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Meiss Education Institute

Making It Visual: Using Graphics & Visuals Effectively
By Rich Meiss

Designing & Delivering Powerful Presentations Series: VI

Many studies in the past few decades have shown the value of adding visuals to a presentation to make it more memorable and effective.  Today, many more studies are showing how distracting visuals can be in taking away from communicating the main message of a presentation.  Of course what we are talking about here is the abuse and/or over-use of Power Point.   In this chapter we will look at the appropriate uses of Power Point, some things to avoid with its use, and some alternative methods of using visuals.  Since there are many good resources on how to create Power Point slides, we WILL NOT include that information here.

Alternatives to PowerPoint

Not too many years ago, we were using 35 mm slides and/or the overhead projector as our main methods of communicating with visuals.  With a few exceptions, these options are no longer with us, replaced by computer-generated graphics (most often Power Point).  So the main alternatives to Power Point today are non-projected visuals.  Although this may include pictures, posters, models and props, the two most-used forms of non-projected visuals are white boards (maybe still a few black boards) and flipcharts.   Here are some tips for using the flipchart effectively, most of which would also apply to white boards.

Let’s start with the biggest limitation of this type of visual, which is its inappropriateness in large groups.  Once you have an audience size of 35 and beyond, the flip chart gets hard to read from the back of the room.  If you are using it in larger groups, avoid writing on the bottom 1/3 or so of the chart, as anyone having to look over another participant’s head is unlikely to be able to see the bottom of the chart. 

The Benefits of Flip Chart Use

There are many benefits to using a flip chart.  First of all, they are readily accessible and relatively inexpensive.  If the organization for whom you are presenting does not have an easel for the chart pads, you can buy portable charts at office supply stores today.  Most of these use the self-adhesive paper which also allows you to stick the chart to the wall without tape.  (The only downside is that the self-adhesive charts are higher priced.)

Secondly, flip charts are relatively easy to use (although they can certainly be abused – see “Tips to Avoid” below).  They require little space in the room, there are no electronics to worry about failing, you can easily move them around in the room, and all you need to make them work is a set of markers (and maybe some tape).

Finally, and maybe most importantly, flip charts can be highly interactive and flexible.  The presenter may have some pre-made charts ready to hang in the room, but he/she also has the ability to make charts as the presentation unfolds.  This is especially effective if your presentation is interactive, as you can draw ideas from the audience.  You may also have audience members divide into small groups (usually 4-6 members), tape a piece of chart paper to a wall, and work on a project together at the chart.  This is especially effective during those times when participants may need extra incentive to stay alert and engaged in the presentation (after lunch, on a warm day, during a long presentation).  I recommend that presenters carry several sets of Mr. Sketch markers (water-based, they won’t bleed through the paper onto the wall) with them and use the flipcharts for the reasons mentioned above.

Tips to Avoid – and How to Use Flip Charts Effectively

-          The chart is not readable.  Make sure to print, and make 1-2 inch high letters with a dark colored marker.

-          There is too much copy.  Use as few words as possible.  Emphasize key words, and add visual effects if possible.

-          The chart is boring.  Brighten the chart’s visual appeal by underlining or boxing key words.  Use color, graphics and geometric shapes.  If you don’t draw well, cut out pictures to tape on the chart to support the main message being communicated.

-          The presenter talks to the chart.  Make sure to face the audience when you are talking.  There are generally two ways to accomplish this.  Either learn to “hug” the chart and write so your body is turned enough to project your voice outward to the audience, or use the 3T method:  Touch (write), turn and talk.  First write, then turn to the audience, and then talk.

Here are a few additional tips to make the flip chart work even better for you.  So pages tear off easily, gently score them before the meeting.  Use a pencil to write notes to yourself on the chart – the audience will not see the light marks, but you’ll be prompted for what you want to write as you approach the chart.  Put some tape or a sticky (Post It Note) on specific pages that you want to come back to and access during the presentation – so you are not frantically trying to find that page.  

Death by Power Point or Killing Me Microsoftly with Power Point

A major problem with most presentations today is that presenters have taken a good tool (computer graphics – usually Power Point) and turned it into an over-used and abused tool- “PowerPointless”.  Let’s examine the abuses of the tool first, and then discuss how to make it work for us.

Edward Tufte, a Yale professor and expert in the presentation of informational graphics, is perhaps the biggest critic of Power Point.  Tufte wrote an article for Wired magazine in September of 2003 and titled it Power Point is Evil:  Power Corrupts, Power Point Corrupts Absolutely.  

He begins his article this way:  “Imagine a widely used and expensive prescription drug that promised to make us beautiful but didn’t.  Instead the drug had frequent, serious side effects:  It induced stupidity, turned everyone into bores, wasted time, and degraded the quality and credibility of communication.  These side effects would rightly lead to a worldwide product recall.”  He then compares this deceitful drug to “slideware”, or Power Point.

WOW! That’s pretty strong language.  But Tufte then goes on to point out some of the disadvantages of using Power Point as a medium of communication:

·         It is sequential, and therefore not an integrating communication process

·         It is ripe for misinterpretation with its bulleted outlines and templates

·          It is not conducive to transferring complex thoughts between human beings      

Tufte cites as an example the use of PowerPoint by NASA in the events leading up to the Columbia disaster.  The investigation into the disaster and what caused it included these thoughts:   “… some lessons learned. The biggest lesson, Roe said, is to curb the practice of "Power Point engineering." The Columbia report chided NASA engineers for their reliance on bulleted presentations. In the four studies, the inspectors came to agree that Power Point slides are not a good tool for providing substantive documentation of results.”  [Emphasis added]

Do We Throw Power Point Out the Window?

So Power Point has its very vocal critics.  But it also has many proponents.  One of those is Don Norman, President of the Neilsen Norman Group, design expert, professor, and prolific author.  In his book The Design of Everyday Things, Norman points out that Power Point can be abused just as any other media can.  He suggests that a skilled presenter will do his homework and deliver a reasonable presentation with slides.  Power Point has little to do with the efficacy or outcomes of the presentation.  My conclusion is that the tool needs to be used appropriately in the hands of a skilled craftsperson – the master presenter!

So with these thoughts in mind, let’s look at some tips to make Power Point work for you.  

A Baker’s Dozen Ideas to Put the Point Back Into Power Point:

13.  Design with the audience in mind.  It is OK to create a lot of slides to help you put together a logical presentation, but then ask yourself:  “What does the audience need to see of this presentation?”  Typically, you can eliminate half the words and half the number of slides the audience needs to see for maximum presentation impact.

12.  Use it sparingly, not exclusively.  We suggest a good presentation will use Power Point about 50% of the time or less.  And if your goal is training (helping participants build new knowledge, skills or attitudes), use it about 25% of the time or less.

11.  Use the “hidden slide” feature.  A good way to accomplish number 12 is to create as many slides as you need for preparing your preparation, and then go back and hide the slides that the audience doesn’t need to see.  To accomplish this, highlight the slides you wish to hide, then click on the tools tab on the menu bar, and click on “Hide Slide”.  When you are in slide show mode, these slides will not then be shown.

10.  Use the “B” and “W” keys.  When you are showing slides and the presentation takes a sudden turn to a different topic, or when someone asks a question unrelated to the slide currently showing, just hit the “B” key on the keyboard.  This will bring up a black screen.  Answer the question or have the discussion, and then hit any key to bring the slide back.  (The “W” key will bring up a white screen similarly – but it is hard on the eyes looking at a white screen.)  This is a function built into Power Point.  Some projectors today also have a feature on the remote, usually called mute, which also allows you to get to a blank screen.  The key idea here is to never have anything on the screen that would compete with or negate the idea currently being discussed.

9.  Use a minimum of 24 point type size.  Make sure the screen will be readable to those in the room.  This means at least doubling typical typewritten point size of 12.

8.  Include a graphic on most slides.  What picture, icon or graphic would add meaning to the slide?  There are multiple sources of pictures available to adorn a slide today – from digital photography to clip art.

7.  Use the 6 x 6 guideline.  There should never be more than six lines of type and six words per line on any one slide. This Microsoft guideline has been widely taught for years.  Actually, I am in favor of less words than that.  Ask yourself what key words would communicate the main message of the slide – you, the presenter, should fill in the missing thoughts without having them printed on the slide.

6.  Use the special effects sparingly.  While it is fun to create wipes, fades, dissolves and sounds, if it detracts from the presentation it is unnecessary.  Always ask yourself:  “Is this adding to my audience’s experience of the presentation, or distracting from it ?”

5.  Communicate a single idea per page.  Although it is tempting to put more on a slide than less, each slide should only communicate one main idea.

4. Chunk your content by adding blank, black screens.  As you put your slide show together, build in blank, black slides after each major content piece.  If your presentation has three main points, for example, show your slides of your first main point with supporting information, and then build in a blank slide.  This gives the eyes of audience members a rest occasionally, and it signals to the presenter that you are transitioning to your next main point.

3.  Use a maximum of two fonts and two type sizes.  While it is good to have some variety, be careful to avoid too many different font types and sizes.  And make sure to use the fonts that are most readable, such as Ariel, Times New Roman and Helvetica.  (Save the fancy script fonts for personal events like invitations to a party, etc.)

2.  Don’t print your slide deck as your handout.  This suggestion will be heretical in some organizational cultures, as participants EXPECT that you will hand out your slide deck printed three up or six up.  If you absolutely need to do this, consider these two things: 
a)  Always print only three-up (number of slides per page), as this will make the print more readable, and
b)  Add some blank lines in the slides so participants have to fill in the blanks as they listen to and watch your presentation.  To accomplish the latter, create your slide show, then hit “save as”, save a second copy of the slides, and delete some words and add blank lines before you hit the “print” function.  The printed slide deck will then have some blank lines instead of all the words; as you present to the audience along with your Power Point slides, they may then choose to add in the key words that are missing.  This keeps their attention focused and adds to their learning, because they are now writing as well as hearing and seeing.

1.  Always have a backup plan.  How many of us have seen a presenter lose his/her Power Point slides (electricity went off, computer went down, etc.), and as a result they couldn’t deliver their presentation?  If a flip chart is available or if the presenter has a handout that can be filled in, this embarrassing situation can be presented.  Remember, you are the message – your Power Point slide show just supports the message.

By incorporating these tips, you will distinguish yourself as a master presenter in the use of Power Point.  Make the tool work for you, not against you! 


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