How to use a “chorus slide” to make your presentations more focused, sticky, and appealing.

Pop songs have choruses; why don’t presentations have them too?

The chorus is often the most memorable part of a song, and not just because it’s the part that keeps coming back. A good chorus is meaningful. It ties the verses together and creates an aha! that changes listeners. At the end, listeners’ hearts and thoughts are not in the same place they were before. They’ve been moved. 

Think about the chorus of the Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers song, “Free Falling.” It consists of one simple line: “And I’m free, free falling.” Writing sage Roy Peter Clark, in his book How to Write Short, has explained the big meaning packed into that short line (see ch. 7). “I’m free,” says Petty, free of a locked-down relationship with a “good girl.” But in the next breath Petty is “free falling,” from the guilt he should be feeling from his “bad boy” actions, and from a confusing and congested life in L.A.-land California.

Music is a temporal art, and the chorus works on the listener through time. The meaning of Petty’s sparse words grows, changes, and comes into greater emotional focus through the an episode-chorus, episode-chorus structure. What would “Free Falling” be without that chorus?

Presentations and songs have plenty in common. Both are temporal arts, unfolding through the delivery of ordered units in sequence. Both can be positioned to pack an intellectual or emotional punchline. Both can move an audience. But while most songs have a chorus, most presentations don’t. What they are missing is what I call a “chorus slide.” 


A “chorus slide” is a recurring slide that carries the core message of your presentation in a simple but visually dynamic way.


Here’s how to use a chorus slide to make your presentations more focused, clear, and memorable. I will use one of my own presentations as an example, on American experimentalist composers after WWII. Here is my chorus slide:

1. The chorus slide must carry the single core message of your talk.

In the chorus slide above, I have tried to capture the core message of my lecture, which is that composer John Cage radically transgressed boundaries of traditional music making, and gave other composers permission to do the same. (This is an idea directly from the textbook I use, The Oxford History of Western Music, College Edition, by Richard Taruskin and Christopher Gibbs, which I have promoted to the theme of the lecture.)

Notice that the image tells a mini-story. The white background emulates a blank white page, perhaps of a book or canvas, onto which an official sticker has been placed: “STOP! Do not write on this page.” But apparently some rule-breaker has disregarded the notice and written across it in big, drippy letters, “Permission.” The hand-written note challenges the established rule, both by its very act and by its message, and encourages others to do the same. This image encapsulates the story of John Cage, a composer whose experiments in music challenged traditional boundaries time and again. (For a glimpse of how much cultural friction could attend one of Cage's performances, see this video of him on a 1950s game show.)

Finding your core image takes time and effort. I spent about an hour designing the concept and look of this one. Here are two earlier mock-ups of the slide. The first was my initial design, with “permission” in a vibrant orange color, and three icons below: an open door, a “play” symbol, and a flag. I ended up scrapping that design as not rebellious enough, and eventually drew out the sketch of what became the final version of the slide.

First version of “Permission” chorus slide. Not rebellious enough. (Icons credits: Door (PD), "Play" by Jardson A.; "Flag" by Guilherme Zamarioli; all from The Noun Project.

Draft of “Permission” chorus slide, version 2.


When creating your own chorus slide, aim for a single high-level concept that encompasses all examples in a presentation, or series of presentations. For help on how to discover your message's core, read Chapter 1 of Made to Stick, by Chip and Dan Heath. (Get the chapter free from the authors’ website, when you register for their newsletter.) It may be the most important chapter you read this month.

Just creating a chorus slide will likely make your presentation more focused, clear, and memorable. Why? Ask yourself how often you’ve listened to a presentation where you were convinced that the presenter didn’t know what chorus they wanted to sing. If you’re a student or a businessperson, I’d guess that you’ve had that experience. Maybe you’ve been that presenter. I have. Commit now to never again giving a presentation that doesn’t have a clear, core, chorus.

2. Make your chorus slide visually dynamic.

Even if you are not a graphic designer (I’m not), you can create visually appealing slides. But it will take practice, and you will need to seek out tools, skills, and strategies of design if you want to get better. Fortunately, there are loads of resources online that can help you design better slides. Here are three tips to get you started:

Mimic. The best way to learn how to design an effective chorus slide is to study top-notch examples of other slides, then mimic the design. Here is one slideshow that I’ve found helpful. Teachers: pay special attention to the difference between a document and a slide (slide 12). 

Kill Clipart Forever. Use Icons Instead. The Noun Project is a storehouse of designed icons. There are hundreds of designs submitted by a community of designers. There is an option for a free account, as long as you give attribution to the designers. 

Use Canva to create your images. Canva is Adobe Illustrator for the rest of us. It’s a web-based design tool backed by Guy Kawasaki, and my favorite recent find. It’s main functionality is completely free to use. You only pay for premium images, which so far I have done just fine without. Their blog has design ideas and tutorials. Head over there, set up an account, and start designing chorus slides. You can also use Canva in combination with your presentation software, which is what I did for the “Permission” slide. I designed the “STOP!” button in Canva and imported it into Keynote.

3. The chorus slide should return at strategic points throughout the presentation.

The difference between a chorus slide and a title slide is whether or not it returns throughout the presentation. Use the episode-chorus, episode-chorus structure to invest your chorus slide with meaning over time. The structure of my “Permission” presentation is:

Chorus (Introduce the main point of the presentation.)

Episode 1 (Permission granted by John Cage, with examples.)

Chorus (Reinforce the radical nature of Cage’s choices, and the door he opened for other composers.)

Episode 2 (Permission seized by Cage’s contemporaries, with examples.)

Chorus (Discuss the limits of permission, and permission as a new limitation, with discussion.)

Each time the chorus returns, I reiterate and expand on the main theme of the presentation. The hope is that, like Tom Petty’s “Free Falling,” the chorus slide is invested with new meaning each time it returns. Here is my entire presentation on John Cage and the American Experimentalists:

(Note: You can find the composer slides I designed for this presentation on the resources page for this site. They are free to use.)

Chorus slides: the slow way is the fast way.

Is the chorus slide worth the time it takes to make one? Sometimes taking more time on a really important task speeds up the overall time spent reaching the goal. I once heard a quote attributed to Albert Einstein, which I’ll paraphrase here: “If I have one hour to save the world, I would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem.” That quote demonstrates the wisdom in slowing down to get the important tasks right.

The goal of making a presentation is to communicate ideas in a focused, memorable, and appealing. Even though the task of discovering and designing a great chorus slide is difficult and takes time and skill, I still believe it is the quickest way to upgrade your presentations—not just their “look,” but their substance. Before you waste time agonizing over how to make your design prettier, make sure you have a message worth prettifying. Knowing your core message will help you plan content slides more rapidly. It will help you extemporize your talking points in a more focused way, and avoid tangents. It will also signal to your audience that you have put thought and effort into how you plan to spend their time. I don’t even want to know how many thousands of slide show presentations the average student has seen by college graduation, or the average employee after five years on the job. If your viewers are expert judges of visual presentations, how will they judge yours?

Now it’s your turn.

Have you ever used a chorus slide in a presentation? Do you need to make one, and could use some ideas? Post your examples and questions in the comments. (Picture posts are supported in the comments.)

Posted on July 31, 2014 and filed under Teaching, Design.