How to give a presentation: (13) the three functions of slides

One of the services that FJWilson Talent Services offers is presentation training. Here our presentation coach, Anthony Haynes, gives the thirteenth in a series of concise, practical, tips.

anthony_haynes bnu croppedSlides can fulfil three functions:

  1. they can act as a visual aid to enhance the audience’s comprehension
  2. they can act as a take-away, for the audience to refer to or pass on after the presentation. This may be in the form of a handout or an online post on, say, SlideShare.
  3. they can act as a prompt for the speaker.

A moment’s reflection is sufficient to realise that these functions are very different from each other. It follows that what will be optimal for one function will be sub-optimal for others.

For example, on a take-away you might wish to provide the full reference for a piece of literature you’ve referred to. A report or white paper, for example. You may wish to provide details such as the names of the authors, the title and sub-title, the publisher, and the place and date of publication.

But such data are hardly appropriate for the visual aid that your audience will be looking at during your presentation. The data aren’t interesting to look at. And they clutter things up. So provide the full reference on the take-away, but not in the presentation.

Similarly, the needs of the audience differ from those of the speaker. What is the chance that nature has so ordered itself that the cues that would most help the speaker remember their presentation correspond with the cues that would best support (and entertain) the audience?


The first implication of all this is: avoid using your visual aids as a prompt for yourself. Create your prompts in some other format: or simplify the presentation, and prepare it well enough, to avoid the need for prompts.

The second implication is, if you want your slides to fulfil more than one function, you need to create more than one set of slides.

Against this it may be objected:

  1. “That isn’t what most people do”. To which the answer is that other people’s amateurishness and laziness creates not a model for you to follow, but an opportunity for you to shine. If, for example, you say something like, ‘I won’t bore you with the completed references here, but on the version I’ve posted on SlideShare I’ve provided the complete references with a link to the publisher’s site, plus a listing of supplementary publications’, you’ll look exceptionally professional.
  2. “This involves more work”. To which the (unsurprising) answer is that to achieve higher standards, you do often have to go the extra mile.

Next in the series: stop talking.

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