Please Stop Requiring Your Speakers To Use Slide Templates

Please Stop Requiring Your Speakers To Use Slide Templates - Brass Tack ThinkingEvent organizers:

Please reconsider requiring your speakers to use slide templates. Really. Pretty please?

We absolutely understand that you believe this practice will convey a certain amount of consistency with the event branding. But you’ve already got that with your site, your signage, your print materials, your badges, your squishy stress balls and your conference pens. The presentation template isn’t a good place to emphasize this. Here’s why.

If you want a great presentation from a presenter, you’re not going to get it from a template.

This is a generalization I’m sure, but I have yet to see a slide template provided by an event that doesn’t look clunky and cumbersome. Some are full-on amateurish because, well, they’re designed by the marketing intern. Not designers, not even experienced presenters.

Plus, they’ve got to be universally compatible, which means graphic based, which means you don’t want them to be too big or hard to work around, which limits both the space you have to work with and the elegance you can achieve.

I recognize that not everyone is a stellar presentation designer, and you’re concerned that your speakers might bring slides that don’t look polished. But templates don’t solve that problem. What they do is provide a standard format for mediocre design and content.

Really great presentations are more visual than anything else. A template strips all of the creativity and individuality out of a presentation and distracts from outstanding visuals and design. If the problem is that your presenters can’t build a slide deck that isn’t jammed with bullet points and bad clip art, your template isn’t going to fix that, it’s only going to make it worse while they work to shoehorn their bullet points and bad clip art in less space or with a different font and your logo in the footer.

Moreover, some of us who present professionally often actually invest a significant amount of money (like thousands of dollars for each presentation) in having some presentations professionally designed because we want to deliver the very best for your audiences. We’re the minority, I understand that. But when it does happen, please don’t make us take that investment and stick it in a stock template that everyone else is using.

Templates are, well, templates.

If you insist on a template for your event’s presentations, every single presentation in every single room of your conference is going to look and feel the same at the most fundamental level. The result is that at the very start, your attendees are going to zone out on the visuals in front of them, whether they enhance the topic or not.

Let the speakers and their content stand out — for better or worse. You’re trying to create a dynamic conference with diverse content that appeals to a wide range of people.

You’ve worked so hard and spent so much effort to create a great agenda with speakers and topics that you’re confident will deliver value to your audience. It’s really hard to build and emphasize that dynamic by insisting that all presentations look like clones of one another.

Templates can be an aid, but shouldn’t be a requirement.

If you have presenters who aren’t confident in their presentation design or are less experienced at building a presentation for an event like yours, providing them with an optional template to use or some guidelines to follow can be a great way to support them and help take some of the stress out of building their slide decks.

But “optional” is the operative word.

You aren’t going to weed out bad design, weak content, or sales-heavy presentations with a slide template. Those are human problems that are driven by the speaker, not problems with the tools or the delivery mechanisms. And those weaknesses are a very real risk of putting on an event. If you don’t have confidence in the speakers or their material, you have a talent problem on your hands, not a materials problem.

Unfortunately for all of us who have run an event or participated in one at any time at all, you realize that you simply can’t use process and procedure to prevent poor performance. It just doesn’t work.

How To Help Instead

If you really want to help your speakers create better looking decks, offer time from your more seasoned event staff for even five minutes of feedback on your speakers’ presentations in the week or two before the conference to help them improve it. Make it optional (no professional likes to feel undermined).

If your event is of the scale where that’s just not feasible or reasonable, post some guidelines on a speakers-only page for your event, or embed some examples of presentations you love from Slideshare with a few points about what you love (the images, the layout, the style and voice). Include links to some great presentation resources like slide:ology or Presentation Zen.

If your presenters have cash to invest in making their visuals outstanding, send them to professionals like Ethos3 (disclosure: they’ve designed a few of my presentations, I love them, they’ve given me discounts, and I will use them again even if I pay full price).

Trust Your Speakers

I love speaking at events. It’s one of the most rewarding and interesting parts of my work, especially when you look out into a room and see people smiling, furiously taking notes, asking great questions, and you watch the lightbulbs go on while people get new ideas or see concepts in a new way. It’s exhilarating.

People like me put a great deal of effort into pulling together a presentation that doesn’t need a template to resonate with the audience. If you bring aboard speakers that are invested in their topic, invested in teaching your audience and devoted to making their sessions awesome, your brand and your event will be elevated over and over again by having them there.

Trust me when I tell you that no one attending an awesome session will forget what event they’re attending, and they have plenty of reminders around them to make subtle and continued impressions of your brand. Great presenters make it obvious that you, the event organizer, care greatly about leaving your attendees with valuable information and ideas that they can chew on and implement for months afterward.

And I promise, when that happens, no one will miss the template.

  • http://www.cc-chapman.com/ C.C. Chapman

    AMEN!!!

    • http://brasstackthinking.com Amber Naslund

      I figured you’d appreciate this one. :)

  • http://sharonmostyn.com Sharon Mostyn

    I definitely agree, Amber! I would suggest that event organizers add “include your Twitter handle and the conference hashtag on every slide (or at least the opening slide)” to the guidelines. Nothing frustrates me more than wanting to share a new piece of information that I’ve learned but not having the speaker’s Twitter handle until the end of the presentation.

    • http://brasstackthinking.com Amber Naslund

      Great tip, Sharon. Thanks for sharing it!

  • http://twitter.com/SophiaLS Sophia Lee-Spencer

    A very good post.

    As a seasoned event manager I really like to see guest speakers using their own slides as it reinforces the diversity of speakers at an event.

    Securing a high profile speaker is often a real achievement and they provide a huge draw for the event – it seems daft then to neutralise their impact by re-branding their slides. People came to see them so make the most of showcasing their brand as a reminder of who you got to speak at your event.

    Thanks Amber!

    • http://brasstackthinking.com Amber Naslund

      Believe it or not, I made the mistake of handing over my slides in advance to an event once for a keynote presentation (it’s in my contract not to do that now) and they *actually redesigned the slides*. They didn’t just tweak them, they utterly and completely changed them all. And my slides do not suck. “Daft” is exactly the word I’d use!

      • http://www.Fearless-Selling.ca Kelley Robertson

        Unbelievable! I’m stunned that someone would have the audacity to change your presentation without your permission. I’m like you…I NEVER give my slides in advance for the exact same reason…they are images with very little test. GREAT post!

      • http://coachlisab.blogspot.com/ Lisa Braithwaite

        That’s ridiculous. Your content and slides are proprietary; they have no right to change anything. I guess I’ve been lucky no one has ever done that to me. I would absolutely go berzerk.

  • http://twitter.com/lcsharp Lisa Sharp

    A very timely post. I hate presentation templates because more often than not, the people who choose them don’t often (if ever) present. Most of the time they are God-Awful. If you’ve chosen me to speak, then trust me to present my material in a fun and unique way.

    • http://brasstackthinking.com Amber Naslund

      And if I don’t, hold me accountable (or allow your attendees to do so via feedback, etc). But for crying out loud, you’re hiring me because I’m a professional, presumably.

  • http://www.purplestripe.com/ LynetteRadio

    “Templates can be an aid, but shouldn’t be a requirement.”

    My best slide deck was one I made that contained only made-up stats in pretty charts and photos of cats. Slides should support the speaker, not speak for them. I can’t stand fighting with conference or training organizers about the use of slides and templates.

    Most companies that ask me for slides want them submitted before the talk/training/session so they can print and bind them like a workbook. NOOOOOOOOO. No. Just stop.

    I’m saving this post so I can send it out in the future to people that request I have a certain number of slides or bullet points on each slide. Thank you!

    • http://brasstackthinking.com Amber Naslund

      My slides are almost always image driven with very few words. Which means they make *zero* sense out of context, for handouts, or posted on a website somewhere. That’s one reason I won’t hand them over in advance.

      Some events cite tech reasons for needing a presentation in advance (big events need to get presentations queued up on resident laptops or something) but I always bring USB copies (two, just in case) and that works just fine.

      If someone has a *really good* reason for needing slides in advance other than “we want to make sure they don’t suck”, I’d love to hear it.

      • http://www.purplestripe.com/ LynetteRadio

        If an organization fears their speaker/slides might such, that points to other issues…. ;)

      • http://www.ianbrodie.com ianbrodie

        Send your presentation months in advance is often code for “we don’t trust you, if we don’t make you do it months in advance you’ll rush it off on the morning of the event”. Not a great way to handle a relationship.

      • Concetta Phillipps

        Amber, I know this is going to be in the “we want to make sure they don’t suck” category, but I’m going to say it anyway: most people *really* suck at designing PowerPoints (side point: I do work in continuing education, so we have to use some templates in order to meet agency guidelines). They don’t go with an image story like you, or like some of the other folks have mentioned here. They try to put two paragraphs of text on a slide (or the text in size 8 font), they put images so small you’d need a microscope to read them, and they try to read off the slides. Or they put so much on a slide that it goes over, and they can’t understand why the PowerPoint’s cutting off mid-sentence. The other side of the suck is that a lot of people don’t understand that handout PowerPoints and presentation PowerPoints are two different things. Its okay to put a full paragraph on a slide that’s just going to be printed and put in the manual, it is not okay to put that on screen and read it word for word as the presentation.

        As an organizer, I love people like you, who know how and when to use a PowerPoint. But you are by far and away the minority. If I ask people to give me their slides in advance, that’s an excuse for me to get the poor PowerPoint users to get their content into me so I can get them an appointment with a real designer who can help them do an excellent job on their slides. Whenever our designers do minor edits to a PowerPoint, we also check it with the presenter to make sure it matches the intent of the slide (most often changes are to font size and adding image citations).

        And…since I have many of the same people year after year speaking, I know which ones I can give more freedom to vs. the ones that need to be kept on the short leash. If you were presenting, I’d know that its okay to give you freedom to present as you wish, because you’d already proven your capabilities. A good organizer will do that instead of blanket-applying uniform rules to everyone when its unnecessary.

        • http://brasstackthinking.com Amber Naslund

          Concetta – And your last paragraph is *everything*. Look, I do a LOT of events so I see the horror shows, too. I really do. And from that perspective, I get it.

          Perhaps a way for me to clarify my stance on this is to emphasize what you said: the event organizers need think critically enough to know what ‘rules’ need to apply to what speakers…or not. If you’ve invited someone to keynote your event that has an established track record, has presentations online that you can view if you have concerns, and who clearly has experience beyond your average speaker, maybe don’t ask them to have their slides “reviewed and edited” by your junior event staff?

          I hate to sound like such a snot and all “don’t you know who I AM??” because I realize that there are reasons WHY those processes exist.

          But on the flip side, if you’re going to the trouble to bring experienced professionals to your event (especially if they’re giving of their time to do it), it’s really frustrating as a professional speaker to be asked to jump through all the same hoops as someone who has zero experience and who may very well need the guidance. Many of us work very hard to produce materials, references, and speaking examples/clips that help organizers see and decide for themselves in advance whether we’re qualified to present to their audience and the type of speaker they want to hire.

    • http://coachlisab.blogspot.com/ Lisa Braithwaite

      This is a constant fight, the request to have slides way in advance. Yes, so they can print them out and everyone can take notes. Can’t they take notes without a copy of my slides? I don’t get it. And like many have mentioned, my slides are image-based with one sentence per slide. These are useless without a presenter.

  • http://twitter.com/gwynnek Gwynne

    +1 on template choice for presenters.

    My slides are primarily images and I frequently use complex builds. This translates poorly to cookie cutter templates. My motto is, have USB, will travel. (Sometimes I bring USB and CD, like Amber, better prepared). I have found the tech staffs to be very professional when I walk in and hand over my thumb drive.

    Worse, tho, are webinars. I did one a few weeks back, and they CHANGED two slides in addition to screwing them up with their templates. Threw me off my game. Rather than play it off, I mentioned that these slides were a surprise. Won’t be back with them, again.

  • http://ariherzog.com/ Ari Herzog

    Plus, a presentation is just that; it doesn’t require a computer or slides. I tweeted this morning that I attended someone’s talk on social media tips to realtors and how I was intrigued she wasn’t using a computer to aid her in the talk. I recently concluded a 4-week social media marketing course at a local college and I didn’t use any slides. But that’s her and me. Are our presentations to these audiences any different than one someone creates for a different audience? Or is a presentation a presentation regardless if there is a template or regardless if there is a computer?

    I love your breath of fresh air, Amber.

  • datachick

    I have written this blog post a million times in my head. Thanks for doing this for me.

  • datachick

    Sad story: I had to present at a large conference that sent both a template and “guidelines”. They ran slide deck from their own computers. I show up and here’s what they had done to my slides:

    Cut every sentence off at 7 words (guideline was 7). I rarely use bullet points, but sometimes I have to use the legal name of a product, which can get into 5 words or more. I had quotes from others (and from legislation) that were just arbitrarily lopped off at 7 words.

    Removed all graphics and images from my slides. I use a lot of graphics. Did I mention I hate bullet points?

    Inserted slides that I had no idea where they came from or what they meant.

    Converted my deck to their ugly red letters on white background, black background with grey text template.

    Changed slide content to better align with their marketing messages.

    Removed anything with negative wording. These were words like “watch out for”, “be careful of” and “don’t let”. (guidelines, again).

    I was left with a butchered slide deck that looked stupid, no longer represented my content and even a series of blank slides.

    About 5 minutes in I had to stop the slide deck completely. I learned to never trust the “we’ll just pre-load your slides onto the machines there”. I had gone earlier in the day to check that my deck was still there, but I didn’t think to check every slide. Now I know. And you do, too.

    • http://coachlisab.blogspot.com/ Lisa Braithwaite

      That’s horrible. And that’s also why we always have to be ready and able to present without slides!

  • http://twitter.com/barrymoltz barrymoltz

    I could not agree more! Thank you Amber!

  • http://AndyJanning.com/ Andy Janning

    Absolutely spot-on advice and guidance!!

  • http://twitter.com/PromoPower Larry Mersereau, CTC

    When I’m given a template, I use their title slide, and try to use their background at least once or twice during the program – I don’t use bullet points ever, so just my content on their background – and nobody has every said a word, even when I have to submit slides in advance. (Another topic you might address: just how far in advance do you want me to create your program? If you want current facts and data, don’t ask for slides three or four months in advance.)

    • http://coachlisab.blogspot.com/ Lisa Braithwaite

      That one drives me crazy. To have to submit a completed presentation three months before the conference is ridiculous.

  • Thomas Lee

    Yes!! Thank you for this important essay. I completely agree. In several instances I have been told “we’ll just preload your slide deck” only to discover my slide deck has been butchered beyond recognition. Now I always have the deck on a thumb drive, ready to plug and play.

  • http://coachlisab.blogspot.com/ Lisa Braithwaite

    Well said! The one time I was asked to use the conference template, I negotiated to only use their first and last slide and do all my own (image-based) design in the middle. You can always ask!

  • Keith Croes

    This is a CME event, right? I’m not defending “butchering” presentations or even using standard templates, but when agencies are involved, so are editors and fact-checkers. Presenters certainly have the right to review changes in grammar, clarity, organization, or accuracy, and to stet if necessary–but from an editor’s point of view, some stets are worth fighting for, and may even be absolutely mandatory. Are there no presenters who have been spared embarrassment by good (and conservative) editing?
    And all this doesn’t begin to address the question of off-label uses. The National Task Force on CME Provider/Industry Collaboration (http://www.ama-assn.org/resources/doc/cme/fact-sheet-4.pdf) allows the discussion of off-label use if it is “accepted within the medical profession as having adequate justification…Such discussion must be evidence-based, should be strictly limited to the discretion of the accredited provider within the activity, and cannot be positioned to encourage or promote off-label use for commercial purposes.”
    Frankly, some presentations don’t meet these requirements. I’ve never trimmed a bullet point in a CME presentation so that it was a maximum of 7 words, but I have seen 7 words that were not supported by the cited reference.
    In almost every other respect, I agree with the general tenor of this discussion. However, I’m surprised that no one has defended legitimate and necessary revisions.

    • http://brasstackthinking.com Amber Naslund

      No, not a CME event. At least not if you’re directing your question to me. Perhaps you’re asking that of another commenter. But all of my examples have been events outside the medical or medical education industry, and the changes that have been made to my materials were done without my input and either to amend the design to someone else’s aesthetic or to insert THEIR promotional information into the presentation.

  • Guest

    Sorry, folks. This discussion was mentioned in a CME group on LinkedIn. I posted in the wrong place. I apologize for the error.

    • http://brasstackthinking.com Amber Naslund

      Oh! No problem. But it’s a great point you make, actually. There are some industries and events where fact-checking and standards for data presentation need to be upheld. I think that begs an important set of questions about presenting in those industries. I’m glad you commented here!

  • retailxpert

    Amen and Amen. I have forwarded to so many people. Using my chosen template, maintaining editorial control and delivering presentations at the event (or the day before for webinars) are all written into my contracts. I work in a fast-changing industry (retail) and never do the same presentation twice. I often update slides the night before a presentation (or the morning of when well-rested) in order to include the latest and greatest images (text – not so much). Those who hire me do so now because of, not in spite of, all of that. I had to learn the hard way after suffering through a janky, fat-bordered, mandate-template that was an embarrassment throughout a three-day event (snickers from the audience). Dare to be the exception.