Making Good Slides

I will perform a magic trick: even though I have not yet reviewed your slides, I am going to give you feedback on them! These tried-and-true “Tips for Slide Success” have been distilled from years of watching (and creating) bad slide presentations, so, enjoy!

High-level feedback #1: You have too many slides for the time allotted, and there’s too much text on every slide. Budget at least 2 minutes per slide, and aim for each slide to have no complete sentences and no bullets that exceed 1 line of text at large-ish font sizes (≥18pt for top-level bullets, ≥14pt for second-level, there should be no third-level)

High-level feedback #2: Please use slide numbers that your colleagues (or the audience) can refer to when giving feedback!


  1. Aim for a graphical element on every slide, if possible. That’s often impractical but it is an ideal to shoot for. Remember slides are meant to accompany your talk, not to be read standalone. If there isn’t a graphic on the slide, and most of the slide’s text will be spoken by you, what is the slide’s purpose?
  2. Especially when showing graphics, use the full slide real estate. Crop away the unnecessary parts of the image and expand the rest to fit.
  3. Graph axes should be large enough to be read.
  4. You should be able to indicate a point on the graph and explain it. Better yet, include an animated call-out to do so.

Text and Organization

A slide deck shouldn’t just be a paper that’s been reformatted to use PowerPoint. It is there to support your presentation, which is the real focus. What is the minimal number of slides, and the minimal amount of content per slide, that supports your presentation?

I’ve seen many talks where the speaker will display a slide that looks like a page of an article that has been reformatted to landscape mode, and will then say something like “Don’t worry about trying to read all the text on the slide.” Well, then why is it there?

For timing, budget two minutes per slide, including the title slide. I know, you don’t believe me.  Trust me on this. If your goal is to talk for 15 minutes, don’t exceed 7 slides. (And that’s if you apply all the tersification guidelines below. If you don’t, then you should budget 4 minutes per slide.)

  1. Short talks (<= 15 minutes) shouldn’t need an outline; their organization should be self-evident.
  2. Each slide’s title should summarize its main message. Reading only the titles should give a pretty good idea of what you’re going to say.
    Before: slide title is “Results”; slide bullets indicate that students had higher learning outcomes using My Great Tool than without it
    After: slide title is “My Great Tool quantitatively improves learning outcomes”
  3. Top level bullet text should ideally be 1 line; at most 2 lines. Second level bullets even shorter. No third level bullets, ever. If a given level of bullet hierarchy has only one item, ask yourself why.

  4. Use concise and incomplete sentences. Omit articles, verbs, whatever—minimize word count to convey the point, and use Strunk & White to find more concise, active-voice verbs. (Corollary: If something is not a complete sentence, it should not end with a period, so there should be few sentence-ending periods in your slides.)

Before: Using fuzz testing in the autograder makes it difficult for students to “game” the tests [15 words]

After: Fuzz testing thwarts “gaming” tests [5 words]

(If the slide/bullet is obviously about autograding, you can omit that word. ‘Thwarts’ is an active voice verb that replaces ‘makes it difficult for [someone] to…’ The thesaurus is your friend.)

  1. Tersify references (if you must include them) by eliding obvious things.

Before: Matthies, Christoph, et al. “How surveys, tutors, and software help to assess Scrum adoption in a classroom software engineering project.” Proceedings of the 38th International Conference on Software Engineering Companion. ACM, 2016 [232 char.]\

After: Matthies et al. “How surveys, tutors, and software help to assess Scrum adoption in a classroom software engineering project.” ICSE 2016 [138 char.]

  1. The “Conclusion(s)” slide should be last. Otherwise it’s not actually a conclusion.


  1. Don’t use Arial; it’s a “screen-friendly” but typographically deficient knockoff of Helvetica, which you should use instead if you want a sans-serif font. Don’t use Comic Sans, ever. In a talk, it’s not folksy and informal, just stupid-looking.

  2. If text on a slide is meant to be read, it needs to be readable by people in the back row, so nothing smaller than about 22pt. If the text “isn’t meant to be read”, it shouldn’t be on the slide unless it is there to prove a point, in which case it should be obviously unreadable (e.g., 50 lines of 8-point convoluted program code to demonstrate that students often submit tangled solutions to simple problems).  No one will download your slide PDF in order to read something they missed during your talk.

  3. Avoid under-saturated colors, such as orange and lime, as they may wash out in bright lighting or on older/less powerful projectors. Use these colors for subtle accents, for example, to shade a cell of a table or part of a diagram you want to call attention to. For text that needs to be highly emphasized, use saturated colors like fire engine red, royal blue, etc. 

  4. To minimize accessibility issues, keep slide layouts simple, include alternative text describing images, and be aware of color choices. This short guide can help.

  5. On a busy slide, use animation builds to direct the listener’s focus as you speak. (Better: make the slide less busy.) Use animations only to improve clarity, not to “add pizzazz.” 

  6. Use slide numbers, both to allow colleagues to critique your dryrun and audience members to refer to slides during Q&A.

Final check

  1. For every slide, ask yourself: How would the presentation suffer, specifically, if this slide were deleted? If there isn’t an immediate and crystal clear answer, delete it.

  2. On each slide, repeat #1, replacing “slide” with “bullet”.

  3. On each slide, repeat #1 on each bullet, replacing “slide” with “word”.