How To Present Well: Build Your Slides

Only here, at the end of our process, handouts complete, outline complete, am I ready to introduce PowerPoint Keynote to our system. The presentation is all but locked at this point. Keynote has very little room to mess things up.

But we need to get it out there, out into the open, intervention-style, that 90% of the time we use bullets, we use them to help us remember our presentation. 90% of the time you throw up a slide like this:

It’s because it helps you keep your presentation on track.

But presentation is very nearly a zero-sum game: anything that makes your experience easier as a presenter makes the experience more difficult for your audience. Any weight you shoulder, whether you’re memorizing or note-carding your talking points, whether you’re doing more with your handouts than printing out slides six-to-a-page, makes your audience’s experience more rewarding.

So I move carefully, evaluating each slide, wondering inwardly if slide x benefits me or my audience ’cause very rarely is it both.

Slides are only here, in this specific presentation, because there are things I have to show. I bust these clichés up, many times, by deploying careful visuals, some of which I have to recreate. I have to show them math basketball, fake or legit, miscellaneous questions, the pentagon problem. I have to show them these things.

I have to show them Kelly.

Kelly is kind of the fulcrum of this whole presentation — the emblematic been-wrecked-by-eight-years-of-corny-instruction student.

Kelly-the-hypothetical-student raises all sorts of teaching challenges.

Kelly-the-presentation-slide raises two specific design challenges.

This would’ve been a mistake.

Seven out of ten presentations I’ve attended this year would’ve used Marlo over Kelly. Marlo’s tempting. A scowling African-American male would’ve set this thing off huge. Marlo’s got poverty, anger, and a debilitating social crowd to go along with his lousy edu-experiences. I could get up in front of fifteen new teachers, tell ’em, this is what you’re up against next year, and own the room for an hour.

But that would’ve been so sensational, so inaccurate, and so incomplete. You set the bar at Marlo, you’re setting the bar low. You’re saying, we’re pitching these cliché busters at the multiple-suspension crowd.

Which we are.

But that would absolve a lot of teachers — teachers who teach kids who look nothing like Marlo — of any culpability here. Making Marlo my poster slide wouldn’t do justice to the truly terrifying fact that even discipline-lite students associate math with terrible clichés. Kelly’s smiling and happy but she hates your class. You set the bar at Marlo, you set the bar so low most of your attendees clear it before they sit down.

So we have Kelly.

Now why not this?

This approach is tempting ’cause I know I’m posting this on Slideshare later. But the sum is still zero. Nearly everything that makes my life easier makes my audience’s life worse. Here, specifically, I won’t type this text on the screen because I’m speaking it. Scientifically, asking your audience to read what you’re already saying generates intellectual static. Anecdotally, it’s annoying.

So I started developing two Keynote presentations side-by-side, koclive.key and kocweb.key. Nothing is easy.

The rest of the process, more or less:

  1. I cmd-tab back and forth between my handouts and slides, making sure the slides track closely to the handouts.
  2. I design individual slides to function first as still photos and then I spruce them up by adding some very basic animations (graphs drawing themselves across the screen, that sort of thing). My presentation would degrade insignificantly if I were forced to dig a Kodak slide projector out of my parents’ attic.
  3. In terms of composition — why this line goes here instead of there, etc. — I have zero schooling. I just adjust, take a step back, adjust again, always trying to arrive at what’s clearest and prettiest.
  4. I invest myself fully into consistency. I’ve kept font families intact throughout the entire presentation. Headlines in lowercase Arial Black. Body text in Tahoma. There’s an unobtrusive legend at the bottom-left of each slide connecting it to one of our five case studies. Same unassuming chalkboard background on every slide. Like last time, the goal of consistency is to make form invisible and content visible.
  5. I dumped this slide:

    I realized it was only there to remind me how many nickels were stolen, which, again, was making my life easier at the expense of my audience’s.

  6. No bullets. Forty slides. No bullets. Very little that’s worth saying can be disintegrated into staccato bullet points. If I ever found myself tending towards bullet points in any presentation, I’d start massaging them into an essay-style handout.

Here’s the complete slidedeck I’ll be presenting tomorrow. I hope that after all this it goes without saying that it’s pretty useless as a standalone file on the web.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. More here.


  1. I wish the presenters at my recent student orientation session had heeded your words of wisdom. Then I wouldn’t have had to sit through three hours of them reading bullets of of their own slides. Although sometimes it was helpful to know what they were meaning to say, since their color pallet made the words unreadable.

  2. I’m conflicted. It’s kind of nice knowing that the bar on presentation has been set so low, since I’ve invested so much. But that I’ve only arrived at that sense of security because you and pretty much everyone I’ll be talking with today have been mauled by lousy PowerPoint makes me kinda ill.

  3. Hey Dan, best of luck to you on this presentation. Will you video record this and have it on YouTube at any point? It would be cool to see your final presentation after seeing the process that you took to develop it.

    Thanks a ton for posting all of this. I have some staff presentations to do this upcoming school year, and you have definitely shaped how I will put those together.

  4. I think we’ve all been scarred by years of poorly prepared PowerPoint presentations. Your series has been a breath of fresh air – if only I could get some district-level folks to read it, I might enjoy meetings a whole lot more!!

  5. Off topic….kinda. Dan’s series indicates just how long it takes to plan and execute a workshop. I’ve done a lot of national, state and local presentations over the last 10 years. I’ve been paid as much as $1000.00 a day, probably figures to be about $7.00 to $10.00 an hour for prep time.

    I did an hour long presentation for my school district in June–it was a new workshop for me–took 20-30 hours of prep. Got the check the other day. The district paid me $23.34. Yikes! Last time I’ll present for them.

  6. TMAO, glad to hear it. That was an easygoing crowd.

    Nancy, that feels as close to the point as anything else here. I’m exhausted. If I had cut any corners anywhere during the process I’m sure I wouldn’t be feeling quite so tired, but no way the experience would’ve been so satisfying.