Last weekend I gave a talk at DevRelCon Tokyo called The Art of Slide Design. This is the third post in this series, covering the second principle: make important information stand out. The series is pretty much the blog post version of my script/speaker’s notes for it, albeit split out over several posts!

Go back to read The Art of Slide Design intro and Maximise Signal, Minimise Noise.

Art of Slide Design.030

Our second principle is: make important information stand out.

Art of Slide Design.031

So again let’s go back to some theory (from Universal Principles of Design). The von Restorff effect is a phenomenon where you’re more likely to remember things that are noticeably different than things that are common. This is about making things look more unique or distinctive, so that it stands out more and that people will remember them.

Art of Slide Design.032

This is basically what the definition of contrast is: the state of being strikingly different from something else in juxtaposition or close association. So what we want is to use contrast in our slides to make things memorable.

Art of Slide Design.033

A good example of using contrast comes from this book, Slide:ology, from Nancy Duarte – which is all about how to make good presentations.

Art of Slide Design.034

In it she explains contrast through this visualization, highlighting how we can use contrast in our slides in a couple of different ways – using colour, shape, size, shade and proximity. In each of these examples, you’re automatically drawn to the element that stands out.

Art of Slide Design.035

I’ll only cover three of these here, cause I think shade is a variation of colour and proximity isn’t as easy to apply as the others.

Art of Slide Design.037

I’ll give examples for each of these 3 areas, starting with colour.

Art of Slide Design.038

First step is choose a colour palette with contrasting colours.

In the case of colour, contrasting doesn’t necessarily have to mean exact opposite – it’s more about having colours that work well together and are different enough from each other that you can see that they are noticeably different. I won’t go into too much detail here about colour theory, cause there are plenty of web sites and books out there that cover this.

Art of Slide Design.039

One of those websites I really like though is It allows you to quickly try out various colour combinations and shows different variations of it.

Art of Slide Design.040

Plus it also shows you how the colours look together in icons and patterns. So you can get a sense of what type of contrast you might be able to get in your slides.

Art of Slide Design.041

One way of using colour contrast is to use it within a slide to highlight the most important phrase or data.

Going a bit meta, you’ll have noticed that most of my own slides in this presentation have been following exactly this pattern.

Art of Slide Design.042

Another way of using colour is to highlighting different elements on your slide. As I mentioned before the colours don’t need to be too opposite each other – you can use the same colour, in this case: green, and achieve contrast from the different variations of green.

Art of Slide Design.043

Besides using contrast within slides, you can also look at contrast between slides. If you use Keynote, this is the Light Table view – where you can see an overview of all of your slides. I use this overview a lot, cause you can quickly see how all your slides feel as a whole.

This is an overview of one of my presentations from last year about lessons that we could learn from Marvel superheroes.

Art of Slide Design.044

I each time used a red slide at the start of a section to highlight that we were switching to a different superhero.

Because all the other slides are white, the red title slide stands out much more and makes people pay attention.

Art of Slide Design.045

Second way to use contrast is shape. Now traditionally when you think of shapes, you think of shapes like in that example: circles, squares, triangles, etc. And while they can be used within your slides for contrast, those aren’t actually the shapes that we most rely on in our presentations

Art of Slide Design.046

What we rely on a lot are fonts. So one way of achieving contrast is through using different types of fonts within your presentation.

I tend to use custom fonts cause the fonts that are built in to our systems are mostly designed for reading paragraphs of text, so they don’t quite work when on a slide, and also people are more familiar with them already and it won’t stand out as much as it could.

Which fonts you end up choosing is quite a personal choice, and it will depend on your presentation style what type of feeling you want your slides to exhibit.

Art of Slide Design.047

If you don’t want to spend anything, the first place to look for free fonts is Google Fonts.

The main focus of the collection is in providing the fonts as web fonts, but you can download them too and use them in most slide editors.

Art of Slide Design.048

If you’re willing to pay for fonts, I’d suggest taking a look at the bundles on these websites (Design Cuts, Pixel Buddha, DreamBundles, The Hungry JPEG). Rather than buying a single font, you basically buy a bundle of different fonts and they often include quite a large and interesting selection.

Once you have multiple fonts, you can start playing around with them to create contrast. I’ll show a couple of examples, but again this is by no means the only ways you can create contrast.

Art of Slide Design.049

In this first example we are using different fonts within the same phrase or sentence – the contrast is used to highlight specific words.

Art of Slide Design.050

The second way is using different fonts for different elements on the slide.

It’s about making it easy for the audience to understand the different purposes of those elements.

Art of Slide Design.051

Cause if it was all in the same text, it just makes it way too confusing to read and comprehend.

Art of Slide Design.052

The same is true for when you’re displaying code – if you’ve got multiple elements on your slide with different purposes, use contrast to show that they are different.

Art of Slide Design.053

Third way to use contrast: size.

Art of Slide Design.054

The simplest way of using size for contrast is just grabbing a single element and making it bigger – using it to make a statement about something.

Art of Slide Design.055

Or you can play around and make each part of the sentence a different slide. Again you’ll have noticed I tend to use this a lot within my own slides.

Art of Slide Design.056

What becomes interesting though is when you start pairing different fonts with different sizes – it means that you can really play around with making a slide look quite graphic.

Art of Slide Design.057

These type of slides will stand out more and make it more compelling to people. In these cases the contrast is both within the slide and outside of the slide, making the slide more memorable.

Art of Slide Design.058

So those are 3 ways that you can use contrast to highlight key information and make it more memorable for your audience.

Through colour, shape and size.

Two down, two to go. Continue on to read about our third principle: Show AND Tell!

Want to hear when the next post goes live? Follow me on Twitter: mseckington.

Enjoyed this post and want more? You might like: Employee Evangelism: Make Your Team Badass, Blogging tips: How to start writing , How I got into conference speaking and Imposter Syndrome: How we act and work together.

Last weekend I gave a talk at DevRelCon Tokyo called The Art of Slide Design. This is the second post in this series, covering the first principle: maximise signal, minimise noise. The series is pretty much the blog post version of my script/speaker’s notes for it, albeit split out over several posts!

Go back to read The Art of Slide Design intro.

Art of Slide Design.016

Our first principle is maximise signal, minimise noise.

Art of Slide Design.017

This principle comes from the theory of signal to noise ratio (from Universal Principles of Design). This is the concept that in every type of communication we have there is a certain amount of relevant information to us, the signal, and there’s a certain amount of irrelevant information to us, the noise.

With good designs we want to maximise the signal and minimise the noise, ending up with mainly relevant information rather than irrelevant information.

Art of Slide Design.018

So how do we maximise signal and minimise noise in our slide designs? How do we make sure that the information on our slides is mainly relevant rather than irrelevant?

I think there are a few things that we can do to achieve this.

Art of Slide Design.019

The first is focus on one purpose per slide. This is about maximising the signal.

The moment a slide has multiple purposes it dilutes the relevant information you’re trying to get across. Rather than having a single slide covering multiple ideas or concepts, split them out over several slides. This is about making sure that your slide is as relevant as possible to what you are saying at that point of time.

Art of Slide Design.020

One thing I see happen a lot is using bullet points on one slide to cover multiple ideas. For instance take this slide about cat facts. If you’re going to be talking for a few minutes about the history of house cats and then a few minutes about why cats sleep 75% of their lives and then a few minutes about each of the other points, you’re basically diluting the signal of each point you’re trying to make.

Cause while you are talking about the history of cats – your audience is reading and thinking about all the other things that are on your slide already and they won’t be listening to you.

Art of Slide Design.021

It’s much better to spit out those ideas over multiple slides. Allow your audience to focus on the one thing you’re trying to get across, the most relevant information for the audience at that time.

Art of Slide Design.022

Now I’m not saying you shouldn’t be using bullet points at all, but use them to support the specific purpose of your slide. For instance, in this case the bullet points are used to list a set of names that belong together – all the information together is what makes it relevant.

Art of Slide Design.023

Another exception is when you’re using it to recap or give an overview of all the things you’ve said earlier. This slide has the same content as we saw before, but in this scenario, you’ve covered each of points separately already. The purpose is to show stuff you’ve covered before in one single slide – the audience doesn’t have to focus as much on the individual points cause none of it is new information – they’ve each been dealt with separately already.

So context matters a lot.

Art of Slide Design.024

The second thing we want to do is make sure our slides aren’t distracting. In this case we’re trying to minimise noise – ensuring we don’t have any irrelevant information.

Art of Slide Design.025

One way of being distracting is having way too much text on your slide. The moment you have a slide like this, people stop listening to you. Cause they’re either distracted by trying to read all the stuff that’s on there, or they get distracted trying to read and listen at the same time.

Rather than allowing your audience to focus on what you’re saying, by having that much text, you’re basically kicking off all these different questions and thoughts.

Think about what information really matters and distill it down to just the very essential.

Art of Slide Design.026

A variation of this is having too much code on a slide.

Most of the time you really don’t need all of it. Instead focus on the part that actually matters to the audience at that time – don’t force them to try to read all of that, cause you’re only creating a situation for people to zone out and not listen to you.

Art of Slide Design.027

Another way slides can be distracting is when there’s just too much going on in them.

This is an extreme example, but I often feel that people want to use all the space they can on a slide, making things super busy and much harder to process.

Art of Slide Design.028

Keep your slides simple and clean, so that they’re not visually distracting.

This shows exactly the same images as before, but because they’re not overlapping and because there’s no text laid over it, it’s easier for the audience to process.

Art of Slide Design.029

To recap: you can maximise signal by focusing on one purpose per slide and you can minimise noise by reducing distractions on your slide.

Continue on to read about our second principle: Make Important Information Stand Out!

Want to hear when the next post goes live? Follow me on Twitter: mseckington.

Enjoyed this post and want more? You might like: Employee Evangelism: Make Your Team Badass, Blogging tips: How to start writing , How I got into conference speaking and Imposter Syndrome: How we act and work together.

The Art of Slide Design

August 4th, 2017

Last weekend I gave a talk at DevRelCon Tokyo called The Art of Slide Design. This is pretty much the blog post version of my script/speaker’s notes for it, albeit split out over several posts!

I’ll be publishing the posts over the next couple of days, starting today with the intro (this post) and the first principle Maximise Signal, Minimise Noise.

I’m also planning on doing some followup posts to go into more detail about some of the topics (like choosing custom fonts and creating animations). For now though, this is staying pretty true to the original talk. Check out the full slides on SpeakerDeck.

Art of Slide Design.001

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, for most of my life I hated giving presentations – as a kid, as a teen, as a university student. I was so scared and nervous in front of people that I tried to avoid giving them as much as I could. Whenever I did have to do one, I’d be a bunch of nerves for the entire week before, and often because of my nerves the presentation wouldn’t turn out that great. I didn’t believe it was something I’d ever be able to do well and I really didn’t believe it was something I’d ever enjoy.

Nowadays I actually like giving presentations. For the past 3 years, I’ve been giving talks at meetups and conferences, and part of my role at FutureLearn is to encourage my team to both blog and speak more (read more about that in my post about employee evangelism).

Art of Slide Design.004

For me, the secret, the magical solution, came from preparation.

I find that whenever I try to learn something new, it becomes easier for me if I understand all the different aspects, all the different building blocks of what it is that I’m to learn. With presentations it was about understanding my emotions and how my face and body and voice were reacting when I got nervous. It was about understanding how to tell compelling stories and how to keep the audience engaged. It was about discovering how often I need to practice until I feel completely comfortable with what I’m going to say. And it’s about understanding how to use the tools I have in the most effective way.

Art of Slide Design.005

Alongside our voice and our words, our slides are the most important instrument in our presenter’s toolbox. And we should learn to use them as effectively as we can.

Nowadays after most of my talks, I’ll often get compliments that people really liked my slides, sometimes with the sly additional question whether I got someone else to create them (nope, just me). Just like mastering other skills, once you know some of the tricks, it does get easier the more you do it.

So that’s what this series of blog posts are about: how to create effective slides.

But what does that mean? What makes your slides effective?

Art of Slide Design.006

Let’s take a step back and look at why we are presenting in the first place: what’s the goal of a presentation? At first glance you might think each presentation is different: some will be about teaching a new skill or knowledge, some will be to convince people to use a specific product, some will be to inspire and motivate people to change or do something.

There are endless goals of what a presentation is for and no two presentations will be the same.

Art of Slide Design.007

Yet at the heart of it, they all have one thing in common: no matter what your motivation behind the presentation is, your #1 goal as a presenter is to allow your audience to absorb your information. Whether you’re trying to teach, convince, motivate, frighten, sell, inspire – it’s your responsibility to make that easier for your audience.

Art of Slide Design.008

This all ties in with the concept of cognitive load: the amount of mental activity – perception, memory, problem solving – required to accomplish a goal.

Art of Slide Design.009

This definition comes from the book: Universal Principles of Design and I’ll be referring to it a couple of times throughout these blog posts. It’s a great resource book covering 125 design principles and ties it back to psychology and physiology research.

Art of Slide Design.010

In that book we also find this quote about cognitive load: design should minimise cognitive load to the greatest degree possible.

Art of Slide Design.011

So when we talk about effective slides, we mean slides that help reduce that cognitive load.

Art of Slide Design.012

Slides that help rather than prevent people from consuming your information.

Art of Slide Design.013

So how do you create effective slides? How do you create slides that are compelling and help your audience?

Art of Slide Design.014

The answer lies in shifting that question to: how do you design effective slides? We can get a better understanding of slide design, by looking at design theory.

Art of Slide Design.015

In the next few posts, I want to share 4 principles of slide design, so that you can create more compelling slides and help your audience absorb the information you’re presenting.

One thing to bear in mind here is that I don’t believe there is “one true way” of creating slides. This isn’t about getting you all to create the same type of slides that I do – rather it’s helping you get a basic understanding of design theory and applying it to your own style.

If you’re starting out, don’t feel like you have to attempt changing all of your slides in one go: choose one principle to apply to your next presentation and build from there. Hopefully you’ll be able to hit the ground running with some of the tips in these post and make your slides a little bit more unique and effective.

Let’s start with the first principle: Maximise Signal, Minimise Noise.

Enjoyed this post and want more? Follow me on Twitter: mseckington. You might also like: Employee Evangelism: Make Your Team Badass, Blogging tips: How to start writing , How I got into conference speaking and Imposter Syndrome: How we act and work together.

How To Brainstorm Talk Ideas

November 21st, 2016

I’ve been doing a lot of talks lately in which I encourage people to share with the wider community what they do (see my Employee Evangelism post). Be it through blog posts or talks or workshops, I believe everyone should be finding a way to teach others the things that they’ve learnt or they’ve done.

One of the most common things that I hear from people though is that they’d love to do more of this, but that they don’t have anything worth talking about.

Screen Shot 2017-06-10 at 08.57.03

And that’s absolutely not true.

Everyone has something that’s worth sharing with others. Every person knows something that others don’t. It’s very easy to undervalue the things that we know, and that we assume are common knowledge. You might not be the “number one expert” in something, but honestly you don’t have to be to be the one talking about it. In some areas actually being a non-expert might give you a different and perhaps a more relatable perspective, allowing other non-experts to easier understand the topic.

But how do you discover what you should be talking about?

I thought I’d share some tips and tricks of how I approach coming up with my talk (and blog post) ideas and turn it into an exercise of sorts that anyone can start with.

A framework for thinking about talk ideas

Now the way my brain works is that I like having structures and frameworks in place for me to interpret and think about information better. So before we jump into ways of brainstorming ideas, I want you to consider this:


I think with every talk you do, you need to consider and balance these three elements: the Location, the Format and the Topic. Here’s what I mean with each of them:

Location: where are you doing this talk? Is it at a specific conference or meetup? Is it internally at work? Who is your audience? What is their background? What do they know already?

Format: how long is the talk? Is it a lightning talk or a longer talk? Are you live coding or demoing something?

Topic: what is the talk about? What message do you want people to take away from it?

Each of these elements need to be in equilibrium with other, making sure that all three matchup. For instance, a lightning talk about dinosaurs might not be appropriate for a specific technical conference, or an in-depth talk about encoding might not work as a lightning talk.

When it comes to brainstorming talk ideas, I find that using the above structure allows you to approach the problem of finding a topic in two different ways: start on either the Location side or the Topic side and make your way across. Neither direction is right or wrong, but it allows you to focus your brainstorming. If you have a specific location in mind, it can help you come up with what type of topic is appropriate for it. Likewise if you don’t have a location in mind, you can be more unconstrained in coming up with ideas, and figure out later where you’ll do the talk.

Getting into the right mindset

Next we want to generate as many ideas as possible. The key thing about this though is going into this with the right mindset. A couple of things to keep in mind here:

1. There are no stupid ideas.

Write down every single idea that you can think of, no matter how stupid or boring or uninteresting you think it is for other people. As I said above, we often forget the things that we know and we’ll disregard ideas that we think no one else will care about. When I did this exercise with people at work, people were often surprised that others wanted to hear about some of the “silly” ideas they came up with.

2. Keep track of your ideas.

Use this as the time to start a list of all the ideas you have. Even if some of them don’t feel quite right right now, add them to a list or a doc: somewhere that you can keep track of them. This isn’t about creating a huge list, picking one and throwing the rest away. It’s about creating a repository of all the ideas you have that you one day might want to talk about and revisit. I’ve done talks based on talk ideas that I initially came up with 2 years ago – some talks need time to simmer and evolve.

3. Develop the “that-would-make-a-good-talk” voice in your mind.

Most of the exercise questions below are about developing what I call the “that would make a good talk” voice in your head. Rather than having these specific brainstorming sessions, I tend to always have these type of questions in the back of my mind whenever I’m working on a project or having conversations with people. My natural instinct now is to always consider whether there’s a story hidden within anything that I’m doing (and pointing it out for others when I see they’re doing something). I’m hoping that some of these things will become more natural for you by doing these exercises.

4. Don’t get stuck on the title.

The following exercises are about coming up with ideas for your talks, not the title. I’ve noticed people trying to come up with variations of what to call their talk, which at this point doesn’t really matter yet. You can figure out later what title works and is catchy. Right now it’s about the content – focus on that!

5. Get help from others.

If you know you struggle with coming up with ideas, try to get a group of friends or colleagues together and help each other with these exercises. Discussing and explaining some of these questions with others and having other people to bounce ideas off can help a lot: you might discover ideas that you wouldn’t have alone.

Exercises for talk idea brainstorming

So time to write down some ideas! If you’ve got some things in mind already, that’s awesome, write them down. If you’re unsure where to start, I’ve created a list of questions that you can use as inspiration, grouped by Topic, Format and Location. Start with the questions of the area that you want to focus on first:


  • Write down all the topics you’re interested in and you know about. It doesn’t matter how obscure – add it to the list!
  • Think back to what you’ve done the past month. What problems did you come across that were challenging to deal with? What things did you work on that you’re proud of? What did you spend a lot of time on that maybe could have gone quicker if you knew something you do now?
  • Can you remember any long emails, slack messages, git commits, pull requests, internal docs or long conversations recently, where you’ve explained something to someone? Would someone else benefit from learning that?
  • What’s one thing you wish everyone knew or was taught? Why?
  • Think about recent conversations and discussions with friends or colleagues. What topic could you easily talk hours and hours with them about? What excites you? What infuriates you?
  • What’s something that you wish you could know more about? Are there any questions you have that you wish you knew the answer to? Coming up with a talk will give you a push to dive into that topic.
  • Think about your favourite books, music, movies, museums, restaurants, sports teams, famous (or nonfamous) people, cars, anecdotes, countries, food, animals, games.
  • Take a look at talks or speakers that inspire you. What do they have in common? What would your take on it be?
  • Think back when you started your career – are there any topics that you think could have helped you if you had heard about it earlier?
  • What processes/work/things do you do that make your life easier? If other people did it too, would it make their lives easier?


  • Write down what types of talks you’re interested in. Examples: lightning talk, internal work presentation, small meetup, conference talk.
  • Do you want to do demos? Or live coding? Or making the talk interactive in some way? Think about the type of talk that you would enjoy participating in. Think about the type of talk that you would enjoy giving.


  • Write down specific conferences or meetups that you’d like to talk at. Does the event have a theme? What type of audience attends? What’s their background?
  • Look at the event’s past talks or their call for papers. Are there specific topics or problems that they are interested in?
  • Look at the event’s past speakers and their talks – do you agree or disagree with any their opinions? What area would you like to see more of? What questions do you have that you‘d like answered?
  • If you were at that event, what talk would you want to see? What talk would be on your must-watch-don’t-miss list?

What next?

Hopefully the above exercises will have given you some inspiration and you will have ended up with a nice list of talk ideas that you’re interested in. The exercise questions obviously aren’t exhaustive and I’m curious to hear what other questions get your mind thinking about potential ideas. I’d also love to hear if these exercises help you, so feel free to email, comment or tweet me about this!

Once you have this ideas list, the next steps are deciding which idea to develop further, figuring out what events are out there and how to create talk proposals for them. In the upcoming weeks I’ll be writing blog posts for each of these topics, so stay tuned!