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Make Your Materials Work for You - How to Design Exhibits That Impress Others
By Steve Kaye   Printer Friendly Version

You've just been asked to speak at a big meeting and you want to make a good impression. Since visual aids add interest to a presentation, you decide to create slides to accompany your talk. So, you start up your computer and find a wonderful assortment of templates, clip art, and fonts that you could use to create an eye rattling display of artistry.

Stop right now and read this article before you go further. It could save your presentation (and your career).

First, realize that there are two important laws that apply to the design of exhibits:

1) People are more impressed by what they can read and understand.

2) Elaborate design will never rescue bad information.

Here are basic design considerations that will make sure your exhibits help rather than hinder your presentation.


Your software may include a library of ready-made designs (or templates). If so, use the same design for all of your slides. And then, select the simplest one possible. Avoid complex patterns, fancy icons, and exotic colors. I prefer designs like the following:

1) Plain (white) background with blue text, using navy for the titles and a lighter shade for supporting text.

2) Blue background with yellow text for titles and white text for supporting information.

Of course, you can create templates like these yourself if they aren't in the library.

The key to successful design is simplicity. Complexity confuses your audience and wastes your time.

Your software may provide options that let you animate your presentation. I urge you to ignore the temptation to use them. But if you must animate, be conservative. Tumbling icons, sliding text, and fading images all appear interesting - once. After the third time, however, the novelty wears off and they become distracting (even irritating).


Put the title at the top and the supporting text in a bulleted list underneath. Justify all text to the left, because we read from left to right.

If you include images place them to the right of the text. Of course, some slides may consist of only an image, such as a graph, schematic, or diagram.

When using images, use simple images that people can easily understand at a distance. If you must show a complex schematic, then distribute paper copies instead of attempting to cram every thing on a slide that no one will be able to read. This also apples to large spreadsheets, charts, and reports.

You can easily check your slides for clarity. If you plan to introduce a slide with the words, "I know you can't read this. . . " that slide is worthless. Toss it out.


Use one font for all of the text in your presentation. The standardization makes it appear like a unified presentation.

Select a sans serif font, such as Arial or Helvetica. You will recognize a sans serif font by the square, block-like corners on the letters. Such fonts are more legible (easier to distinguish at a distance).

Avoid serif fonts, such as Times, because these are less legible. These fonts have small wings on the ends of the letters, which help move the eye from letter to letter. While this makes text printed with such fonts more readable, it can cause letters to blur together at a distance.

Think road signs and use a sans serif font.


Use mixed case for all text because this assists word recognition at a distance. For example, consider the difference between

This Is a Title



Solid capital letters appears as a rectangular block, while the patterns formed by mixed case letters help people read the words.

Point Size

Bigger is better. I recommend using:

  • 60 to 72 pt. for a title slide
  • 42 to 48 pt. for standard titles
  • 28 to 32 pt. for supporting text

Check if your text is large enough by printing a slide on standard paper, placing it on the floor, taking one step back, and then trying to read it. If you are unable to read any of the text, others won't be able to read it either.

Reminder: you are preparing these slides to display information for your audience's benefit. Thus, use text that they can read.

Lines of Text

Limit yourself to a title and a maximum of seven lines of supporting information. If you use more lines than that, you risk two dilemmas:

1) You will have to use a smaller point size than recommended, which makes it more difficult to read your text.

2) You will put too much information on a single exhibit, which makes it more difficult to understand your ideas.

I also recommend a paragraph spacing of 1.5 lines, to make each idea stand out from others in the list.


Fewer is better. Your slides should support your presentation, not replace it. If your slides contain the complete text that you plan to say, you may as well stay home and just mail a copy to everyone.

Most text slides consist of a title and supporting text. Effective titles present a headline or summary of the idea on that slide. Supporting text provides key words or ideas that outline (or reinforce) what you plan to say. For example, a slide summarizing this article might look like:

Keep Exhibits Simple

  • Plain Background
  • Conventional Layout
  • Sans Serif Font
  • Large Point Sizes
  • ixed Case Text
  • Minimum Words

Most people begin planning for a presentation by writing a list of the ideas that they want to convey. At this stage, feel free to write sentences, paragraphs, or phrases. When you create your exhibits, reduce these ideas to the most concise text possible that retains an outline of your ideas. That way, your exhibits will highlight what you are saying, while letting you stay at the center of everyone's focus because you are the source of information.

As a final point, realize that accurate content is essential. Make sure that your facts are correct and ask others to evaluate your materials. If you have time, invite your boss or trusted colleagues to attend a practice run of your presentation. Then you can look forward to your big presentation, confident that you, and your slides, will make a good impression.

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