It’s hard to please everyone, especially when everyone means several dozen speakers and thousands of audience members at a tech conference. And especially when it comes to presentations to an international audience. So I get that it can be difficult to make a presentation template that stays on brand and promotes the best presentation of information. But I see a continuing trend that conferences optimize templates for marketing and forget that we are trying to communicate to audiences of varying skills and abilities, many of whom have paid to attend the conference to learn the information in our presentations. I’m not here just to argue aesthetics, although I definitely have opinions on that. I want people to realize that we are unintentionally excluding many of our audience members with our horribly inaccessible slide templates. Accessibility refers to the ability for everyone, regardless of disability or special needs, to access, use, and benefit from everything within their environment. Yes, in many cases use of the conference template is not required, but many speakers will still use it. So the designer of the slide template should be thoughtful about their design more than just staying on brand with colors and conference logos. Basically, we can do better. We should be designing with accessibility in mind.
I’m going to pick on a template that I’m currently working with because it is from a conference that is near and dear to my heart, and it serves as a good example of how we can (and should) improve. Concrete examples seem to have more impact than just providing guidelines. While this year’s PASS Summit template is not the worst conference presentation template I’ve seen, it leaves a lot to be desired in the areas of effectiveness and inclusiveness. I’m writing this publicly to help educate our SQL Family about making better presentations that actually work for our audience. While it is criticism, it is said with love and hope that we can improve for future conferences. The speakers and organizers of PASS Summit are good people who strive to deliver a great conference. I know we can do better.
So what’s wrong with the template?
Let’s start with the title slide.
The title text is 36pt Segoe UI Light, the subheading text is 24pt Segoe UI, and the speaker info text is 14 pt Segoe UI.
Those font sizes alone make it very hard to read from the back of even the smaller rooms at the conference.
In addition to being too small, the gray text for the speaker info doesn’t have enough contrast from the white background. We want to get a contrast ratio of at least 4.5:1 (but 7:1 would be better). The contrast ratio for these colors is 4.0.
While sans serif fonts are generally thought to be easier to read in presentations, it’s better to use fonts with a stroke width that is not too thin – not necessarily wider characters, but thicker lines that make up each letter. So Segoe UI Light would not be my first choice for a title font, but Segoe UI or Segoe UI Bold might be ok.
Also, the red used on the right half of the slide is VERY bright for an element that is purely decorative, to the point that it might be distracting for some people. And the reason we need to squish our title into two lines of too-small text is because that giant red shape takes up half the page. What is more important: a “pretty” red shape to make our slide look snazzy or being able to clearly read the title of the presentation?
Here is the speaker bio slide.
This slide also suffers from the font being way too small.
- Speaker name: 32pt (Segoe UI Light)
- Title/Company: 20 pt (Segoe UI)
- Social media handles: 11pt (Segoe UI)
- Biography Point One: 14pt (Segoe UI)
- Biography Point body text: 10.5pt (Segoe UI)
Again, there are issues with color contrast, which make the slide difficult to read – especially when shown on a projector that will probably wash out some of the color. The blue font on white background has a contrast ratio of 2.2. The red font on white background has a contrast ratio of 3.67. The dark font color on light gray background is actually ok from a color contrast perspective.
Here is a standard content slide.
What I appreciate about this slide is that it is free from unnecessary decorative shapes/backgrounds and doesn’t use needless bullet points everywhere. And the PASS logo is small in the lower right hand corner, not taking up too much room or being super distracting. But again, font sizes are way too small and the color contrast from the background is not high enough.
The difference in heading styles is a bit distracting. While they should probably differ in size, they don’t need to also differ in capitalization and font and color and boldness. One or two properties would be fine to denote difference, and having so many differences is a bit distracting.
More important than that, if you have three layers of headings on your slide, you probably have too much text. It would have been better not to even suggest that we would need to do such a thing. Putting it in the template passively gives presenters permission or encouragement to do just that.
What’s wrong and why should you care?
Conferences need to consider that some attendees may have varying abilities to see, hear, and understand the presentations. But those attendees paid to attend the conference and shall we say… connect, share, and learn? How can they learn when they can’t read the slide? How can they connect when the speaker contact information is tiny and hard to distinguish from the background? When we use slide templates that don’t work for those attendees, we are basically saying that they don’t matter and aren’t our “real” audience. Do we really want to be just another conference that discriminates against these people and makes them feel unwelcome? No one is purposefully doing this, but our ignorance/thoughtlessness about accessibility still creates that experience for them, whether or not we meant to do so.
Attendees don’t have to have a diagnosed “official” disability to benefit from slides that present information clearly. How many of us just have aging eyes? We can all appreciate when we end up seated at the back of a large conference room and can actually read the slides. Non-native English speakers may appreciate being able to clearly and quickly read slide content as they have to take more time/effort to process information written in English. We all get distracted by our phone/laptop/tablet/watch/neighbor during conference sessions, and it’s nice to be able to refocus on the presentation by focusing on the visual content while we listen to the speaker. But we can’t do that when the speaker’s slides are distracting us from the good information or are just plain hard to read. Slide templates are just one part of the presentation, but they can help set a standard that provides a good, inclusive experience for all attendees.
And what’s going to be better marketing for a conference: slide templates that are hard to read but use the right colors and logos, or attendees that have a great experience and learn a ton and tell their friends and coworkers all about it?
How do we fix it?
There are several basic things we can do to fix our templates to make them more accessible and more engaging (and still on brand for the conference). Here is a (non-comprehensive) list that organizations that create conference slide templates could start with to create accessible templates.
- Use a high contrast color scheme. Ensure that all text has a contrast ratio against its background of at least 4.5:1.
- Use sans serif fonts that are 24 pt or larger for body text. If possible, don’t encourage anything less than 32pt font size.
- Don’t use text that is ALL CAPS as a regular part of the template.
- Avoid using color as the only indicator of importance or change.
- Minimize the amount of text on slides so it is only a few lines or less than 20 words.
- Discourage use of distracting transitions between slides.
Even better, don’t require/request use of a slide template. Just give speakers a few intro/exit slides with necessary information and let them do what is best to communicate their intended information. It would then be the speaker’s responsibility to create accessible content, but hopefully they care enough about their presentations to do that. PASS Summit requires the use of the title and speaker bio slides (and a few other conference-related slides), but it allows speakers to design their own slides for the rest of the content.
If you have tips or opinions about creating accessible presentation content for conferences, please leave them in the comments.