In a previous article, I reviewed several common PowerPoint designs used in corporate meeting rooms around the world today, and what you can do to improve on them. But now, let’s aim higher. After all, we’re professionals. We should look and act like them, even behind closed conference room doors. It’s time we dragged our presentations into the 21st century. Let the Revolution begin!
What Are We Doing?
Long ago in an office culture far, far away, people gave speeches. They spoke seriously, intelligently, confidently, authoritatively, and even (dare I say it?) charismatically.
Today, we hold meetings: prep meetings, review meetings, status updates, team meetings, division meetings, All Hands!, and hot washes and lessons learned. And it has become standard practice to prepare slides for all of these meetings, regardless of whether the slides are really needed.
Slides are visual tools to support discussions. Discussions are not excuses to look at slides!
Slides for All Seasons
Today, PowerPoint presentations are used for everything. In addition to speeches, sales pitches, and team meetings, PowerPoint files are created in place of traditional documents: status reports, financial reviews, technical evaluations, and more.
PowerPoint is an effective tool for displaying visuals. However, PowerPoint does not support good data design, good graphic art, or good writing.
Where should we look for inspiration for our 21st century slides? Everywhere! Study television commercials, print advertisements, and Web sites. What are the top companies in your industry doing? What are the top companies in the world doing?
Question: How are advertisements like slides?
Answer: Advertisements are used to explain products and services to millions of uninformed people in just a few seconds. They convey complex business messages through visual media. They strive to be focused, dynamic, and…well, good.
We can convince complete strangers to buy a product in 30 seconds. Why do we need 70 slides and 2 hours (through lunch! every month!) at the division status meeting to explain our projects to our own coworkers?
Design Rule #1: Less is More
(Clichés tend to be true!)
Look at your presentation. How many slides are there? Twenty? Fifty? A hundred? And how many of them contain powerful, illustrative visuals? If the second number is less than the first number, it’s time to warm up your Delete key.
Design Exercise #1
Make a copy of your presentation to revise. Now, delete all of the slides that only contain text. All of them. But before you consign those slides to oblivion, copy the text to a Word document. (We’ll use it later.)
Gone is the list of speakers! Gone is the agenda! Gone are the second and third comings of the agenda to remind the audience where we are in the briefing! Gone are the lists of facts and partners, lists of questions, prompts for questions!
Now, how many slides are left? Twenty percent? Five percent? Excellent!
And how much text have you captured in your Word document? Go ahead and fix the formatting to look like regular text (12pt Times), and take out the bullets. What’s left from your dozens of slides? Three pages? Less?
Design Rule #2: Even Less is Even More
(The cliché that keeps on giving!)
Statistician and design guru Edward Tufte has published several books about good design, and he has coined a term for all the administrative flotsam and jetsam that clutter up a document: Chartjunk. What is chartjunk on a PowerPoint slide?
- Headers and footers
- Titles and subtitles
- Dates and page numbers
- Logos, clipart, and drop-shadows
- Anything that has ever been called “cute” or “fun”
What does that leave? Content.
Design Exercise #2
Minimize all chartjunk on your remaining slides. It might help to try this while projecting the slides in a vacant meeting room (if there is such a thing).
- Shrink your logo. If it is in color, make it a black or white silhouette.
- Make disclaimers, dates, and page numbers tiny. Make the titles small. Seriously, small. As long as you can read it from the back of the room, it’s fine.
- Delete any graphics or bits of excitement that you know are not necessary. I’m looking at you, watermark!
- Now, add your footer content to the header. Arrange it all together in the smallest space within reason.
I ended up with this:
No footer and a header only 0.75 inches tall. Just look at all the space you have reclaimed for your content!
Design Rule #3: Black is the New Black
A presentation is a light show. You are bouncing a harsh white light off a glaring white screen straight into the eyeballs of weary cubicle dwellers, some of them sitting only a few feet away. There is no need to blind your coworkers. Make your backgrounds black, and make your content bright.
A wonderful thing happens when you reverse the lighting in a presentation: It becomes easier to focus on the content because there is no distracting, glaring white space. There are only the glowing words, the colorful graphics, the brilliant illustrations. The stuff you came to see!
Design Exercise #3:
Make your backgrounds black and your text white.
Question: Won’t we waste tons of ink when we print out black slides?
Answer: Not if you print correctly. Go to File > Print, find “Color/grayscale” in the Print window (lower left), and select “Pure Black and White.” Voilà! Black ink on white paper, but white text on a black screen. Magic.
Here is my new header in black:
Design Rule #4: Microsoft Word is Your Friend
Raise your hand if you have ever attended a meeting where you were handed a print-out of the slides to be shown at that meeting. Thirty pieces of paper, per person, each one containing half a dozen bullet points of incomplete sentences and irrelevant clip art.
Keep your hand up if that print-out went straight into the trash after that meeting. That’s a lot of wasted paper. Half a ream every time the team meets! Let’s see if we can turn your Word document of deleted slide text into something more useful.
Speed Writing Exercise:
Re-write all of your bullet points as complete sentences. They don’t have to be brilliant, artful sentences. Just put a subject in front of a verb. You can combine multiple bullets into a single sentence if they’re related. Yes, it will take a few minutes. Indulge me.
Keyboards down. What do you have? It’s almost like a little essay, isn’t it? Clear declarative sentences explaining the problem, the proposed solution, how it works, who is involved. It’s like a Statement of Work, or a Scope Document, or a Proposal. In fact, that’s exactly what it is. And it’s only two pages long. We’re saving trees!
Now people can read your Word document before the meeting and arrive ready to have an informed conversation. It might make your meeting more productive. It might even make the meeting shorter!
Design Rule #5: More is More
(Sometimes clichés are wrong.)
Study your slide content carefully. Do you really need a separate slide for each product/team/person? Is there a way to consolidate those timelines and schedules? The more content you have on one slide, the better it can support an informed discussion, and there’s no need to flip back and forth between slides. See example #2 below.
Let’s See Some Slides!
PowerPoint design for the 21st century is not just about slick slides. It’s about improving meetings and communications, saving time and energy, and reducing waste. But yes, it is also about slick slides.
1. Your standard workflow diagram. Notice how you don’t need to put boxes around your words. Even those extra lines are chartjunk!
2. Can comparative data, timelines, multiple product statistics, graphics, and an overview of key events fit on a single slide? Of course! Instead of flipping through a dozen weak slides, your team can study a strong one.
3. If your boss can’t get used to that black background, here is an effective compromise:
Notice that when this last slide is projected on a screen, the content in the black header appears to “float” above the white body area, further de-conflicting administrative debris from genuine content.
Experiment with these ideas. Rethink conventions. For example, why do slides need titles? Shouldn’t the content be fairly obvious? And isn’t there a speaker in the room to explain it?
Viva la Revolución!
Download: PowerPoint file containing the examples shown.
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