We live in an increasingly digital world. Which means that presentations aren’t just about spoken words any longer. They are multimedia and multimodal, meaning they incorporate different methods and means of communication. As I was doing some research on presentations in our current context, I happened across a list that is widely used in the web design world. It’s commonly referred to as Shneiderman’s 8 golden rules of interface design.

Introduced in Ben Shneiderman’s book, Designing the User Interface: Strategies for Effective Human-Computer Interaction, the list shares important principles for anyone creating a web site. As I read through the list, I noticed how applicable it was to presenting. Which I suppose makes sense. I mean, after all, web design is just another form of information design and communication. So today we’ll see what we can learn about presentations from a talented and influential computer scientist and interface designer as we examine these 8 golden rules.

  1. Strive for consistency.

Shneiderman’s first rule is to keep things consistent and familiar. Web designers use this tip to make sure a user’s movement through a page is as easy as possible. For example, on a multi-page form, the designer would aim to make the “next” button roughly the same size, shape, color and position on each page.

Presenters can apply this tip when thinking about the main terms we use throughout our presentations. Refer to concepts, departments, policies, and ideas in consistent terms. This allows your audience members to follow and remember your presentation more easily. Greater consistency in your presentation leads to better recall.

  1. Give frequent users shortcuts.

The second golden rule reminds web designers to take into account the user’s experience level and to provide ways for him to get faster at navigation. The best example of this in the interface design world is copying, cutting, and pasting. As a user becomes more familiar with the interface, he can use shortcuts like Cntrl+ C in Windows to perform tasks more quickly.

For presentations, we also engage in this kind of audience analysis. We try to discover how much our audience members know about our given topic. That way, we won’t present content that is too easy or too difficult for them. For those who know a lot about the topic already, we have to offer enough new information to keep them interested. Plus, we need to remind our listeners how the information we are presenting can help them be more effective and efficient in their everyday lives.

  1. Offer informative feedback.

Euphemia Wong of The Interaction Design Foundation says this about Shneiderman’s third rule, “The user should know where they are and what is going on at all times. For every action there should be appropriate, human-readable feedback within a reasonable amount of time.” In other words, good interface design makes sure a user doesn’t get lost or confused. If you’ve taken an online survey, you probably appreciate the status bar at the bottom of the screen that lets you know you are, for example, 75% through the questions.

Likewise, presenters should use tools like transitions and internal summaries in their presentations. This helps audience members more easily follow the presentation flow. Phrases like, “now that you know about the humble beginnings of our company, let’s move on to cover how we’ve grown into the global organization we are today” or “we’ve covered the costs and benefits of this new policy, but we still need to see how it will affect our daily workflow” help the audience locate themselves and follow along better.

  1. Design dialogue to yield closure.

Okay, this sounds confusing at first. But really it just means that good web design lets the user know when a process is done. In other words, if they make a purchase, an order confirmation is a good strategy for letting them know their order is complete and you don’t need anything further from them.

One of the most common mistakes I see beginning speakers make falls along these lines. Because of a poorly written or delivered last sentence, the audience isn’t sure whether the speaker is done. So there is an awkward moment of silence in which the speaker has stopped talking, but the audience hasn’t responded with applause. What happens next is that either the audience realizes it’s over, or the speaker has to say something like, “that’s all I have” or “thanks for listening” to cue them. Head of TED, Chris Anderson says, “unless you plan your ending carefully, you may well find yourself adding paragraph after paragraph” which he says will damage your impact. This can be resolved by making sure you’ve prepared a strong conclusion. And pay special attention to that last sentence. It should always feel like a “mic drop” moment.

  1. Offer simple error handling.

This step reminds web designers that unavoidable errors will occur. But when they do, they need to create a way for users to easily and quickly solve those problems. Wong gives the example of flagging a text field that a user might have forgotten to fill out.

This principle reminds us that errors occur in even the best planned interfaces and presentations. And that we should have a back up plan at all times. Whether issues occur with presentation media, technology, or even delivery, your audience will appreciate if you’ve got a back up plan you can quickly switch so the presentation doesn’t stall out or derail.

  1. Permit easy reversal of actions.

Users on a webpage like to know that they can get back to a previous page or menu easily. If they click on the wrong thing or wander into unfamiliar territory on the page, they need easy-to-access buttons to “go back” or “undo” things.

In a presentation, no matter how hard you work, your listeners could misinterpret your information or wander away from your presentation all together. In these cases, it’s important that you use the presentation equivalent of “back” buttons. Short phrases like “in case you missed it” or “let me repeat that important point” or “I don’t want you to misunderstand what I’m saying” will help keep the audience on track. They also help to address and fight the misinterpretations and lapses in attention span that occur naturally.

  1. Support internal locus of control.

Again, don’t let the web tech language here scare you. This principle is an important one. It encourages web designers to give users a sense of control while also earning their trust by meeting their expectations.

These are also important concepts in presenting. Apply this principle by reminding the audience that they matter and including them as often as possible. Use inclusive pronouns like “we.” Say “let’s talk about” instead of “I want to talk about.” Give clear direction as to what you’ll be covering so they feel more in control of where the presentation is headed. And most importantly, develop your content with their needs in mind. Do everything to meet the expectations you think they have of you and your presentation.

  1. Reduce short-term memory load.

Shneiderman’s last golden rule reminds us that “human attention is limited and we are only capable of maintaining around five items in our short-term memory at one time.” He says information designers should use proper information hierarchy which Bridgewater Learning defines as “the arrangement of elements or content on a page/screen in such a way that it reveals an order of importance.” Shneiderman also says we shouldn’t rely on the user to have to recall too much.

In a presentation, we can use good information hierarchy by employing basic organizational components like main points and subpoints. And we should plan to repeat important points often so that listeners are more easily able to remember them. One powerful way to do this is to give them visual cues via your presentation media. Don’t ask the audience to remember a long list of points or textual data. Instead, create simple graphics in your slide deck to help them recall what you’ve covered.

Who knew web design had so much to teach us about giving great presentations? The next time you are clicking through a great website, pay attention to the intentional and effective information design. Then let it inspire you to mimic those same principles to create amazing presentations.

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