Creating a Presentation: 10 Important Rules

Presentations are a complex form of communication—they require you to use a range of skills, from writing to design to public speaking. Much of the work of crafting a good presentation centers around paying close attention to the planning process, but there are many rules to consider, too. Here are our 10 most important rules for creating an effective presentation.

1. Know your audience

What are the audience members like?
Are they willing participants or mandatory attendees?
How can you solve their problems?
How are you going to change their lives or make them better?
What do you want them to do?
What’s their part in your strategy?
How can you best reach them?
How do they prefer to receive information?

Give them what they want. Let your audience know that you empathize—and that you’re here to help them.

2. Start with a script

The script is what you, as the presenter, are going to recite when you’re up in front of an audience, or when you’re giving a remote or video presentation. Some people start with the presentation deck first, then write the script to match the visuals. This is quite the opposite of the approach you should take.

Consider that virtually all movies start with a script. The script is what drives your presentation’s visuals. It informs which words you’ll use on each slide and suggests images that help convey your message. It can also influence the use of animation to emphasize or illustrate key points. A great presentation deck is based on great storytelling. And great storytelling starts with a script.

3. The narrative arc: a beginning, a middle, and an end

Divide your presentation into three simple sections. Start with an inviting, engaging beginning, have a concrete, informative middle, and end with a clear call to action. We’ve all attended bad or poorly organized presentations. A presentation that fails to engage its audience often does so because it doesn’t have a clear story line, or it loses the thread of its narrative. Know where you are, and know where you’re going. Ride the momentum. Not only will it help you remain engaged and confident, but it will also make you appear more informed and credible to your audience.

4. Divide by slide

Once you’ve determined your beginning, middle, and end, further break each section down into segments. Within each segment, divide the content you wish to present into slides. Each slide should cover a single idea. Don’t try to force multiple ideas or concepts into one slide.

Remember, you know the material—presumably, it’s why you’re the presenter. Your audience, on the other hand, will have varying degrees of understanding. Some may be totally new to the concepts you’re presenting, while others may be experts. To reach everyone and make your ideas as clear as possible, know that it’s easier to grasp a small amount of content than long paragraphs and complex charts squeezed into a single slide.

5. Storyboard your slides

To continue the movie-making metaphor, the next stage after writing a script is often storyboarding. Storyboarding is a visual representation of your script. You don’t have to be an artist to create one. Just simply pull out a piece of paper and draw the kinds of visuals you’d like to have on your slides. Draw on Post-it Notes, then use your phone (or an actual camera) to photograph them. Next, upload them to your deck.

Create a slide with two halves. Use the left half as a space for your sketch, photo, diagram, screenshot, or any other imagery. Use the right half for your script. Apply this same format to all of your slides. There’s no deep design required at this stage. Just assemble your visuals and ideas for each slide.

6. Color is key

It seems like there are more rules around using color than there are hues on a color wheel. Most organizations today mandate that brand colors and style guidelines must be followed for all external presentations. If there are no existing guidelines or templates, double-check to make sure you’re free to create your own color scheme. For non-designers, there are several color harmony websites that can help.

Beyond text and charts, which may require a range of colors, try to limit the number of colors you use. Keep it around three to five at most. For text, use black, dark gray, and light gray. You can also use color to highlight important text or assign certain rules for colors. For example, green for positive content and red for warnings. Or use color to separate segments in the presentations. Keep your slide background a neutral color like pure white, light gray, black, or dark gray.

It can also be helpful to adjust the background color to take into account the presentation environment, in order to help make it easier on your viewers’ eyes. If the room you’re presenting in will be very dark, use a black background. If it’s a daylight environment, or there is other ambient light, lighter colors are a better choice.

7. Use one font with a distinct font-size hierarchy

Using a single, consistent font is one of the most important design rules. The font you choose will define the overall aesthetic of your text. Professional graphic designers may use a secondary font (also called a font pairing) that is distinct enough for special text like headlines, callouts, or quotes. If you’re not a graphic designer, don’t push it. Stick with one font that’s easy to read.

Use three font-size levels:

1. Level one should be the most immediately visible typographic element in your design.

2. Level-two typographic elements usually help organize your design into sections, or group related information together. They shouldn’t stand out as much as your level-one type, but should clearly direct viewers to the different parts of the design and help them navigate it easily.

3. For a text-heavy layout, level-three typography is generally the meat of the design. This is where the copy lives and where you get into the message of your design. It could be long or short—a whole article, a short note, a brief description—but the primary point of this level is that copy should be easy to read, since the font size will likely be somewhat small.

Avoid using more than three font sizes on a slide and keep the amount of text on your slides to a minimum. Move text-heavy content to the speaker notes and highlight spoken content with short statements organized as diagrams on the slide.

8. Breathing room by design

Empty space, white space, or negative space is anything in a design not filled by active content. It includes gutters between columns of text, the page margins that border the design, the spaces between words and paragraphs, and the intervals that separate elements from each other. White space guides the flow of the design and impacts how the viewer scans the content.

Keeping more white space clears text and other graphics from the page. It makes the design easier to navigate, and the message easier to understand.

Without white space on a slide, one thing flows into another, visuals merge, and the message becomes cluttered and confusing. Think of white space as a kind of visual punctuation that allows you to insert stops and pauses to direct viewers’ attention and help guide how their eyes move across the visual elements in the design.

9. Use humor, but make it relevant

Every audience enjoys a good laugh. Use humor to make a point that reinforces your overall objective. When you do, your listeners—even if they don’t think your attempt at humor is particularly amusing—will remember the point you intended to make. You can also use humor to provide a brief diversion from dense or weighty subject matter, as a bit of comic relief. But remember: make it topical and relevant.

10. Use full-bleed photos to create atmosphere

Let’s say your presentation uses lots of text-based information, charts, and diagrams. It’s slide after slide of dense content. One way to break it up—and give your audience a break—is to use a photograph that covers an entire slide. Use just one photo, not a photo collage. The right photo will refresh their attention (and eyes), and give you an opportunity to inspire your audience.

Avoid cliché photos and illustrations. There are some images that have been so overdone they should simply be avoided. For example, shaking hands for partnership, hands holding a sapling for growth, or puzzle pieces for integration.

Ideally, if you use these guidelines, your presentations will be more professional and effective. Remember, being a master presenter isn’t hard. It’s largely a matter of having confidence in the content you’re presenting—confidence that comes from planning ahead and paying attention to the process.