Designing Seminar Slides

Copyright 2006, Michael K. Gilson

Visuals help explain your ideas through schematic representations; support your arguments with documentation, such as specimens or data tables; distill and convey your message with text; and keep the audience oriented with slides that convey the structure of your talk. They also can provide some pleasure and a bit of relief from the potential dryness of a scientific topic. Slides also can detract from your talk: if they are too complicated, the audience may become focused on figuring them out, rather than on what you are telling them. Also, poorly made visuals tend to alienate the audience. Here are a few specific suggestions for designing slides that will enhance your seminar.

  1. Stick with simple slide formats. The main purpose of slides is to present information, and many of the predesigned slide formats provided with PowerPoint and other programs are so complicated and showy that they detract from the information you are putting on each slide.
  2. Provide informative headers. The header of each slide should help orient the viewer to the material on the slide. Avoid using the same header for a series of slides; this misses the opportunity to help your audience by distinguishing one slide from the next. Also, do not repeat the header in the body of the slide.
  3. In a list, put your main point first. If a list starts relatively minor points, the audience may lose interest before reaching the really important items.
  4. Keep text terse. A slide with many words looks forbidding and distracts your audience from your spoken words. Try to write lists as noun phrases rather than full sentences. If you must use full sentences, use a telegraphic style to keep the text brief. The text in a slide should support your talk, never substitute for it.
  5. Use color thoughtfully. Color is pleasant for the audience and can promote clarity.
    • Use matching colors for items that are conceptually related. For example, if a schematic illustrates several proteins, say, each with a different color, then the graph for each protein should be colored to match the schematic.
    • Use more intense colors for more important items. In the previous example, if the rest of your talk will focus on one protein in particular, consider coloring it red, and leaving the others in more muted colors.
    • Avoid garish and conceptually meaningless color schemes. Beware of overusing colors, especially bright and intense ones, unless you are an artist and know what you are doing.
  6. Using consistent formatting, for clarity and neatness. Mixing fonts (e.g., Times, Arial) on a slide or within a talk creates a sloppy appearance and should not be done without a specific reason. Similarly, try to maintain consistent font sizes and capitalization rules for all headers, list items, etc.
  7. Leave decent margins. A good-sized margin around the text and figures is visually appealing and avoids giving the impression that something has been cut off by the edge of the slide.
  8. Provide adequate contrast. Put light-colored text against a dark background or dark-colored text against a light background. If your slides are difficult to make out, your audience may spend more time squinting at your slides than paying attention to what you are telling them.