[leggi qui la versione in italiano dell’articolo]

Why bother with slides

How long does a 20-minute talk seem? We know that it can be smooth, quick, and entertaining, or all too often — an endless agony.  All this, regardless of the topic, depends on the speaker. It’s not just about content, it’s also about form.  When a speaker with a monotonous voice reads four pages of a manuscript, all eyes turn away from the speaker in a futile search, It’s not fun at all, and 20 minutes lasts forever.  In addition, often the speaker/reader begins late, and the talk ends well beyond the allotted 20-minute slot.

A well-crafted presentation can reduce this punishment, and might actually catch the interest of the audience. This results in more questions, a more interesting debate, and eventually a better understanding of the subject – which should, of course, be the presenter’s goal.  

This is why I’m adding my two cents about creating enticing slides for academic presentations.Some tricks of the trade should prove useful regardless of the topic.

All of what follows starts from a simple premise: a 20-minute presentation should most of all tell a story.It’s impossible in such a short time to explain all the whos-whats-whens-hows-and whys of the research. Your audience simply does not have the time to appreciate all the depths and “easter eggs” of your work. Instead, it’s much more effective to illustrate key points with a story,  May I here make the following suggestions

  • Fonts and images, the quickest way to add personality to a presentation.
  • A couple of tools used to create slides (spoiler – neither of them is Powerpoint).
  • A few examples of past presentations and their logic.

Pick a theme (and go for it)

Would the subject of a war in the Middle Ages be more engaging if the presentation is styled in Middle Ages parchment?  Probably. No need for wearing a chainmail and using a crossbow-shaped remote to change slides. A few gothic fonts and appropriate pictures/paintings will be enough to give the vintage zest.

Similarly, a research about U.S. policy can easily be decorated with a Far West, Art Deco, or Roaring ’20s theme –all this with a bit of cosmetic work.

Basic elements of the presentation

Fantastic images and where to find them.

First of all, pictures and images. It is very easy to add a nice touch with a few pertinent images: backgrounds are an option (e.g., “bricks” or “wall”). If we are telling the story of a XVIII century monk, why not show his portrait (if available), or an illustration of his monastery?  Or perhaps some other related item, such as a photo of a book we are referencing. It seems easy, but how many presentations lacking graphics have you suffered through?

Where to find free images? As usual, the simpler the better. Google Images can provide an infinite source of graphics. Just check the size you are looking for, since you need to search, e.g., only large graphics for a background.  Three things to remind about Google Images:

  1. The key to finding the best image is obviously your choice of words. If you present something about urbanism, your first try will be – surprise, surprise – “city”. But why not “utopian city”, “village”, “megalopolis”, or even “movie megalopolis” and “videogame city”? (especially if you’re looking for a drawing/painting and not a real picture). Anything works!
  2. Besides, keep in mind that Google works better in English: if you look for the Italian “macchina del tempo” you’ll find 11.000.000 entries; the French “machine du temps” jumps to 289.000.000, while the English “time machine”, well, it’s 3.650.000.000. This can make the difference between finding the image you want or not.

Another step is looking for PNG or transparent images so that you can superpose various images without having an annoying white rectangle. The English rule applies here too: look for “emperor stamp PNG” and you’ll have 4.630.000 results; try with “timbro imperatore PNG” and it’s about 54.000.







Of course Google has a lot, but not everything. Why not use your own graphics if they fit? Otherwise, many websites provide free images. Some examples:

  • Unsplash is probably the most famous. It’s basically a giant repository of free images, searchable through a Google-like bar.  Very easy, and all graphics are of excellent quality. They are also very diverse, and you’ll find pretty much anything, abstract patterns included. It also has NASA official pictures.
  • Gratisography is “The world’s quirkiest collection of free high-resolution pictures, comprised of the world’s best, most creative images – photos you just won’t find anywhere else.” And it’s true. There are not a lot of them, but if you find what you need, they are great.
  • PngFly is about the above-mentioned PNG pictures. It has tons of drawings and textures, and if you want to get more creative you’ll probably find something useful here.

Fonts that you can actually read.

Fonts are crucial in expressing themes you choose. Browsing the settings of a few softwares (Powerpoint, Pages, Word, Canva) you can find some cool stuff. The main problem in choosing a font is that usually its eccentricity is inversely proportional to its readability. Without the need to dig into scientific research about readability, it is important to stick to something clear.  You don’t want your audience squinting to understand what’s written.  However, this does not mean you can’t use weird fonts for something brief: for example, a title, which will be bigger and shorter than the rest of the text. 

The good thing is that a carefully chosen font will immediately provide that tailor-made feeling that makes an interesting slide. This is why it’s important to spend some time finding the right one.

Once again, the internet is full of wonderful resources, and at least three websites provide tons of free fonts. They are Dafont, 1001font, and Fontsquirrel.  Downloading a font is really easy and quick (they are only a few kb) and it’s also very easy to install them (at least on Windows, where the process is totally automatic. I do not know about IoS. Nevertheless, I often install extra fonts on the Ipad with Anyfont: it is also a very quick and guided process. Besides, since fonts belong to the OS, once installed, you will find them on the whole Office pack.

on 1001fonts.com you can browse fonts by any criterium.

Which tool?

I’ve never used Powerpoint because I’ve been very satisfied with Pages and Keynote on the Ipad. They both are intuitive and simple – they’re Apple, after all. The good thing about Keynote is that, like PPT, it is made for having more than one slide. It is therefore more ergonomic than Pages, since you can, for example, have an overview of all the slides while you’re working on one of them. If you want a “killer” presentation, you might also add transitions and animations.

A second and very powerful tool is Canva: it’s totally online, so you will need Wi-Fi to work on it. It is also an app, and you can have a single account to find your works from multiple devices. The desktop version is very ergonomic, simple and rich. It manages transparent PNGs very effectively, and it allows uploading as many images as you wish. But you will find a more than satisfactory stock of shapes, icons, drawings and pictures by default. If you pay for the premium version you can also upload extra fonts, yet I’ve never found that necessary.

All these tools – Pages, Keynote & Canva – are based on the principle that you will superpose different layers of images, sometimes many layers. It’s up to you to create your own artworks!

Regardless of the software you choose, a useful tool is easy screenshot – or any Firefox/Chrome extension that allows you to take screenshots “on-the-go” of custom portions of the screen: that way you can “cut” items and store them.

Time for an admission: the unmentionable time spent on the editors of PES 6, RCT3, NFS Underground 2 and similar videogames was crucial to learn this kind of stuff.

Short gallery w/notes

Short gallery w/notes

Now a few examples, meant to clarify what I wrote and/or to give you a bit of inspiration.

[Canva] Paper “A nation is not a pic-nic. Francis Lieber’s transatlantic networks from Restoration to Reconstruction” (page 2).

Since the paper was about an encyclopedia published in the first half of XIX century I decided to work with two different ideas of a “paper”: a book and a newspaper. For the newspaper, I copied the 1830-1850 American sheets: columns, fonts, general structure. I added fake ads and a plausible yet original title. A few “easter eggs” based on the audience can add a humorous touch.

paper lieber canva

It’s definitely not a minimal design, but the idea was to keep the feeling of the messy and densely written newspaper of that time.

Also, since I use slides to guide my speech, the structure reflects the reasoning: while speaking I did nothing else than follow the  image to tell my points. 

[Keynote, Ipad] Paper “Un crime irrésolu – le silence de Francis Lieber sur la Peculiar Institution” (page 1).

Since it was about a small historical enigma, I planned the presentation as a noir tale, using one slide for each question: what is the crime? Who is the suspect and which are his motives? What is the crime scene? And, obviously, where are the evidences? A simple magnifying glass over the painting made clear the mood of the presentation. Fonts are quite basic, and colors are meant to recall the “Law & Order” scheme – or any other police series. 

[Keynote, Ipad] Round-table “68.18 – L’inizio”, teamwork with Anna Lisa Somma and Sergio Solombrino.

The project was about thinking how a ’68 protest could happen nowadays. Against what, and how, workers and students should protest?

Given the institutional context we opted for a sober palette, and also used a default Keynote template in order to keep it simple and elegant.



[Canva]. Poster of a young researcher’s conference of CHRI.

My first shot with Canva. Since I wasn’t familiar with the tool I kept it very simple: after uploading the picture of an owl (Photo by camila waz on Unsplash), the logo of the lab, but also the symbol of philosophy in general. I opted for a minimal scheme, two colors and the essential information. Since I had to put a few institutional logos, and because they were transparent, I chose to add the pink brushing on the left low corner. The poster is also meant to be the first of a series: it’s easy to change the content while keeping the basic structure.

[Canva] Air’s presentation brochure.

Of course we also did AIR’s own presentation with Canva. We tried to keep it minimal, but I am in love with TH Benton’s mural America Today, and it really fits anyway: its different parts are the backgrounds of the slides. Being a brochure/flyer, we used very simple icons and shapes, accompanied by our usual palette of navy blue / okra yellow. 

The complete brochure is here. air brochure


This is by no means an exhaustive tutorial, yet I hope some of the hints will be useful to create a nice presentation for your next paper. We are eager to discover more examples and more creative solutions, so link us your work or images in the comments below!

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