GUIDE – Strategies for Composing Stand-alone Presentations



What makes any form of communication “effective”? Following the principles of reader-friendly design.

When does a presentation need to be “reader-friendly”? When you intend for it to stand alone as a document readers can navigate through on their own, rather than using it as a visual aid for an oral presentation.

This guide covers how to design a “stand alone” presentation using any standard slide-based presentation app (such as PowerPoint, Keynote, or Google Slides), which you then plan to share via a slide presentation hosting site like

Use Reader-Friendly Structure

As readers, we expect all forms of communication to have:

  • a title that alerts us to the topic and scope of the message
  • an introduction that prepares us for what’s to come
  • a body section that covers our main points
  • a concluding section that wraps up our message and may also include a call to action

These elements may vary in length or level of formality, but they’re the building blocks of messages whether they appear in emails, college papers, reports and proposals, web sites, or presentations.

Structure through Section Headers

Readers appreciate having signposts that alert them to these structural components, such as headers and sub-headers in a report or chapters in a book. To offer readers signposts in a presentation, use subtitle or “header” slides to introduce each major section.

Structure through Color or Design

Another way to help readers identify sections is to give each section its own color or design element (like an icon or image relating to the section topic). That’s particularly helpful to readers if the section covers more than a few slides, as it helps them remember that all those slides belong under the section identified in the header slide.

Choose Reader-Friendly Slide Layouts

Standard Slide Layout: Bullet Lists

The most common slide layout has space at the top for a slide title (or main idea), with a space in the body area for a bulleted list. This slide layout works well for most content, even if you want to incorporate images, as long as you follow the customs of bullet list writing and don’t try to squeeze a paragraph into bullet format.

In most cases, limit each slide to no more than three or four main bullet points, or fewer if any of them also have sub-points.

Other Slide Layouts

Explore the other slide layouts offered by the theme you chose for your presentation, as they may be better suited to some kinds of material. For example, the side-by-side list layout is helpful for comparing or contrasting elements.

Make Your Title Slide Reader-Friendly

In addition to the title of your presentation, include your name, the date, and the context, if relevant. For example, if the presentation provides a rhetorical analysis of a pop culture artifact, you might include that as a kind of project title below the date. (Hopefully your presentation title is a bit more catchy!)

If you’re submitting the presentation to a professor as a class project, you would include the course number as well, but take a moment to consider why you might not want to do that if you’re sharing the presentation on your own blog and you really want others to read it. (Hint: When was the last time you voluntarily read anything that was clearly made by a student for a class?)

Include a Reader-Friendly Introduction

Consider that some of your readers may have arrived at your presentation with little or no context, which makes the introduction section particularly important. Explain the context and purpose for your presentation with enough detail to help readers understand where you’re going, but keep it short enough that you don’t lose their attention from the outset.

Use the very last line of your introduction to prepare readers for what to expect from the rest of the presentation.

Make Key Points Clearly but Quickly

The reason the bullet list slide layout is so common is that bullet lists allow you to distill your key ideas down to their essence and then convey them in a format that isn’t bogged down by extra words.

For example, you might use bullet lists to:

  • review the main goals for your presentation
  • outline the benefits of a proposed solution
  • identify three or four types of something

I wrote the bullet list above specifically to illustrate how compact and efficient bullet list writing can be, if you do it right. Note that each item in my list is parallel in structure and starts with a strong verb.

What gives slide presentations a bad rap is when writers don’t take the time to figure out what their key ideas are, so that they can distill them down into effective bullet points. Those writers are still thinking in paragraphs, so they include all the extra transitional and connecting words that paragraphs need — but you don’t need those in a bullet list.

Avoid Paragraphs

Except perhaps in the introduction, try to avoid putting paragraphs on slides as that defeats the purpose of using a slide app instead of a word processing document.

If you do need to include a paragraph on a slide, be sure to remove the default bullet list formatting. In other words, don’t make your paragraph the first item on a one-item bullet list!

Make Text Readable

Choose a theme for your slides that left-aligns text and displays it in font that’s designed for text rather than for headers (like Helvetica, Verdana, or Corbel).

For the majority of your text, use a font size around 14pts. You might decrease the size a bit for sub-points, but to no smaller than 10pts.

Embed Media at Full Width

  • Put video clips on their own slide at full width and provide the context leading into the video on a slide before it and your discussion of the video on a slide after it.
  • Put no more than two images on a single slide.
  • If you want readers to pay attention to details in the image, format it the same way as a video, as described above.

Choose Readable Colors and Themes

Older versions of PowerPoint were famous (or is that infamous?) for offering some rather garish themes and color schemes that make text hard to read. Just because a particular theme or color scheme is available in PowerPoint or whatever presentation application you’re using, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good choice. Keep these principles in mind when you choose the appearance of your slides:

  • The color of the text should create a strong contrast against the color of the background.
  • Readers generally find it easiest to read dark text against a light background, rather than the other way around, particularly for the “body” of a slide. (The title of a slide or a slide meant to offer a transition or subtitle might make effective use of the reverse formatting.)


Below are a few resources that offer some insight into designing effective presentations. Many of these resources may focus specifically on PowerPoint and/or on presentations meant for oral delivery, but you can adapt what you learn to any presentation application as well as to presentations meant to stand-alone.