I recently attended a very prestigious conference and I can report with confidence, that yes, even Nobel Prize winners could use a little extra help with their presentations. Overall, the quality of speakers was excellent, though I would only give top marks for presentation visuals (i.e., slides) to just two out of the 8 speakers whose presentations I attended.
Note: I will use the terms ‘font’ and ‘typeface’ interchangeably, in this post and any others in the future – for our purposes they are essentially the same term.
The most common ‘mistake’ I observed was poor choice of typeface. One presenter used Papyrus which, in me at least, evokes an exotic, informal and somewhat ‘Egyptian’ feel. It’s perfect for more colorful occasions, but was inappropriate for the content of the presentation.
Coupled with the presenter’s use of a parchment-paper background, the typeface contributed to the overall impression of “the past,” even though this conference was about the future of libraries. In addition, the typeface, with it’s thin lines, was hard to read from the rear of the auditorium, and even the speaker, who lamentably used the slides as a teleprompter, had trouble reading them though they were much closer to them than the rest of the audience.
Another presenter set the text of his slides in Comic Sans, which we have all seen before. What kinds of feelings does this typeface evoke for you? For me, it’s “kindergarten” or “elementary school.” The concepts of “happy,” “informal,” and “picnic” also come to mind. I would only use this typeface when I want to invoke those kinds of associations with the content of my presentation (a workshop for elementary school teachers, perhaps, or a presentation to my church committee charged with planning the summer picnic).
Let me point out that there is nothing inherently wrong with either Papyrus or Comic Sans – I have used them in the past and will use them again. The fonts themselves are not the issue (I’m actually quite fond of Papyrus); it is their use (or misuse) that I am concerned about.
Having studied this topic for several years now, I was concerned that my own impressions were too nit-picky, so I double-checked my impressions with several colleagues at this conference – all concurred that there was a disconnect between the impression conveyed by the typeface used and the speaker’s topic and/or spoken delivery.
What’s the lesson here?
Presenters usually only get one good chance to make an impression on their audience and to communicate a message to them. All elements of your presentation, from the delivery of your spoken remarks to what you wear to the visuals you select should enhance, reinforce or complement the content of your presentation and your intended goal/message. This includes selecting a proper typeface that conveys support for your content or the impression you are trying to create.
Serious subjects need “serious” fonts such as Times New Roman or Palatino Linotype. Presentations about the future at least need a “forward-looking” font, such as the new Calibri (included in Microsoft(r) Office 2007(r)), or Eras Light or Franklin Gothic (included with Microsoft Office 2003(r)).
Bottom Line: Match the typeface to the content of your presentation and the impression you want to convey to the audience. And get a second opinion before you present. Identifying these often nebulous “impressions” is a skill that comes with practice and experience. One good place to get a feel for type “trends” is the FontShop feed (http://www.fontshop.com/fontfeed/).
TIP: To minimize the risk of unintentional font substitution, especially if you will not be using your own computer when presenting, stick to the fonts installed as part of your Microsoft Office installation. You can sometimes embed fonts into your PowerPoint files, but this depends on the font’s license, and does not always work well.