18 May 2011

The Zen of Presentations, Part 41: Consistency

I spend a fair amount of time reviewing students’ PowerPoint presentations. The thing I probably spend the most time fixing is not their science, but their friggin’ lists of bullet points.*

I often see bulleted lists like this:

  • Readers distracted by content of a page when looking at its layout.
  • Lorem Ipsum Looks Like Readable English.
  • Now default for desktop publisher and web page editors

Two points have sentence casing; one has headline casing. Two have periods; one does not. For a list of short points, it doesn’t matter if you put a period at the end of each point or not. But could you at least do it consistently?

To make matters worse, people often end up changing typefaces without realizing it. And point size. And sometimes colours. Longer pieces of text will be ragged right on one slide and justified on the next.

Consistency becomes harder as you add more slides. I often see a series of slides with the title containing some abbreviation of “continued”. But sometimes it will be “Con’t”, sometimes “cont”, then “Con’t.”, followed by “(con't)”. I think I have seen every permutation of four letters and punctuation marks that it is possible to make.

Maintaining consistency becomes downright treacherous when you are creating presentations with several pieces of software. For instance, you might use Verdana as a typeface throughout your PowerPoint slides... but then forget that your Excel chart has the axes labelled in Arial.

Does anyone notice? For scientific or technical presentations, the answer is almost certainly, “Yes.” The audience is going to be filled with people whose livelihood depends on obsessing over details.

You want your audience to believe that you are someone who cares about details. Being consistent in your typography and slide design shows you are paying attention.

Pick a style and stay with it!

* I try to tell them to get rid of all those damn lists that everyone hates, but they’re all too scared. Wusses.

Photo by britl on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

4 comments:

Miss MSE said...

I'm a big fan of minimizing the amount of text on slides. There are certain slides where it's unavoidable, but for results slides, I try and eliminate all text except titles and plot labels. If you need the text in front of you while presenting (in Powerpoint), add notes and use the presenter's tools!

One of the challenges I find in keeping my slides consistent has more to do with Power Point's automatic settings, which occasionally apply themselves haphazardly (especially when it comes to fonts). Unfortunately, there's no point in exploring other software options right now, as my adviser demands everything in Word or Powerpoint formats.

Zen said...

I've experienced PowerPoint's tendency to change font size. As far as I can tell, though, casing and punctuation are entirely the fault of the person at the keyboard. :)

Mariena said...

Ahhh, the marvelous consistency ... yes. I spent sometime with my PhD boss going through all of my presentations, before and after giving talks and seminars because PhD boss was very adamant about being considerate to your audience. I still have some of the notes boss took while at my talks and because we reused some of the slides, once it was fixed on one it was fixed forever. As I was polishing my talks for my interviews I went through them again, making sure the fonts, styles and colous were consistent. I will always have that piece of advice in my head. Consistency is just as important as the content. Thanks for your pointers Dr. Z.

thetightropeblog said...

In Powerpoint or Keynote, you can fix the master template so that the font is consistent. But if you're adding in new slides from different presentations, there's bound to be some inconsistencies. After I get my presentations put together, I always spend some time going through them and fixing all those little issues. Because I am most definitely one of those audience members that gets hung up on the details!!