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How to Guide Attention

Effective presentation slides should be easy for the audience to digest in as short a time as possible. That means keeping the content clear and concise, and avoiding busy visuals like multi-panel figures and dense tables. However, some degree of visual complexity is usually unavoidable in technical presentations. When you find yourself in this situation, first consider whether you really need to show all those details together on one slide versus breaking them out onto multiple slides. Then, look for ways to help guide the audience through the information so that they can follow along without getting overwhelmed. Here are some common techniques.

Direct attention with visual cues

Let's say I'm giving a talk about desserts and want to include this table comparing various options:

Original table

This is a lot of information at once, and the audience has no way to tell what they're supposed to take away from it. There are several things we could do to improve this table, but first, here are a few simple approaches that require no redesign of the figure itself (important when you don't have access to the original file).


It's easy in basically any presentation software to progressively build up a figure, only revealing information as you're ready to talk about it. You can execute this by cropping the figure or using simple shapes (e.g. white rectangles) to mask details. For this table, I might start by just showing the first row.

Cropped to first row


You can also use boxes, arrows, or other visual cues to highlight part of the figure. This is a very effective way to indicate where the audience should focus their attention at any given time.

Highlighted row


Another common technique is to directly point at the screen. Just be aware of a couple common pitfalls. With a laser pointer, avoid shaky or excessive movement. Try to keep your arm as steady as possible, and turn the laser on only briefly (instead of waving it around continuously, which is very distracting). If you choose to use your arm or a pointer stick, walk right up to the screen. When you're standing at the podium, no one can tell what you're pointing at from your perspective.

Reinforce the content structure visually

Now let's talk about design. A few simple principles can go a long way for reinforcing the hierarchy of information and emphasizing key features of the data. Apply these principles to your slides in general and to each individual figure. [NOTE: For figures, it's best if you can edit the original file. In this particular example, though, the table is simple enough that I could just create a new, editable version in PowerPoint.]

Vary the formatting

In the original table, everything has equal weight and you can't tell what the information hierarchy is until you actually start reading the details. Help the audience out by clearly distinguishing the header row and also emphasizing the names of the desserts that are being compared.

Header row format changed

Consider data variation vs. design variation

In the nutrition and cost columns, the data formatting is quite inconsistent. These careless variations in design actually obscure variations in the data because the audience has to do extra processing to interpret the information. I would therefore make the formatting as consistent as possible, and I would also move the units to the header row so that the numbers themselves are what stands out.

While I'm at it, I would look for other places to trim text. The risk of chocolate chunk cookies is a bit wordy, so let's simplify that. Again, the goal is to convey information in as parsimonious a way as possible.

Trimmed text

Group related information

The original order of rows in the table is completely arbitrary. Why not reorder the rows to reinforce other important information? By grouping the desserts by priority, we make the content a bit easier to digest (3 priority groups instead of 5 totally independent rows). And by ordering based on rank, we ensure the audience will read about the higher priority desserts first.

Reordered rows

Use color-coding

Still assuming that relative priority is an important feature of this data, we can further enhance the table by using color-coding. Now the higher priority desserts REALLY stand out.

Added color coding

Compared to the original table we started with, this revised table is much easier to digest at a glance. You can immediately see the structure of the information, and your eyes are naturally drawn to the more important priorities.

Use descriptive slide titles

Lastly, to really put the icing on the cake, as it were, pair this revised table with a descriptive slide title that conveys the key takeaway. This is much more valuable than a generic title like "Dessert Comparison" or "Results." A descriptive title reinforces what the audience should focus on and gives them context for interpreting all the details.

Descriptive title added

CC-BY license

This article by Dr. Robyn Javier is licensed under CC BY 4.0