As a visual tool for presenting a business case, slide presentations like PowerPoint can be appealing for both you and the audience. Or they can be an overwhelming barrage of data and text that obstructs the message and distracts from the clarity of your purpose.
You are the presentation
In his public lectures, Swedish author David J.P. Phillips reminds us that: “You are the presentation. You always have been. You always will be. The PowerPoint is just a visual aide.”
With too many objects and text on the screen, he says, the audience may spend more time trying to cope with data overload than truly listening to what you have to say. In this way, slides can distract from the real presentation, which is you.
To help optimize your slides, Phillips shares the following design principles:
- One message per slide. When two or more key messages are introduced on a single slide, the audience is literally torn between choices, their attention diverted from one concept to the next. Phillips recommends reducing the tension of choice for the audience by including only one message per slide.
- Avoid the redundancy effect. When presenters include full text sentences on a slide, then persist in reading each line aloud, this creates a high level of redundancy that may strain the patience of the audience and cause them to “cancel out” your message in their short-term memory. Phillips suggests sticking to “short, sweet bits of text and an image.”
- Text size. As a biological function, the human eye tends to focus most intently on four types of visual attractors: moving objects, signaling colors (such as red, orange, and yellow), contrasting objects, and large objects. Yet, in most PowerPoint slides, the headline is the largest text on the page, while saying little. Reduce the title size and let the eye fall into the content, he advises. “The most important part of your slide should be the biggest.”
- Visual Contrast. Use of contrast controls focus. For example, when including a long list of words on a slide, it’s more effective to highlight one item at a time as you speak. For numbers and tables, use contrast techniques to focus the eye on a single column or row of data.
- Dark background. Because most companies tend to select bright white slide backgrounds, the screen may attract more attention than the presenter. Use a dark background to relax the eye and shift the focus back on you. NOTE: For online presentations, using either light or dark backgrounds is fine.
- Six objects. Including the page number, count how many objects are on a slide. Studies show that it takes an audience 2.0 seconds to count ten objects and 1.2 seconds to count seven objects. When the number of objects is reduced to 6, the eye doesn’t count anymore; it instantaneously “sees” them at a glance, and the audience doesn’t have to expend energy on counting.
He emphasizes that including page numbers on slides will create more objects on the page and remind the audience of the passage of time. For example, if the audience sees in the lower right-hand corner of the page “slide 10 out of 40,” their attention may be drawn to the fact that there are 30 more slides to get through, thus focusing on the length of the presentation, not on your compelling content.
Verbal + Non-Verbal = Effective
“The best design gets out of the way between the viewer’s brain and the content.” – Edward Tufte
As presentation coach Nancy Duarte explains, half of any audience is composed of verbal mindsets and the other half is non-verbal. The best way to reach the majority is to include both elements in your slides. For example, if you have too much text, brainstorm ways to convert some to graphics.
Some other tips include:
- Combine mediums. Try to reach people in multiple ways. For example, a moving slide can inspire emotions in ways a static one cannot. Building ideas sequentially adds suspense. A thought provoking video may move your audience to think or feel something new. Whatever method you choose, be sure to “practice design, not decoration.”
- You don’t need a crutch. Some nervous speakers may tend to use slides as a barrier or “shield,” but this defeats the purpose of connecting with the audience in the first place. For those who tend to hide behind the slides, try reducing the text to a few words, and shifting the remaining information into the notes. Then practice your segment over and over, to orient the audience experience back to you, not your slides.
- Digital scenery. Thinking of your slides as digital scenery will remind you of their function. As scenery, they are meant to provide a visual experience to complement and support the speaker, not to lead or speak on the presenter’s behalf.
As an artist and the grandfather of data visualization, Edward Tufte focuses on creating simplicity in design and function. Although used frequently in corporate presentations, “chart-junk” consists of distracting visual elements that are not needed for the audience to understand the data. He recommends leaving out extraneous graphics to preserve the clarity of the content.
Emphasizing a minimalist approach, he advises reducing a graphic design to its core amount of “data-ink” – just enough substance or ink that needs to be there. Excess labels, edges, and other decorative features that are not central will only be distracting when you want to “induce the viewer to think about the substance.”
Likely, most communicators may agree with Tufte’s additional reminder: “Never underestimate your audience. It’s the most common mistake made by presenters. It is not about you anymore. It’s about your audience’s relationship with your content.”
All the more reason to ensure that a presentation is a digital, scenic aide that upholds the visual design qualities of clarity, simplicity, and eloquence –supporting your efforts to deliver a substantive business case that will persuade the audience on the merits of its content.
So remember, PowerPoint is a tool, not a bludgeon. When delivering an important presentation, omit the dramatic fade-ins, crazy fonts, animation that may be irrelevant to your point, or cute clipart.
Once your slides are prepared, use them as launching points for what you will say. You won’t be reading the slides; you’ll be explaining them and how they tie into your main points.
Most public speaking experts suggest you don’t memorize your whole speech. Instead, memorize the beginning, the key points, and the end — and then practice. Practice out loud and have someone watch you; or record yourself. You’ll be able to tell if your timing is on target, if you’re speaking too fast or too slow, and if you’re doing any distracting hand gestures you’re not aware of.