Presentation Rules

Jun 05, 2020

I watch and write a lot of presentations at work. I also spend a reasonable amount of time learning, and relearning from my own mistakes in crafting presentations. This post attempts to collate these together to remind myself and potentially share with others.

For this post I am assuming a presentation is chosen (for you). There are other approaches, such as memo’s that may be more suited.


  1. 80%+ of all failures in an organization larger than 1.000 people are attributable to failed communication

  2. Presentations, either as verb or noun, are a substantial part of communications in a business

  3. Thus improving your presentations will improve effectiveness of your organization


  1. No Builds. No presentation needs builds (exposing one bullet point of a list at a time), animations or transitions; no exceptions. In business this will invariably go wrong. Your audience will ask to go back a slide or two, you end up half way in a build, or worse, with an empty slide. None of this is needed.

  2. Minimum font size 24pt. Yes, not all the words in your mind will fit on that one page. Yes, that constraint will actually help you create a clearer narrative. If it does not fit, you are not done clarifying your messaging concisely.

  3. Use fewer words. Rule number 2 is trying to help you here. But for each iteration I set myself the goal of removing half the words. This is hard, as I feel I need to leave out important details and context. There is a place for details and context, but the most important is the actual message you want to get across.

  4. Stick with your organization’s template. The challenge when you deviate from the default template is that it will become cute, a time sink or a distraction for the reader. So stick with the default. Don’t like the default? Then create a new one as a separate activity. (You now have crossed the chasm from author to designer, I hope you know what you are doing.)

  5. Ensure your slide has a take-away. The slide presents thoughts, data, or whatever; too often the conclusion or the action point of it is left to the reader or as voice over. Do not do this; spell out the take-away for your audience. They did not sign up for a Sherlock Holmes role-play.

  6. Executive Summary. Have one. No, have two: the slide after your title slide should be your executive summary. Then run through your story line and bookend again with the executive summary. This should be pixel for pixel the same content as the one in the beginning. Your executive summary is not allowed to introduce anything new; no new data, concepts or conclusions. 1

  7. Structure. Stories can be told in many different ways. One way that works well in most situations is to divide the story arc up in Situation, Complication and Solution. Leaving one of these three components out will seriously hamper your ability to convince your audience, just like it is hard to ascend a staircase with stairs missing. Yes, this advice is coming from Professional Career PowerPoint Wielders: take it 2. That link lays out the structure, and has actual examples to get you going.

  8. Slide numbers. Each slide should have one. Not having one on random slides is telling me you fumbled the slides together. It makes it hard for me to take notes, or to speed up asking questions at the end. Do not do this to your audience. Cheap to fix.

  9. Data points. Chances are you have mentioned some piece of data somewhere. That is good. Not all is lost. Just make clear what the units are. Something costs 1 million? Is that Euros or Dollars? Almost no costs I encounter are static, in other words they are likely better expressed as a rate of costs: “This option will cost 1 million dollars per year, starting April 1st”. Secondly, if you have a lot riding on the data point (and why include it if you do not?) then make sure to include an attribution or source the data point. The more authoritative you can make this, the better.

  10. Graphs. I feel this requires its own article. In fact entire books 3 have been written on the topic. Instead, I will attempt to quickly run down the top points
    • All axis are labeled. What do they represent, and include a unit
    • No Pie charts. Invariably a time series chart will lead to better comparisons of the data and will give the audience a sense of temporal change that pie charts lack
    • Font sizes. You are still creating a presentation, so rule #2 still applies
    • Context. Showing a graph with error rates? Great! But do include the normal rates in the same graph for comparison
  11. Wall of text. Do not ever present a slide while starting off with “Well, I’m not going to read all this out to you, but…”. You have lost half the audience because they are reading your wall of text. You lost the other half because you are being disrespectful to them. So simply do not include any wall of text. Rule #2 is here to help you with that.

  12. Homework. Do not try to convince your audience that you have done all your homework before presenting the results. This is not your main message, and it will distract. When I see this happen it often shows up as #11 “Wall of text”. If you are that person, ask yourself why the audience would assume you did not do your homework. You are likely operating under baseless assumptions.

  13. Artifacts. Some people insist on sending the slides ahead of time. I think that depends on the situation. However, I insist on sending the slides after the presentation. Do not waste time by forcing your audience to ask for a copy of the slides, take half correct notes or worse, interrupt your presentation over Zoom with camera sound as they are taking screenshots. Send the deck to them afterwards, thanking them for their time.

  14. Typography. Grok the basics of typography. Think of this as a set of battle tested heuristics that do not require you to understand, but just apply. I have found that Practical Typography is a fantastic resource for this. A couple of quick relevant points are:
    • Do not use bold and italics together.
    • Do not underline at all.
    • Consider font size, line spacing, line length at first
    • The question mark is underused, the exclamation point overused 4
    • Treat headings as the structure of your argument, not your document
  15. Titles. Titles for the individual slides or graphs should be the conclusion. Not only will this save your audience from expanding the mental energy, it allows you to select the conclusion you need if there is more than one available. So instead of “tire wear vs miles driven” it should say “tire wear increases with miles driven” 5.

  16. No numbers until you are done talking. As soon as you put up a set of numbers or a graph the audience will think, analyse and stop paying attention. That is your best case scenario. Worst case, someone will interrupt you with a question that potentially disrupts the flow. So only show these after you are done presenting your main point 6.

Thank you for making it this far. If you did, you almost certainly thought of something not covered here. Please leave a comment below or send me a pull request!

Update 2020-06-06: The above got a small amount of attention on HackerNews, with some great feedback in the comments. Thanks to everyone for contributing, especially jensenbox, kLabz, soonho-tri and stephanwehner.

Update 2020-06-08: For those of you who are looking for resources for public speaking, please see here.

Update 2020-06-27: There is now a russian translation, thank you Vladimir!


  1. The advice I gave in rule #6 is a more specific form of “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them”, as nicely demonstrated by example by grawprog on HN

  2. I believe the structure was first created, or popularized by McKinsey, who depending on your views, have a core business of turning slides into billion dollar revenue streams. This link does a good introduction of the concepts, takes you step by step and references actual presentations as examples. 

  3. The de facto standard work in this space is Tufte 

  4. This felt as a surprising revelation once I started paying attention to it. See here for more info 

  5. As per loghlane on HN: “So instead of “tire wear vs miles driven” it should say “tire wear increases with miles driven”” 

  6. Thanks to Triggercut on HN for bringing forward this feedback.