How can I improve my presentations?

Note: I always include a photo for graphic relief in my blog.
I have instead included a link to a Dilbert cartoon which I cannot post per the Terms of Use:

I have been working hard lately on several presentations for genealogical societies and the upcoming LDS Expo.  Each presentation is composed of a PowerPoint (usually) presentation of a 40 minute lecture and a 2-6 page syllabus.  The slides are usually not a part of the handout.

I have not done many of these types of presentations and so I asked for comments from both listserves to which I belong–Transitional Genealogist and the Association of Professional Genealogists.  Responders were most helpful and provided many excellent hints.  My initial question was about whether, when giving multiple presentations, professional genealogists use the same background (I meant “template” but some took me for the word I used) for all of the presentations or if they changed it presentation to presentation.  The responses were much more varied than my limited question.

Here is a compilation of the many responses I received all of which helped me present even better now and in the future.  Remember that these are comments for genealogical presentations and may (or not) be applicable to presentations you  make. Also note that some of the comments are in direct conflict with one another.

  1. Foremost, keep the audience in mind.
  2. No graphic or animations should take away from the content of the talk.
  3. Do not read your slides–ever.  er….except when your lecture is being taped.
  4. Test your presentation with the projector you will use.  Sometimes colors are not as true in projection.  Also sometimes the tone in the font is too close to that of the background making it unreadable.
  5. Use a white background
  6. Use a light colored background and usually stay with black ink.  White background is boring for most viewers.  White can also appear too bright, overwhelming the type and the message.
  7. Leave a lot of white space; achieve a very clean look.  The cleaner the look the easier it is for older eyes to see.
  8. Keep it simple; have some variety but do not “use widely different styles for each”
  9. Select one style and stick with it for all presentations–it will become your brand and identified you.
  10. The font, white space and simplicity of the presentation is more important than the background–as long as the background is very clean.
  11. Use a slightly different backgrounds for each lecture. it differentiates each lecture — subliminally.
  12. Have only 3-4 lines of type on a slide
  13. Read Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds (I have it on request from my library.)
  14. Place your brand on every slide, maybe even develop your own slide template and use it for all presentations.
  15. Some presentations deserve a unique background; but ones that are teaching genealogical methods probably should be plainer.
  16. If giving a review of a record set, include several ways of how to use the set, not just your case study.
  17. Reduce the number of words to the minimum.
  18. Do not include websites on the PPT; people will think they have to copy the address and lose focus.
  19. if you have different sections to a presentation, one could color code the background of each section differently.
  20. Having all your presentations look the same will make you look more professional
  21. Use a plain white background with perhaps just a single graphic at the top on down the side.
  22. Some fancier background graphics can be used if presenting just for one hour.  Longer than that –audience fatigue sets in
  23. Some people can change the template to make the presentation unique to the audience.  If you are one of those, go for it.
  24. Use a serif font, simple and clean.  Use serif font because it is easier to read and some letters like 1, I and l can look the same in sans serif fonts.
  25. Use a sans serif font as it is cleaner looking.
  26. Pictures and images are better than words.  When reading your slides the audience has stopped listening to you.
  27. Show the whole document and then zoom in (using animation) on the section you want them to see.  It orients the audience to where you are on the page.
  28. No clutter
  29. Sometimes you have to show them exactly how to access the records
  30. Be careful that your photos and screen shots do not fade into the background because they are the same color; an easy way to make them pop out is to put a line around them
  31. There are times when animation is a good thing, e.g. showing the whole document and then extracting a small piece of it to make it larger so the audience can see it.
  32. Use animation sparingly–fly ins to show enlargement of sections of a document or adding circles/arrows to focus the attention can enhance the presentation.
  33. Use animation at the beginning to catch their attention and then don’t’ use it for the rest of the show.
  34. Include citations on the slides
  35. Decide what you want to be remembered for–good content or fancy graphics


  1. Include information about the primary focus of the presentation
  2. Give the attendees an outline of the presentation.  This is easily done by changing the thumbnails on the left sidebar to outline format and cut and pasting it into a Word doc.
  3. Have your brand on the syllabus and include your name, contact info and logo on each presentation.
  4. Compose the syllabus and then set it aside and reread later for grammatical, spelling and content errors.
  5. Ask the audience questions about the graphic layout in the evaluation.
  6. Look at your evaluations–are they about the content of your presentation or about how you presented it?  The content should be center stage even in evaluations

My thanks to the following contributors–in no order.  Your comments were thoughtful and insightful.  Each of you have your own style!  Isn’t that terrific?

Angela McGhie, Elissa Scalise Powell, Jay Fonkert, Harold Henderson, Sheila Benedict, Marie Melchiori, Kelli Bergheimer, Rondina Muncy, Janice Lovelace, Laura Prescott, Pat Dunford, Sara Scribner, Karen Rhodes, Seema Kenney.

Happy Hunting!


What I have done since the last posting:  Went back through my three presentations I am giving in the next two weeks and standardized colors but did not standardize the themes.  Included my brand on at least the first and last slide of each presentation. Reduced visual clutter by taking out URLs (will put into syllabus).  All three presentations use a sans serif font.  My brand for my name and that of my company is in Rockwell, a serifed font.  I included it as an accent on the last page.   I concur with the contributor who suggested that a white background is just too bright and makes the text hard to read.  Thanks everyone for terrific comments.


3 comments on “How can I improve my presentations?

  1. Sara says:

    These are pretty good recommendations. I give a lot of presentations through my regular full time job (thinking about doing professional genealogy down the road). Over the years, I have found that it’s best to not be wordy on the screen because people will try to read everything rather than listen to you. Powerpoints are supposed to enhance what you are saying, not be the main attraction 🙂

    • jkmorelli says:

      Sara, I agree completely! I am a person who takes in information visually. PowerPoint is basically and fundamentally a visual tool. Putting the two statements together means I identify presenters as “weaker” who lack visual images to support what they are saying if they are using PPT. Some genealogy topics do not lend themselves to a lot of images but that is still no excuse for not having images that support the message. I, however, needed the reminder. I reduced the word count of my slides by perhaps 50% after the conversation on the listserves! Thanks for you comments.

  2. Grace Keir says:

    Jill, I took a variety of media courses at the University of NE, Lincoln and one of the things I remember most when showing slides was that the letters in the typed copy should be lat least 1/2 inch high so that when on the screen they can be easily read. And a slide entirely of words is boring for the audience. I remember a professor who had typed copy on a slide, the size you would type on a sheet of paper, and the students spent their time copying it, never hearing the professor.
    I also like a soft background color to reduce the glare of white. Grace

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