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Basic principles of PowerPoint hygiene

PowerPoint is a good idea in principle, but in order to get the advantage of the technology it’s important to follow some simple rules of visual hygiene.

MAKE THE SLIDES SELF-EXPLANATORY
Remember that the object is to turn the audience into leaders. Hence your object should be for the audience to be able to use the slides themselves to communicate the message to others.

MAKE THE SLIDES EASY TO UNDERSTAND:
If a slide can’t be absorbed by the audience in a couple of seconds, it should be clarified and simplified.

ELIMINATE JARGON AND ACRONYMS
Acronyms are perhaps not too difficult individually for mentally alert technical specialists to understand. But the cumulative effect is to add to the effort required to follow the argument and it risks having the presentation sound like a blur. For business decision makers, jargon and acronyms may become a total turnoff. Thus slides should be submitted to the grandmother test: would your grandmother understand them?

USE LARGE LEGIBLE FONTS
One rule of thumb is to require special justification for anything smaller than a 24 point font. Most presentations contain significant content in small fonts that cannot realistically be read or absorbed by an audience.

USE FULL SENTENCES AS HEADINGS, NOT SINGLE PHRASES
The object is to make the slides instantly intelligible and reusable by the listeners. A cryptic phrase like “Refurnishing lives” can be less helpful than “Our corporation helps rebuild Gulf Coast communities

SIMPLIFY! SIMPLIFY! SIMPLIFY!
There is a great temptation for presenters to include in slides all that they know. As a result, slides are generally too complex. One often sees slides that are totally intelligible to the presenter, but which will need a great deal of explanation to make any sense to the audience. Here the slide has become the communication problem, rather than the solution. The overriding motto for slide construction and indeed for all communication: less is more.

ADD STRIKING, RELEVANT IMAGES
If you can find striking images to illustrate and strengthen the point you are making, use them. But make sure that the image does indeed fit the message and reinforces it. Vague general images of smiling faces or people using computers are often just distracting. They may create a vague warm glow in the heart of the presenter, but for the audience, they often merely add to the cognitive overload. The bandwidth of the brain is fairly limited, particularly a presentation with new, transformational ideas. You want all of that bandwidth for your message. Every “drop of ink” on the slide needs to be justified. If it isn’t adding to the message, delete it.

USE SLIDE MOVEMENT TO ACCENTUATE THE POINTS
PowerPoint is a powerful tool and its ability to show movement can add to the presentation’s effectiveness. However one needs to avoid the temptation to add effects for their own sake, rather than enhancing the meaning. Random explosions, zooms, fades and so on should be scrutinized as to whether they are adding to the meaning or simply making the audience dizzy.

USE COLOR TO CLARIFY THE MEANING
Presenters often use dark blue backgrounds. One might call this the “submarine” or “midnight” look. With such a somber background it is difficult to make colors stand out. Bright white backgrounds are be equally problematic. Neutral backgrounds offer more flexibility in terms of mood and tonality.

To make colors to stand out, one can draw on the long experience of centuries of painting. Using black, white and primary colors is what children do when they start painting but as adult artists they learn, eventually, that the bright colors all cancel each other out, so that in the end, nothing stands out. The image starts to look like "Times Square by night", everything competing generally unsuccessfully for our attention. If you want colors to "stand out" and "sing", then you may need to be thinking about slightly tinted neutral backgrounds, with the colors subtly matched with each other, perhaps using a color wheel to think about what goes with what.

Think of Rembrandt or Titian or Corot. Then if one can get the colors matched against neutral backgrounds, even without getting the aesthetic level of the great painters, then your chosen colors have more of a chance to leap out at the viewer, emphasizing the thing you want to emphasize and deemphasizing the rest as background.

Another subliminal turnoff in Powerpoint is the use of flat colors. Nothing in nature has a flat color. Everything is shaded in textures and gradient hues. The only thing in our lives that have flat colors are manufactured objects like plastic. So when you show a Powerpoint slide with flat colors, as opposed to textures and gradients, then the audience may be subliminally thinking - this slide is, or is about, manufactured, plastic, unreal things. Shifting to color gradients, and sometimes textures, if done with care and taste, can create a more human image - and response.

ELIMINATE STRAIGHT LINES AND BOXES
There are no straight lines in nature (except possibly tiny crystals). Even the horizon is curved. As a result, at a subliminal level, straight lines, sharp angles and rectangles also look unnatural. To the extent possible, use curves and soft angles.

USE GRAPHS AND TABLES OF FIGURES WITH CARE
Tables of figures and graphs should be scrutinized as to whether they are adding to the meaning. Often they are illegible and require a significant mental effort to understand them. Where it is absolutely essential to have a table, remember that it won’t be easy for the audience to find the particular figures you are talking about. So make it easy for the audience by using hand-drawn outlines to direct attention to the one or two figures you really want people to look at.

STRUCTURE THE WHOLE PRESENTATION TO REFLECT THE LANGUAGE OF LEADERSHIP
Remember to follow the sequence explained in The Secret Language of Leadership.

· Get attention
· Stimulate desire
· Reinforce with reasons

BUILD IN STORIES TO CONVEY THE MESSAGE
The overall presentation should consist to the extent possible of a sequence of short stories. The PowerPoint slides should reflect and reinforce the storytelling.

The object should be to have a slide deck that it is easy for the audience themselves to re-use at a later time to communicate the presenter’s message to a new audience. This is achieved by building the story into the slides and making the slides as self-explanatory as possible.

There are several options here:

OPTION A: NO CHANGE TO THE SLIDES
One option is to make no change to the PowerPoint slides and introduce stories into the oral presentation. This saves one the trouble of changing the slides. But it is under-utilizing the power of PowerPoint to reinforce the story. It is also missing an opportunity to turn the slides into a prop for the audience to retell the story. There is also a risk that abstract slides start an adversarial argument with the audience that the oral stories don’t rescue.

OPTION #B: ADD THE WRITTEN STORIES TO THE POWERPOINT:
If the story is very short, such as the Zambia story shown in Annex 1, it may be possible to encapsulate in a single slide e.g. see the slide that I use for a story about Zambia in Annex 1.

OPTION #C: TURN THE STORY INTO A COMIC BOOK STORY:
For a slightly longer story, it may be possible to depict each successive scene in the story with a slide, so that the slides look like a comic book version of the story.

TURN ALL FACTS, FIGURES AND ARGUMENTS INTO STORIES
Personalize the data by embedding it in a short story that reflects the point being made. Instead of “40% of housewives use this product,” find an archetypal housewife, (Let’s call her Jane) and explain how and why Jane uses the product, followed by the conclusion that people like Jane constitute 40% of the population.

Instead of “customers find the store is more helpful to their shopping needs”

Say: “Anne Haines, a mother of two in Boise Iowa finds the store to meet her needs in furnishing her house.” Stories personalize the point and make it more vivid.

USE VISUAL HUMOR (CAREFULLY)
Visual humor can accelerate the pace of the presentation. Archetypal situations can be reflected in images. Be careful not to pick on victims. Making fun of oneself is often the safest kind of humor.

USE THE SLIDES TO HAVE A MEANINGFUL DISCUSSION.
Remember that the slides are merely scaffolding to launch a dialogue, not an end in themselves. If the slides are getting in the way of dialogue, scrap the slides.

References:

Cliff Atkinson: Beyond Bullet Points: Using Microsoft PowerPoint to Create Presentations That Inform, Motivate, and Inspire (Microsoft Press, 2005).

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