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Will Styler

Asst. Teaching Professor of Linguistics at UC San Diego

Director of UCSD's Computational Social Science Program

Some thoughts on Effective Presentation Design

Will Styler

As a part of my LIGN 500 (Graduate TA Training), and in response to questions from students, I’ve put together a document here which captures some of my thoughts on creating effective presentations (generally ‘Powerpoint’ style) for modern undergraduates. Of course, there are many roads to Rome, and you’ll need to modify some of these things to taste for your own style, but based on student feedback, these approaches seem to work well.

I’ve broken the document into four parts, in order of roughly descending importance: Organization, Content, Presentation, and Formatting. Within each section, there are overall areas of focus, with a brief description, and some specific recommendations. And, of course, I’m still learning, I don’t always follow my own guidelines, and there are many of these tutorials out there. So please feel free to take any of this with a grain of salt, or suggest your own tips.


Organization Guidelines

A good presentation is planned and organized effectively, as the same facts, presented in different orders and arrangements, can be of vastly different effectiveness.

Use ‘Narrative Arcs’ to structure the information intuitively and effectively

Good presentations ‘tell a story’, and as often as possible, have a natural flow from one topic into the next, where a clear ‘momentum’ is built. These arcs can be across a course, across a week, across a single talk, or even within a topic, but help participants follow along and organize what they’ve learned into a cognitive schema.

Think about the plan, globally and locally

Good presentations tend to have a clear plan, which is well communicated to the participants, and allows them to locate knowledge within the session.

Aim for a smooth ride

Even if it is occasionally quite tricky, I’m a big proponent of ‘flow’, that is, giving your audience a smooth, well-paced, and relatively low-effort learning experience. Although too much consistency can lead to students passing out in their chairs, with a lively presentation, good flow can help keep participants engaged and ‘following’ better than halting, stop-and-go presentation.

Present slightly less content than you think you need to

One of the hardest elements of organization is knowing when to stop cramming more information into a talk. It’s always tempting to pack just a bit more in, or to go into a bit more depth, but often, this results in talks which have no time for discussion, questions, or active learning, which are just trying to ‘get through the material’.

Content Guidelines

The content of a presentation is crucial, and getting that content to your participants is often the reason you’re in the room to start with.

Think about the audience

A key element of planning your presentation is understanding the audience, and their existing relationships with the content. So you’ll want to

Manage the content-per-slide well

Exceptionally text-heavy slides are widely considered a poor choice, with relatively few bulleted notes almost always better than whole sentences or paragraphs. But beyond that, this element is strongly person-dependent, and there many approaches to slide design.

On one end, some opt to have relatively few, information-dense slides, which they’ll spend several minutes each on (~10-20 slides per 50 minute session). This has the advantage of giving students ample time to ‘copy the slides down’, and allows easy ‘planning’ as students see bullets or sections being ‘dealt with’. However, these approaches also can be monotonous for students, as there’s nothing ‘changing’ but the words, and lend themselves to very dense, texty slides.

Others, like myself, opt to have many slides, each relatively sparse (leading to 60-90 slides per 50 minute session). This creates a compelling flow for students, it limits the amount of text naturally, and keeps attention a bit more readily for students used to ‘quick cuts’ in the rest of their life. However, it becomes very difficult for students to ‘copy down the slides’ (so you’ll need to make slides available to students), it requires the generation of many slides, and the sparseness of the slides can limit the expression of interrelation, and require repetition of key points and definitions. If you’re using a sparse-slides approach:

Of course, there’s a happy medium, and you’ll find it for yourself.

Use Audio, Images, and Videos in service of the presentation

Multimedia content (audio, video, and images) can be exceptionally helpful, breaking up the monotone, giving students the opportunity to engage more directly with the material, and bringing real life into the classroom. But arbitary use of multimedia elements can be very distracting, and unhelpful.

Be mindful of student experiences and traumas

Students come into the classroom with a diversity of backgrounds, experiences, and sadly, traumas, which you should consider when designing your presentations and courses.

Take Advantage of Active Learning Techniques

Active learning techniques can help turn even large classrooms into places where students can feel involved and reinforce their learning

Presentation Guidelines

The physical act of presenting information, regardless of the information, is a skill to acquire, and can be done more or less effectively. As in all things, your own personal style will play a huge role here.

Stand on the Shoulders of Giants

If you’re struggling to find your presentation style, try emulating some of your past professors whose style you found most effective. My own style reflects elements of the approaches of some of my mentors and past professors.

Plan for questions

One of the keys to getting good questions is soliciting them, and providing time to handle them well.

Keep an eye on the clock

Pacing is an acquired skill, as is modulating your speed by where you are in the talk

Prosody is crucial

Pauses, variation in voice pitch, and changes in voice loudness can make content more or less interesting.

Approach the audience to increase engagement

If you have a wireless remote and microphone, wander a bit.

Don’t read from your slides

Please. Please.


Humor is a great tool in the classroom, for managing the tone, de-stressing, helping students remember the material, and more. But it must be done carefully.

Know your demeanor

Different teachers choose to use different demeanors in the classroom. Figure out your particular demeanor, and run with it. Don’t be afraid to modulate this depending on the class or setting.

Format guidelines

If you’re choosing to use Powerpoint or another similar slide-based presentation medium, there are some points to consider.

Make formatting semantic

Formatting should give participants hints about what a given bit of text is doing on the slide.

Use transitions cautiously

Anything that distracts from the content distracts from the content, whether it’s neat or not.

Think about legibility and accessibility

Make sure your slides are going to be legible for everybody in the room.

Presentation tools

Good presentations require good tools.