time you have to make a slide deck — especially if you’re under pressure!

Note: This process can be used to create amazing investor pitch decks! I will dive into detail on fundraising and investor pitching in a future blog post.

First, I’ll go over some key constraints you want to consider before you even touch your slides. Then I’ll give you the simple trick. Feel free to jump ahead.

Set constraints

Before you start making content, you’ll want to set constraints to guide your team. If you were given limits on time, number of slides, or word count — write them in the corner of your whiteboard. If you weren’t given constraints, set them yourselves.

Limit duration

Set a time limit for your presentation. Time to present depends on your setting, but people’s attention spans cap out around fifty minutes. Conciseness is valuable. I struggle to remember a good, impactful presentation that lasted longer than twenty or thirty minutes. In one pitch competition, I only had three minutes to present a compelling case. My team carefully honed our message — and we won! Setting a tight time limit will force you to understand your message and communicate it clearly.

Reduce slide count

Keep your number of slides as low as possible, with the following exception: If you’re showing important images for your audience to see, try giving each image its own slide. A slide comprised solely of a high quality photo can be remarkably powerful when it aligns with your narrative.

Avoid text-filled slides

For word count, I recommend the rule of 5x5: No more than five bullet points, with no more than five words per bullet. You should never read off a slide deck. Face your audience directly and speak from your practice and understanding. You will sound infinitely more credible and authentic. If you must take notes with you, keep them to talking points, not full sentences.

Keep it natural

Don’t memorize your lines unless you have the time to recite your delivery and get it one hundred percent down. Remember: You know your subject matter! You put a lot of time into the project you’re presenting. If a friend or colleague asked you about your work, wouldn’t you be able to talk about it?

Choose a storytelling format

Align your team on the narrative format of your slide deck. Your format is determined by the slide deck’s purpose. A product pitch will look different from a presentation of research findings. Academic presentations will often forgo style and brevity in favor of credibility and thoroughness. Sometimes you need your slide deck to be shareable on its own. However, academics, consultants, and entrepreneurs alike usually share the same purpose: persuading your audience.

One format for persuasive presentations is Monroe’s Motivated Sequence, developed in the 1930’s by Alan H. Monroe at Purdue University:

Grab Attention
Ex: Wow, an attractive celebrity you recognize!

Establish a Need
Ex: The celebrity used to struggle with dry skin — haven’t you?

Satisfy the Need
Ex: The celebrity uses Company X’s moisturizer.

Visualize the Satisfaction
Ex: The celebrity’s skin looks flawless. This could be you!

Call to Action
Ex: Call our number toll-free to order today.

Monroe’s Motivated Sequence is easy to spot in commercials, but if you look carefully you’ll see it even in contexts where no “sale” is being made. If you’re trying to persuade somebody to do something, see if you aren’t using some of these steps yourself. You may be surprised.

Now, for the simple trick…

Gather around your whiteboard (or virtual collaboration space like Miro) with sticky notes, permanent markers, dry erase markers, and erasers.

A forked dirt trail in a rich green forest
In lieu of an office photo, here’s a mock whiteboard drawn in Miro. My team uses Miro to collaborate remotely.

1. Draw a bunch of corners

Draw corners on your whiteboard in a grid to represent the slides in your slide deck. Draw more than you think you’ll need, and make sure they’re large and spread apart enough to fit some sticky notes in each one. Why corners instead of squares? Because you never know what will fit in a box until you start putting things in it! If you’re drawing a cartoon, you write the dialogue by a character’s head before you draw the speech bubble around it. It’s the same idea here. Corners give your team a place to start without hemming you in.

2. Brainstorm your slide deck’s content

You want everybody on your team to write down ideas for your slide deck’s content. What do you need to say? What pictures should you include? Write or draw them on sticky notes and place them on the slides on your whiteboard. Like any design thinking activity, this exercise can be put on a timer.

You can give instructions like “For seven minutes, let’s independently come up with ideas for our slide content. Put your sticky notes on the board, then we’ll share out our ideas.” Sticky notes can give directives, like “Show off our solution”, and specific images and phrases you want, like “3D product render” or “Batteries included!” You can draw symbols, shapes, and stick figures to convey ideas faster than words.

You may brainstorm one slide at a time (convergent thinking) or open up the possibilities with a free-for-all (divergent thinking). You may want more than one round of brainstorming throughout this process as you make adjustments.

A few rules for brainstorming:
— No judging ideas at this stage. You want all the ideas! You’ll trim later.
— Write only one idea per sticky. You need to be able to physically move each idea around.
— Please write legibly so you can take pictures and transcribe later.

3. Order your slides

Once you have your content, it’s time to get your slides in order. Write numbers in the slide corners you drew to represent their order in your slide deck. You don’t have to erase and re-write content. As you fine-tune your slide order, you can simply re-write the numbers and move sticky notes around. Encourage teammates to talk through their thoughts here.

4. Time a run-through

With your slide content arranged in an order your team likes, try running through your presentation. Time it to see how aggressively you need to trim content. This run-through will be rough — don’t worry. It’s like a rough draft of an oral presentation. Some teammates will have an easier time ad libbing than others. That’s okay. You just want a sense of how your narrative flows and how well you’re meeting the constraints you set earlier.

5. Cut, cut, cut

Your team had a lot of great ideas during brainstorming. You probably have extra slides and sticky notes that aren’t needed or don’t fit in your constraints. Take pictures if you want process captures, then get rid of them.

6. Workshop your phrasing

You don’t need a full script of your presentation, but your team should agree on its talking points. You can use a combination of discussion and brainstorming to write clauses and phrases for each slide.

Move quickly here but allow time to resolve friction in discussions — this step will pull your team closer in alignment and give you confidence going into your presentation. All the disparate ideas you and your teammates had going in will coalesce into one strong message. As you stumble through practice runs, you’ll feel your narrative flow smoother.

7. Delegate slides

You’ve naturally settled into various roles during your dry runs. By now, every teammate likely feels like they “own” a section of the slide deck. Your team may want its strongest orator to deliver the whole presentation, or you may be in a setting where each teammate is expected to speak. Either way, you can delegate slide creation to lean on each person’s expertise.

Teammates can voluntarily write their names under slides on the whiteboard before you start assigning them out. Put one or two teammates in charge of visuals and formatting. These teammates get the final say on stylistic choices ensuring everybody’s slides fit together. Your creatives get to really shine in this role.

8. Capture your results

Take pictures of your whiteboard and upload them somewhere all your teammates have access, like a shared Google Drive or Dropbox. You want a view of the entire whiteboard and pictures of each slide so you can read and transcribe your sticky notes. In design thinking terms, these images are the low-fidelity prototype of your slide deck.

9. Translate into digital format

Google Slides or your preferred collaborative tool will work great for this step. You should all be working within a live slide deck so everybody can see each other’s changes. If you don’t have slide deck templates on hand or a teammate who makes them, I recommend downloading a free slide deck template from Whoever is in charge of visuals and formatting can download your final version and convert to PowerPoint or PDF if necessary. Keep in mind Google Slides and PowerPoint do not have the same fonts.

10. Do a final run-through

Your team may have changed the order around and made substantial edits once you got into the presentation software. That’s good! Your slide deck should feel very familiar at this point. Make sure you do at least one more run-through before your team presents. You can keep things simple by practicing over a video call together.

Good luck!

Any of these steps may be superfluous if you are working by yourself or taking charge of certain aspects. You may benefit from brainstorming slide content as a team before preparing the deck yourself. I hope this guide helps you make the greatest possible slide deck!

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