We’ve all been there.
We were looking forward to the presentation – it could have been a webinar, keynote speech or office meeting. And then there were the slides…
…tiny fonts, long lists of indecipherable bullets, fuzzy clipart from the 1990’s and blocks of text repeating word-for-word the presenter’s speech. The content could be pure gold, but you’ll never know.
Bad visuals and sloppy design drag your attention away even more than the guy next to you tapping away on his phone.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
With a bit of forethought, a touch more effort and by using these uncommon approaches your slides can make you look like a pro and drive home all the right points without stealing the show.
Just like in the movies – good visuals make the story stronger and bring out the best in the actors.
Whether it’s a sales pitch, team update, webinar, main stage keynote, all day workshop, screen-capture video or upload to SlideShare, your slides can be your best friend and make you look like a hero.
Here’s why this is important.
Visuals work (more than ever)
All day, we’re confronted with more content than we could ever hope to consume.
Emails, web sites, magazines, reports, newsletters and video compete for our attention. That’s where visuals come in. Not only do we process images faster than words, and 65% of us are visual learners, but presentations using visual aids were found to be 43% more persuasive.
A well placed picture, infographic, video or animation can drive a lesson home (more on that below), segue to a new lesson or add a perfectly-timed humorous distraction.
It’s the reason why over 80% of TED presenters use PowerPoint slides (or Keynote for a MAC) – they need to make the maximum impact in only about 18 minutes.
The trouble happens when slides are slapped together and tacked onto a presentation last minute, rather than being designed as a part of the message.
In a typical 60 minute keynote you can present 30-60 slides. And each one has a job. Just like the screenplay for a movie, you’re unfolding a story that leads your audience on an emotional journey.
Your job is to choose images that follow that journey.
Here are 5 uncommon ways to put more juice in your visuals and add more punch to your message.
We’ll start with planning.
1. Plan before you Paste
It’s easy enough to add images to your PowerPoint presentation, copy, paste and move on.
Before you head off to search for a picture of a cute baby or office workers “team building”, ask yourself what emotional message are you communicating?
Your hard content is made up of your words, text, bullet points, facts and statistics. But emotional content is all about stories, visuals and tone – even the speed you deliver your content.
In the Academy Award winning presentation, turned documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore used lots and lots of data and graphs to provide overwhelming proof that the threat of global warming is real. The point was not to have you remember the graphs or statistics—the point was to convince you to listen to science and facts and not opinion-based naysayers.
When Apple CEO, Tim Cook unveils the latest Apple watch or iPhone model he uses photographs that show off the sleek designs and ease of operation – not the complex, high-tech wiring that makes it all work. Apple wants you to fall in love with the product – details can come later.
“I love using verbal stories but sometimes, an image can tell a more powerful, surprising, or efficient story.” Ron Tite
Similarly, when uber entrepreneur Elon Musk unveiled the “every man’s” Testa Model 3, it was all about driving experience (driving range, safety, carrying capacity and speed) and nothing to do with the complexity, research or science that makes the car work.
Before you search for visuals, ask yourself what do you want your audience to feel. Is your message about hope and optimism, teaching and information, or is your goal to provide clarity and direction? Getting clear about one or two emotional goals should provide a filter for every visual selection decision.
“Each change on the screen should relate to one simple new thought” wrote Garr Reynolds in his popular book Presentation Zen Design, “that should be expanded and explained by the presenter.” (hat tip to Dave Delaney)
One more example:
In her popular TED talk about “power poses,” Harvard Social Psychologist, Amy Cuddy showed images of the actual poses she was describing. Similar to Apple and Tesla, Cuddy’s goal was not to impress us with research data, but to motivate us to use power poses to feel better and to be more successful in meetings, relationships and negotiations.
Now that you’ve thought through the emotional reaction you want, let’s look at making your visuals memorable.
2. Make it memorable
Nothing puts a wet towel on your presentation faster than cheesy pictures that scream ‘stock photo!’ Sure, your picture shows office workers happily smiling to the camera, but if it looks staged or fake your audience can’t relate to it. In fact, bad stock photography can be more of a distraction than an aid.
The good news is, with a little effort you can find brilliant, free images to support your message and draw your audience in.
Sites like unsplash, pixabay and pexels are great for finding unique, original images that are rated as creative commons zero (you’re allowed to use without permission or giving attribution to the artist). If you don’t mind a few extra clicks, you can save time by using librestock.com which sources free images from some 47 plus sites.
You can also use your own photographs.
For example, I have pictures (like picking up garbage on my runs) that support the story I’m telling. I also have an inventory of images that set the mood for my message, like a wandering foot path (goals and next steps), sunrise (hope and new beginnings) and walking my dog (habits and routines).
“Opt for clear before clever. Your audience should never be distracted from what you’re saying because they’re trying to figure out what your slide means.” Rob Cottingham
Read more about your choice of colors, shapes and fonts in this Venngage post.
Now that you’ve selected your images it’s time to bring out the best in them.
3. Bring out the Best
With a little creativity you can transform a ho hum image into a show stopper that grabs your audience. Let’s start with the rule of thirds.
Rule of thirds
This classic photography technique can be used with any visual. The basic idea is to make your image more interesting by putting what you want us to focus on off-centre. Start by dividing your image into two evenly spaced vertical lines and two evenly spaced horizontal lines. If you’re working with an existing image, try to crop so your focal point is on a horizontal line or at a point where the lines cross.
A simple improvement to most images is to crop out any unnecessary background to emphasize a central area of focus. Cropping can sometimes make it easier to have a clear area to add text to, for example as a featured image on your blog post.
If you’re feeling brave, you can always use original art to get your message across.
Tim Urban, in his popular blog, waitbutwhy.com uses his comical stick man drawings to dress up his often sardonic points of view (see how he turns his blog post images into a slide deck in his 2016 Vancouver TED talk about procrastination).
A quick way to get started to bring out the best in your images is to use canva.com, picmonkey or, if you’re more of a fan of starting with a template, adobe spark. All are free tools that allow you to very quickly crop, add text and graphics, overlay screens and export a sharp image ready to go into your PowerPoint presentation.
And with a little research you can turn a small collection of facts and statistics into an eye-catching inforgraphic using Venngage.
After hunting down and improving your images, it’s time to shoot some holes in your bullets.
4. Build Better Bullets
If you have to use bullets to get your message across, proceed with caution.
Any time your audience sees text (like this blog post) they’ll start to read. But they’ll quit just as quickly if bullets seem redundant, too long, or too hard to read.
This is such a common problem it’s worth looking at why it happens in the first place.
When we create a presentation (webinar, slide deck, SlideShare, screen capture video or infographic), we’re sharing information. And a common assumption is more is better.
In fact, less is almost always best (see below).
The purpose of your visuals is to pull your audience in to pay attention and because we remember visuals more than text, your visual is there to anchor your message and make it memorable.
Anything more than that is too much.
In his 2014 TED talk, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield used only 35 slides with a total of five words (and he received a rare standing ovation.)
If you are flipping through your latest slide deck, here’s a quick rule:
- limit bullets to four on a slide,
- each bullet no longer than eight words and
- use at least 32 point font.
“Please use a font WAY larger than you think you’ll need, for the people in the back of the room and for those looking at your webinar or course on their phone.” Phil Gerbyshak
Two more tips: if you are presenting slides, always:
- animate your bullets (so the audience can process each bullet as you present it) and,
- use a remote clicker (so you don’t distract the audience by leaning over and searching for the right key every time you want to advance a slide.)
5. Less is Best
The most common mistake with any presentation is to have too much content. In almost all cases, less is best.
“The best advice I got was don’t use slides.” Brian Massey
Your visuals are there to add to your message, reinforce key points and create memory anchors that make you and your message more memorable. Cramming in more content won’t get you there.
When Del Harvey, VP of Trust and Safety at Twitter, spoke at TED 2014, she dramatically emphasized the exponential growth of traffic on Twitter with one slide. “Back in January 2009,” she said, “we saw more than two million new tweets each day on the platform. January 2014, more than 500 million. We were seeing two million tweets in less than six minutes. That’s a 24,900-percent increase.”
Her slide simply read: “That’s a 24,900% increase.”
“People are only capable of absorbing a very small amount of material at a time.” writes Garr Reynolds, “Therefore, it is counterproductive to throw up a slide with lots of text or complicated diagrams.”
Every time I delete slides from my keynote presentation the talk improves. I’m less concerned about clicking the right slide at the right time and I can focus more on connecting with the audience.
And there’s always a bit of hesitation before I hit the ‘delete’ button. I catch myself thinking: ‘But this is great information’ or ‘What is someone wants to write this stuff down.’
I never regret the decision to delete.
“Leave most stats on the cutting room floor, and focus on masterfully detailing the implications of a few statistics.” Tom Webster,
If you’re in a habit of designing your slides to also be handouts, you could be making a mistake. Your visual presentation is there to augment your message, not be the complete message.
If you do need handouts, don’t cheat and use the print handouts option in PowerPoint (or Keynote)—lots of your slides are there as visual anchors and won’t make any sense in handouts. Instead, handouts should be created separately as a stand-alone document.
When in doubt, delete—no one will miss what isn’t there.
“Slides should reinforce your words, not repeat them.” Seth Godin
When I’m designing a new deck (or doing triage on a deck that’s gone stale) I have three objectives:
- choose images that support the emotional content (cautionary, upbeat, motivational, trustworthy, etc.)
- create visuals that anchor the lesson (if you use the image again will it remind them of the lesson?)
- use the minimum amount of text to support the message (don’t duplicate what you are going to say)
Your message and delivery is what your audience came for. With a little effort, your visuals will help bring your message to life and keep people talking about you long after the standing ovation.