How consistent should you make your slides? (I say “Go for cohesion instead”)

Glass SquaresHas anyone ever said you should make your slides more consistent? What was the issue, and how did you respond? (Feel free to join the other 5+ people who’ve left a comment below with their thoughts and experiences on consistency.)

Last week, speaking coach Susan Trivers wrote a short post called “Avoid uniformity for the sake of uniformity” [link removed – unfortunately her blog’s no longer online]. It resonated so much with me – and consistency is probably a hot topic for you too – so I hope you find both this post and Susan’s helpful.

Susan wrote:

“During a recent discussion …people were pushing for [several slides’] titles to read either Improvements or Innovations, even though what was being proposed [on the slides] were neither all of one or all of the other.”

Here’s my 1st thought on those slides:

If the audience sees several slides in a row headed “Innovations”, ironically they’ll start to feel that the content doesn’t seem so innovative any more! (To the audience, what looks like a list of similar items has a hard time seeming innovative.)

I often struggle with how far to take consistency

Looking beyond that specific example, I must admit I often struggle with how far to take consistency myself. Usually people use “consistent” to mean keeping things the same. But our brains are wired to tune out to sameness, and to notice differences. So, consistent design elements (like using just a few colours throughout your slide deck) can be a good way to de-emphasise your slide design so your slide content stands out.

Our brains are wired to tune out to sameness

But if your content is consistent (meaning repetitious, as with slides all headed “Innovations”), your audience will be turned off and will tune out. In fact to me, making your content consistent is like saying to your audience:

“Sleep well!”

I don’t mean you should make your content chaotic

Please understand: Like Susan, I don’t mean you should make your content chaotic. I mean you should use consistency to make your audience tune out from things you don’t want them to focus on (like your choice of fonts or colours). Conversely, use contrast to emphasise differences between items (such as clearly separating one topic from the next), or to periodically kick-start your audience’s focus.

Even if you fill every slide with a different photo, that still gets samey

Yet, even with the good practice of using consistent design elements (like layout and colour), it’s easy to go too far. For instance, if all your slides have the same layout, your audience will get bored. And even if you fill every slide with a different photo, that still gets samey after a while. In an extreme case (which is all-too-common), if you use the age-old “title+bullet list” layout, you’ll likely bore people on your very 1st slide, never mind your 10th!

So what can you do? Well, these 3 tips are a good start:

  • Use the same design elements, but in a different way

    Use contrasting slide layouts. For instance, it’s a good idea to use a distinctly different design for your section title slides than for your other slides. That way, people can easily see when you move from one topic to the next in your presentation, which helps them understand your thinking.
    (One way to make your contrasting slide layouts still look like they belong together is to use the same design elements as on your other slides, but in a different way. For instance, if your slides use a slightly textured background, your section title slides could use the same texture but with a different background colour chosen from your colour scheme.)

  • Use these 7 content types (such as charts, quotes, and full-screen photos) as appropriate, to help keep people focused.
     
  • Try using the word “cohesive” in place of “consistent”, to promote the idea of your slide designs (and your content) “going together” – rather than achieving what I call “cookie-cutter consistency”. To help you, here’s an analogy that I hope makes the difference between cohesion and consistency both clear and “clingy” (that is, memorable):

    A set of jigsaw pieces can make a beautiful picture (due to their cohesion), whereas identical bricks just make a boring brick wall (due to their consistency). No prizes for guessing which is more appealing!

Over to you

So, how far do you take consistency, and when do you mix things up to keep your audience focused?

As I said, I often struggle with knowing how far to take consistency – or how far to leave it out! And I’ve had no formal training in graphic design, so I’d love to hear your thoughts.

 

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12 thoughts on “How consistent should you make your slides? (I say “Go for cohesion instead”)

  1. As I’ve come to expect, Craig, your post gets right to the heart of the issue, and nails the target perfectly. Consistency (or rather cohesion!) and variation serve a purpose: to keep the audience engaged and focused on what you want them to focus on!

    Often I’d see a cover slide and go: “Cool design!”, and 50 identical slides later, lose interest.

    One issue I’ve wondered about: I’ve found myself going with a couple of design styles & elements again and again… to the point where people who’ve seen me speak can take one look at the deck and say: ok it’s him. And I worry that this might put them to sleep. (I guess this applies to artists too, as I can often tell whose painting it is w/ one look)

    Is this even an issue? And how would you remedy it?

    Keep giving us wisdom!
    Andrew

    • That’s an interesting question. One presenter who uses very recognisable slide designs and other material is Emma Sutton. She uses a distinctive font, a unique stick-figure (called Lucy) with purple hair, and vivid purple for her slide titles and Twitter links. (It looks much better than it sounds!)

      I really like that Emma’s branding is so recognisable, and it certainly stands out from the crowd.

      To answer your question, the key is to give value each time you speak. If only 1 or 2 people in the crowd have heard you before, I’d say you only need to adjust your talk very slightly (if at all).

      For instance, you might just update an example or story, so there’s still something new for everyone. You might even mention the returned people by name, like by saying:

      “I was speaking with Jill Jones before coming on stage, and she brought up this issue you’ve likely come across too…”

      That’s bound to wake that person up, and likely to make them feel great about your talk!

      If lots of your listeners have heard you speak before, then you’ll need to add or update several examples, stories, or other items to keep the content fresh. But your talk’s core content is likely to be substantially the same. (If it was very different, you’d undermine what you said last time.)

      After all, as Rob Biesenbach put it – it takes 30 years to write a speech!

  2. Love the point about slide layouts. This is a conversation we have a lot with some of our more conservative clients. Using well-designed slide layouts that vary for slide types is a great way to add some visual interest and keep the show feeling dynamic. Quality of design is really important, though, as you need to carefully balance consistency and variation to keep the cohesion you’re looking for. Great post!

  3. Craig, your distinction between cohesive and consistent is exactly right. One can have cohesion with a color palette for example, and then use the colors in a variety of combinations to generate variety.

    The spoken content also needs to be cohesive in the sense that you have a clear destination (a call-to-action) and then key points and high impact content that the audience follows to reach the destination. When all the content is aimed in the direction of the call-to-action, that’s cohesion. It must definitely not be consistent or uniform (all bullets or all graphcis) though. As you say, that puts the audience to sleep. Interesting content includes a mix of forms such as statistics, trends, stories, props, a mix of stand-out visuals, exercise/audience participation, an occasional reference to popular culture & quotes.

    • Thanks for your link, Marc.

      One point you raise is about not mixing too many typefaces. A really handy tip on that score (via Ellen Finkelstein) is that you can replace fonts automatically. To do so, choose Home > Replace [on the far right of the ribbon; click the arrow] > Replace Fonts.

      I see that your post has several other useful links, so thanks again for commenting.

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