Design Slides Using Situational Audience Analysis

Slide design isn't one size fits all. Start with the presentation audience and work backwards to create slides that communicate your message powerfully.
Joey Alfano
Joey Alfano
Co-Founder of Superchart
April 13, 2023
Improve Your Presentation Skills by Focusing Your Slides by Consumption Method

Slide-based presentation software is ideal for laying out ideas, especially in a business context. This is why tools like Google Slides, Keynote, and PowerPoint are so pervasively used for business reporting needs. They give you a lot of flexibility and style options within a familiar canvas.

Most of the tools we use for work require very structured information from the start. A blank slide is exactly the opposite. It doesn't pretend to know what type of information you're going to include. It's perfectly fine and accepting if you want charts/graphs, text, and business graphics all in the same place. It will allow you to format and design to your heart's desire. It provides near-endless configurability and remains approachable to any user. It allows you to express yourself and put a personal touch (or commentary) alongside your report.

People Like Slide Rules

Endless configurability is nice until you want things to be organized and repeatable. Trying to keep presentations consistent across a large sales team is nearly impossible.

To combat the growing pile of sub-optimal slides and presentations, slide gurus have continued to set rules around the proper information and structure of slides. Here are just a few examples. You'll notice a theme.

  • The 2/4/8 Rule: two minutes of content on a slide, no more than four bullet points a slide, and no more than eight words per bullet point.
  • The 5/5/5 Rule: no more than five words per line, five lines per slide, or five text-heavy slides in a row.
  • The 10/20/30 Rule: ten slides, twenty minutes of presentation, and thirty-point font.
  • The 6x6 Rule: no more than six bullet points per slide and no more than six words per bullet point.
  • The 7x7 Rule: see above, but seven instead of six.
  • The 8x8 Rule: see above, but eight instead of seven.
  • The 24 pt Font Rule: never use a font smaller than 24 pt.

All of these rules are focused on live presentations. Though there aren't many verifiable statistics on the matter, we'd venture to guess that most slide decks are either never presented live or never presented in their entirety. Many more are created as business reports or leave behind decks.

Some Great Presentations Clearly Break Slide Rules

Let's look at a couple of good examples to understand why decks don't always follow the same standards.

Startup Genome's Global Startup Ecosystem Report

Market analysis reports often end up in slide format. They're text-heavy, but integrate a significant amount of information and data. That data can be in tables and/or complex visualizations.

Startup Genome has been producing useful reports like this on the startup ecosystem. The example below contains numerous fonts and sizes (12 pt to 30+pt), hundreds of slides, and hundreds of words per slide. There is no intent to present it live, but rather to read the report like a book. Because of this, they follow none of the aforementioned best practices for slide creation. And yet, they end with a very compelling report in slide format.

startup genome example slides

AirBNB's Product Slides and Pitch Deck

Product overviews are often found broken out into a slide-based presentation. Most of the time, these simply include screenshots and maybe some commentary on functionality. They're incredibly visual, but not necessarily meant to be presented live.

A great example of this is in the Product section of AirBNB's example pitch deck on Slidebean. It's solely images, both decorative and functional screenshots. It's laid out so that the reader can pass the deck along to someone else and it still makes perfect sense without any additional commentary.

airbnb example slides

Google's 'How Google Works' Book Preview

Oftentimes, employee onboarding materials and ways of working are distributed in slide format and are never actually presented. This allows an employee to read through the material on their own time while also giving an HR department the flexibility to lay out information appropriately.

Google has a great example of this type of material. Before releasing a whole book on the topic, Google released slides that give a very clear representation of company culture and ways of working. It is part animation and part written storytelling. It's proof once again that slides are used for a variety of purposes.

Seeing all of these different formats, are we to assume that one set of slides is good and another is bad? I don't think so. Based on the audience, any of these formats could work quite well.

What is Situational Audience Analysis?

Audience analysis is the process of understanding your audience and their needs. Situational audience analysis is a more specific form of audience analysis that takes into account the specific situation in which your presentation will be given. For example, if you are giving a presentation to a group of engineers, you would frame your information differently than if you were giving a presentation to a group of executives.

Technical writers use situational audience analysis frequently when creating manuals and other instructional materials. By taking into account the specific context in which their readers will be using the material, they can create documents that are easy to follow and understand. The same techniques can be used for designing slides and presentations.

How to Do Audience Analysis for Slide Decks

Audience analysis is a critical step in the presentation preparation process. It involves taking into account the specific characteristics of the audience and how they will receive and interact with the content presented to them. There are several types of audience analysis that can be used to understand and best target one’s message.

Given the fact that slides and presentations do (and should) come in all shapes and sizes, the situational audience analysis for your slides should start with the consumption method. Instead of following rules on text size and total bullet points, run through the questions in the following section to land on the proper format for your deck.

Audience Analysis Questions

1) How Will the Audience of the Presentation Consume the Content?

  • Is the deck going to be presented live?
  • What is the size of the audience?
  • How will the audience be able to see the content on the slide?
  • Will the audience have access to the content after the presentation?
  • Will the audience be provided with the materials in printed or digital form?
  • How widely will the presentation be distributed and what control will you have over the ongoing presentation distribution?

2) What Is the Profile of the Intended Audience?

  • Is the audience internal to your organization?
  • If internal, are these executives? management? peers?
  • How much time will the audience have to review the content?
  • A what level will the audience understand the information contained in the deck?
  • If it's an external audience, are these customers/clients? investors/advisors? partners?
  • How familiar is your audience with you and/or your company?
  • How is your audience most likely to review the content and how does the presentation help them do so?

3) What Is the Intended Outcome for the Slides?

  • Are the slides primarily informational?
  • Are you intending to drive a decision with the audience based on the presentation?
  • If the audience were to walk away with one takeaway, what is that takeaway?
  • How do the setup and design of the content help the audience reach the desired outcome?

Why is Audience Analysis Important?

Creating content or presentations without an understanding of the intended audience is like cooking a meal but being unsure if you're serving a newborn baby or a food critic. Sure, you can whip something up in the kitchen... You'll just have no idea if it'll be eaten or not.

Avoid hard and fast rules on slide content without understanding the presentation consumption method through situational audience analysis. Some slides should have lots of text, and that is ok. Some slides should have no text, and that is ok too. Start with the intended audience and their most likely consumption path, then use that as a basis to understand the appropriate layout of information.

If you want to include Airtable visualizations or charts on Google Sheets data in your next presentation, be sure to try Superchart for free.

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