The long, the tall and the short

I’ve noticed that lots of people have become mysteriously taller and thinner in the documents and presentations I’ve been reading or reviewing at work lately. Either that, or they’ve become shorter and fatter, and who needs that?

English: John Wayne and Audrey Long in Tall in...
English: John Wayne and Audrey Long in Tall in the Saddle Trailer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Whilst I applaud the use of images in newsletters and presentations there is really only a few people who are that tall, or indeed, that short. John Wayne (6’4″) and Danny de Vito (5′ 0”) spring to mind. The rest of the time people are unwittingly distorting images, including graphics, because they don’t know how to constrain the proportions.

It’s really easy to keep your images looking good

In MS Word and in emails, you simply adjust the size of the image from the corners (not the sides). In PowerPoint, adjust from the corners while holding down the SHIFT key and you’ll be right. If your image doesn’t quite fit, try cropping it, rather than squishing or stretching it.

Why does this matter? Because distorted images, like spelling errors, distract people from your message. It also looks unprofessional.

Is PowerPoint evil?

Fresh SpectrumA colleague recently sent me yet another article about how PowerPoint is inherently evil and should be banned. I’m familiar with these articles. They usually point out that the templates are rubbish and encourage people to develop endless and meaningless lists of dot points which are not helpful to anyone, especially when you are not there to provide an explanation.

I always feel a bit silly defending PowerPoint, but I really do believe that PowerPoint is an awesome tool. It has its limitations, but it also has a lot of good points.

Things I like about PowerPoint

  1. It’s really easy to share. Remember the olden days when you couldn’t share your documents with someone unless they were also using a Mac? (Or windows as the case may be).  It was an absolute nightmare to continue working on a document at home after you’d finished work. By contrast, everyone in the world seems to be able to open a PowerPoint file these days, even Mac users.
  2. Most people have a basic understanding of how to use PPT. You don’t usually need to give people instructions about how to open and screen the slides. Most people can manage the three options of slide view, slide sorter, and normal.
  3. You can change the orientation of the slides. Actually not every knows that you can work in portrait view with your slides. I do this all the time to create documents. I don’t have any other options at work for creating documents with the words and pictures just where I want them. (Word is hopeless for this).
  4. You can create quite nice presentations if you put your mind to it, use a restrained and thoughtful approach to the design of your slides and you are clear about your messages.

I love the cartoon above which I have reproduced from a wonderful site called Fresh Spectrum. You should check it out.


Busy slides are rarely memorable

If you want people to understand and remember your message you should use fewer elements. Elements includes text, images, meaningless clip art and logos. When you remove unnecessary elements from a slide, this is known as removing noise. Too many things on your slides (including too much text) can be thought of as white noise, interfering with the clarity of your message.

I appreciate that not every message can be reduced to a few simple words and an image. Some concepts are indeed quite complex and require detailed explanations, but this doesn’t mean that you need to clutter up your slides and reduce their effectiveness. You need to work twice as hard to figure out what it is you are trying to say and how you can express this simply.

One way to do this is to build your slides instead of presenting the complete idea all in one slide. You can do this using the animation tools, or if this scares you, just use what I call ‘pretend animation’. This is where you duplicate your slide and add one element. Say, for example you want to explain the relationship between three chemicals, all of which have their own unique properties. If you put all three chemicals on the slide and speak about them one by one, your audience will be jumping ahead and may feel overwhelmed, especially when you get to the part where you explain how they interact with one another. So start with just the first chemical on the slide and then add the second element to the next slide. Imagine how you would explain the concept if you were drawing it on a whiteboard and just do the same thing in your slides.

Introducing and explaining each concept with a slide build is a great way to get your message across without confusing your audience.

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Best presentation designers

We all have days when we need inspiration, especially when the weather outside is wet and miserable. It may be sunny in your part of the world, but my little corner of the world is soggy. Today’s post features two of my favourite presentation designers.

Presentation Zen

When I started designing presentations, the first designer I discovered was Garr Reynolds and his site Presentation Zen. Garr’s work features big bold visuals with minimal text and a distinctive look and feel. I have bought most of his books and recommend them for people starting out. His blog covers not only design tips, but articles on presentation techniques, storytelling and audience engagement.

Duarte Design

Almost simultaneously, I discovered Nancy Duarte and instantly became a big Nancy fan. Duarte made her name designing the presentation slides for Al Gore’s ground breaking climate change keynote An Inconvenient Truth. The graphics created by Duarte for the keynote were later used in the award winning documentary of the same name. I strongly recommend that you check out her website and if you need a book on presentation design, buy this one.

 The downside

One of the problems with looking at other people’s work is that you can become disheartened and disillusioned, especially if you work in an environment that doesn’t really appreciate creativity. Your efforts to do something even a little bit different might be met with indifference or derision. You may not be able to get away with using big bold graphics or full screen images.

If this is the situation that you’re in, I suggest you try to make small changes rather than trying something radical. Sometimes it can be a major achievement to simplify your slides and make them clear, short and to the point. This is relatively easy to achieve and doesn’t ruffle too many feathers.

Make a start today

Changing the culture in a workplace is a long slow process. Managers need to be convinced that simple, understandable presentations are far superior to ones which bamboozle and baffle their audiences. Try to make small changes and encourage everyone in your workplace to get to the point as quickly as possible and write clearly. Who knows, with time you may be able to add some relevant images!

Let me know if you have any challenges that I can help you with, or successes that you’d like to share.


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Slide makeover – Remarkablogger case study

remarkablogger (Photo credit: johnscotthaydon)

Michael Martine from Remarkablogger runs a business aimed at helping people create and improve their business blogs. I like his attitude and his work. I was looking at his site recently and I noticed that he had created a presentation called ‘how to turn your about page into a secret freelance sales weapon’. You can take a look at it here. As you will see, it’s not a bad presentation, but it’s a fairly uninspiring, so I thought it would make a good case study.

Here are a few things to think about:

Your presentations are an important part of your overall brand.

 It struck me that the presentation wasn’t really branded in any clear way. I would develop slides (or preferably a template) with a colour palette that matched or complemented the colours on my website. The standard issue PowerPoint template that’s been used is uninspiring and clearly indicates that it was a rush job.

Use your slides to promote and advertise your business.

They are as important as your e-books, your newsletter or any other assets and should be given the same amount of time and effort. They’ll often have a long shelf life so it’s worth making them look as good as you can.

Use illustrations whenever and wherever you can.

In the slide below, Michael talks about the importance of your ‘about’ page, and should be illustrating his points using his own site as an example.


Reduce the amount of text on your slides.

In the makeover below, I’ve tried to pick out the key points and reduce some of the clutter. I should mention that there is an audio track with the presentation, so the text on the slides only needs to contain the key points. Reducing the amount of text on the slides will reduce cognitive load and make it easier for your audience to absorb the information.


You’ll also notice that I’ve emphasised ‘about’ by changing the font and the font colour. It’s important to let your audience know straight away what the slide is about.

Here’s another version with the bullet points separated from the image. This may appeal to you more as its a little cleaner.


Provide examples from other sources.

Michael could have used his own page (which is kind of a mixed bag as it contains a fairly lengthy manifesto), or he could have used some of the really great examples on the web. Here’s just one…

Screen shot 2013-01-16 at 10.19.39 PM

In summary, you should endeavour to:

1. Brand your slides so that they are part of your overall package.

2. Use your presentations as a way to promote your business.

3. Use illustrations and examples as much as possible.

4. Reduce the amount of clutter and minimise the text.

Any other ideas? Comments and feedback welcome.

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You Don’t HAVE To Use PowerPoint…

Here is a nice blog on presentation design that I thought might interest you.
The poster board is a good idea as again, it forces you to clarify your key ideas. As Alex says, its a bit like the projects we used to do at school. Do they still do these or is it all digital these days?

4 ways to improve your presentations

Microsoft PowerPoint
Microsoft PowerPoint (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Let’s imagine for a moment that you have been asked to develop a presentation for your manager about a new HR policy. You begin by opening up the corporate template and start typing using the default settings in PowerPoint with its obligatory bullet points. Blah…blah…blah….

Before long you have lots and lots of slides loaded with text and you’re bored with the whole process.

It’s more than likely that your boss has provided with little or no guidance about what the point of the presentation is, or why it needs to be developed, or even who it’s for.

You want to create something professional. You’d like it to be a bit different, but not zany because you don’t want people to think you are weird and it won’t do your career any good to be thought of as too ‘out there’.

So where do you start with creating a presentation that is effective and gets the message across? Here’s where I can help.


If possible sit your manager down and ask him or her the following questions:

  • Why do we have a new policy? Does it solve a problem or clarify a situation?
  • Who is the presentation for? If she says everyone, you might need to make two versions. One for staff, one for managers.
  • How are people likely to respond to the new policy? Will they see it as an improvement to their working conditions or a hindrance (you really need to know what the target audience is feeling about the issue that the new policy is attempting to address).


Start your presentation with the reason why there is a new policy. For example a policy on working from home has been created because the organisation recognises that work doesn’t just happen at work, and that workers have complicated lives. Always start from how the policy will affect the people in the room and what problem it is trying to solve.


Put your key points on the slides. One point per slide please! Make every effort to avoid corporate speak. Be straightforward and direct. So for example, instead of saying that the organisation has to rationalise their resources because of competing priorities, just say ‘we have limited funds and we need to use them wisely’. People really appreciate clear messages that get your point across.


Be very specific about this. Tell them exactly what you what them to do, don’t make them guess. Using our working from home example, ask them to read the new policy and speak to their manager if they are interested in working from home.

And that’s it. You will have created a presentation that is clear and helpful. It will tell people why they need to know and what they need to do. You’ll be a star!

Seeing your work in action

Today I had the pleasure of watching some of my presentations being delivered to a small but interested audience. I mainly develop presentations for other people to deliver so this wasn’t unusual, but it has been ages since I had the chance to see them being delivered to a real live audience by presenters with a range of skills and experience. Some of the presenters followed the scripts (in the notes field) word for word and others just took the main points from the slide and then embellished this with their own anecdotes and examples. Both approaches seem to work equally well and depended largely on how experienced the presenter was and how nervous they were.

It’s interesting to see and hear how people interpret what you have developed, and it’s a great test of the clarity of your work. It’s all very well for something to make sense in your own mind, but sometimes things get lost in translation. I am very glad to say that this didn’t happen today. Everything made perfect sense (to me anyway). Of course it helps if you can spend some time before the event briefing the presenter about what the key ideas are and luckily we had had the chance to that. Talking someone through a presentation slide by slide is a great way to ensure that the presenter knows your intent and gives them an opportunity to ask questions and get the timing right. It also prevents that awful situation where the presenter peers blindly at the screen, hoping to discover what point they are supposed to be making.

I don’t want to sound too boastful, but the slides looked great, even from the back of the room. I also watched some presentations that had been developed by other people in my team and these were even better. This was very exciting for me because we’ve all been working hard on developing our design skills and its really paying off.

It was a very different situation when I started with this team just three years ago. I remember the slides being heavy with text, big on jargon and technical terms and featuring no visuals (barring some inappropriate and irrelevant clip art). There were dry, boring and uninspiring to say the least. Now they are clear, to the point and interesting. They contain lots of photos and diagrams, all of which you can see from the back of the room. It proved to me that even if you work in a technical field (as I do) and you have to make presentations about topics which are important (but not always that interesting), you can really improve your presentations. We have, and I’m sure you can too.

Next week I’ll talk some more about where to start, but in the meantime it would be great if you could tell me what your biggest challenge is when you are designing presentations? I’d love to hear from you so be brave and post a comment or question.