Creating Visually Stunning and Effective Presentations!

Part 1: Background on Lecturing

People have been giving lectures for thousands of years in the form of storytelling. However, the use of PowerPoint as the new norm for lecturing in the past couple of decades. Lecturing new material has been shown to be most beneficial when using visual and oral stimulation together. While PowerPoint as a lecture style may offer this, it often creates a dangerous situation bysplitting the learner’s attention.


In the book Brain Rules, by John Medina, he showed that retention of knowledge increases up to 65% when using visual and oral representation of data as opposed to 10% retention for oral only and 35% for visual only.


Richard Mayers, a scientist studying multimedia learning, created the theory of Dual Channel Processing to explain how oral and visual data combine to form memory. He stated that oral stimulation and visual stimulation (including text and images) use separate pathways to form memories. If the two pathways complement each other, this leads to enhanced learning. However, the pathways work at different speeds – people generally read faster/understand quicker by visualizing something as opposed to hearing something. As a result, If the two stimuli come at the same time and cause a split in the receiver’s attention, then you get what is called ‘Cognitive Overload’ and an overall decrease in retention.


Therefore, in order to maximize retention and use both channels of processing to their fullest, we should present visuals that support the oral presentation, instead of competing with it. Using careful design of lecture visuals, we can thwart the dangerous pitfalls inherent to PowerPoint presentations.


Part 2: Understanding the learner’s poor attention span


It is well known that learners in general have poor attention spans, amplified by the typical learning environment provided by lecture halls (dimly lit, warm, comfortable seats, etc.). Many studies have shown that during lectures, our best attention lasts for 10-15 minutes after which our retention of information plummets.


Here we see that by about 10 minutes into a lecture, the learner’s retention of the information decreases to about 70%. The learner’s retention drops significantly and only recovers briefly at the lecture conclusion. The overall average amount of a lecture that is retained ends up being about 20%.


Studies looking at how to keep the learner’s attention and increase retention have shown that this can be achieved by introducing breaks every 10-15 minutes. Breaks as short as 25 seconds, for example, polling the audience or audience participation, have been shown to be effective at increasing overall retention.

Lastly is the concept that a leaner can only learn so much within a given time frame. If we, as lecturers, try to teach too much, this leads to an overall decreased retention of information. Therefore, it is better to pick a smaller scope of discussion, simplifying the lecture as much as possible, and really honing down on the important learning objectives. The general rule of thumb is to cut down material to 75% for an allotted time (for example, an hour-long lecture should have 45 minutes of lecture material). This will leave room for questions and explanations and minimize the risk of too much information.


Part 3: Building your story


Humans are wired to listen to stories, which are the preferred way to both be entertained and acquire information. Nancy Duarte discusses that we as lecturers should build our presentations like a story in that we should have a beginning, middle, and an end.



To accomplish this, we should begin by setting the stage for why the learner should care about the information. Like a story, we give the background about the world as the learner knows it and then introduce what will be discussed and why it is important.



Here is where we actually give the information.



We should finish by bringing it back around, reminding the learner what they had just learned, and what you want them to get out of the lecture. Inspire them as to why this new knowledge will be beneficial for them.


Another important element of stories is to keep familiar/comforting themes. Here are four ways to accomplish this:

  1. Keep a consistent feel – avoid using different fonts, backgrounds, or color schemes, and try to make the lecture feel like it remains consistent throughout.
  2. Be mindful of topic transitions – transitions between different topics should be smooth and logical, as opposed to jumping around with no clear path of where the lecture is headed.
  3. Use brain memory tricks for structure – Humans prefer to learn things in sets of 3, rule of 10s, or memorizing numbers in series of 7.
  4. Sign posting of slides, a trick by Scott Weingart (EMCrit) – these are images or text (such as a header or slide number) on each slide that orients the audience to where they are in the talk.


Part 4: Tips and tricks for having good visuals

The most important tip for improving lecture slides is to use less text, which has been universally shown to be an ineffective way to provide visual information during a lecture. If you must use text, try to avoid using bullet points, which encourages filling the slides with text rather then images. However, if choosing to use bullets, limit them to 3 or 4 bullets added sequentially to the screen as you are talking about each point. Furthermore, keep bullet points short, avoiding full complete sentences and only using short key phrases, numbers, important terms, and definitions.


On the other hand, the best way to improve slides is to use more high definition images. One caveat is to be careful that the images you choose provide a useful purpose and do not distract from your overall message. It also is important to use images created for creative commons in order to avoid plagiarizing other people’s works. The easiest place to start is by using Google Images. Under ‘Tools’, there is a section, which you can change to “Labeled for reuse” (See below), showing images safe to use. You can also search by size, picking out only large photos that are high resolution, which will look nice when stretched on the big projector screen.



There are many websites online that provide free or cheap stock photos. Here are a few:


Cheap Photo Banks


Free Photo Banks



Once the picture is selected, you should crop out all the unnecessary sections of the photo. If the photo has a distracting or unappealing background color, then PowerPoint has an option to fix this under the formatting section for a selected photo titled ‘Remove Background.’ By using this feature you can select what part of the image is the background, and the program will remove it, making the main image look transparent and visually pleasing on a slide (See below how I made the Hermes staff with a white box become transparent).

If using multiple images or words that you would like to maneuver around the screen in unison, you can select all the images and right click them. This will bring up an option labeled ‘Grouping,’ which will allow you to group the images together, making them easier to move around the slide.


Matching the color of text, shapes, and symbols could be useful in giving a consistent and cohesive feel to the slides. You can match colors for these objects to anything else on the slide by going into the color palette for the desired text/shape, and clicking ‘pick a color,’ which turns your cursor into an eyedropper. You can then click on anything on the screen (such as an image you found online), and PowerPoint will match the color to the image color.


As far as font size, it is important to use a size no smaller then size 24 in order to be legible in an auditorium. However, the optimal font size is around 32, with fonts in the 40s being most visible. Furthermore, the preferred font type for PowerPoint presentations is San Serif, which is the font without the small lines capping off the ends of the characters. The top three preferred San Serif fonts for presentations are usually Arial, Calibri, and Tahoma.


Difficult Lectures: Lectures on journals, cases, and M&Ms

In medicine, we frequently have to give lectures heavy in data, graphs, and clinical information. These are often difficult to improve with pictures. While this may seem difficult, spending some extra time could improve the lecture immensely. Avoid falling into the classic trap of copying and pasting confusing graphs or taking a poor quality screenshot of the chart.


Spend the time to remake charts and graphs, focusing on only the important parts you want to highlight. If copying a graph/chart, crop out the unnecessary information and blow it up, highlighting the important parts with boxes or arrows. For case presentations, it is helpful remake vital signs and try to provide parts of the history and physical using images or short phrases instead of sentences.


Part 5: Perfecting your lecture performance

The best way to perfect your performance is to rehearse, rehearse, and rehearse!! Give the lecture to anyone who will listen such as friends/family and perform it in front of a mirror or record yourself using a camera. This will help you perfect the kinks and find out the “Umms” or nervous ticks you have during performance. This will also help you to memorize all of your slides, so that you can perform the lecture without looking at them.


Come early to the lecture auditorium, and come prepared. Have multiple ways to upload your lecture (email, google drive, flash drive, etc), and try to upload and go through your slides before your presentation. This will allow you to see if there are any issues with their computer or projector specs and possibly fix them before your lecture. Avoid bringing anything with you to the stage, such as keys or cellphones, which could be a distraction during the presentation.


Use of laser pointers should also be avoided, as they are often hard to see, and encourage you to face away from the audience. Furthermore, most people have difficulty keeping the pointer straight, since we often are jittery after coffee. Some people recommend using your hands to point to the screen or using a stick, or even using the computer cursor. You can change the cursor into a pen by clicking ctrl p during the lecture. To erase it, click ctrl e. To bring back a cursor arrow, press ctrl a.


You should use the front area as your stage during the performance. Avoid turning your back or reading your slides. You don’t want to hide all the way to the side behind the podium. Try to use the space in the front and engage with the audience. Some people recommend marking your stage at a couple places, which you can walk back and forth to, preventing you from being stagnant. Try to use good eye contact with some audience members, scanning the room back and forth in a ‘Z formation’.



After reading this post, you will be able to take your lecture to the next level of excellence!



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