Slide:ology to PowerPoint’s Rescue

“Slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations” by Nancy Duarteslideology-cover-photo5
O’Reilly Books, 2008
Pages: 294
ISBN 10: 0-596-52234-7/ISBN 13: 9780596522346
MSRP: $34.99

by Robert Delwood, STC Houston Member and Senior Programmer Writer

“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him PowerPoint.” This would have been Abraham Lincoln’s quote if he were unfortunate enough to have seen Microsoft PowerPoint. Yes, unfortunate enough. PowerPoint, celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2007 has become a ubiquitous sign of the electronic age and perhaps the most overused, abused, and hated software package. What’s there to dislike? As it turns out, plenty. Who doesn’t bemoan going to a meeting only to see PowerPoint as the centerpiece?

The symptom is that the audience gets bored reading on screen exactly what the presenter says. As technical communicators we are more trained in using words than pictures; we’ve lost our fingerpainting and Crayon skills. After a certain point, the number of words on a slide prevents it from being a visual aid. The blunt truth is that the audience either reads your slides or listens to you, but they will not do both. Making bad slides is easy, and being remembered as a dull presenter is, in PowerPoint terms, a form of career “suislide.” Going past the symptom, the problem becomes not understanding presentations to begin with.

PowerPoint presentations can be seen as a continuum, as follows:

Document. If a slide has more than 75 words, it’s a document—a “slideument” as the book calls it. If that’s to be the case, it may be best to circulate the document ahead of time and hold a meeting, rather than give a presentation. Use the meeting time to further discuss the contents.

Teleprompter. At about 50 words per slide, the slide becomes a teleprompter. Many consider this the worst kind of presenting. Often it represents lack of rehearsal by the speaker and the speaker is perceived as less authoritative. Speakers actually turn their backs to the audience, or the audience reads ahead and waits for the speaker to catch up.

Presentation. A true presentation spotlights the speaker and the ideas, using slides to visually reinforce those ideas, not distract from them. The speaker also rehearses ahead of time, and the payoff is clear. If you think about it, the best presentations have usually been this kind. Ironically, such a presentation may have been so smooth that you did not even notice, but you remember the ideas. A good example is that in 2007, Al Gore won an Academy Award with nothing more than a PowerPoint presentation.

The solution is to pick your format carefully; any point along this continuum is fine if that is what you intend and if you understand the consequences. This book concentrates on the last point, the true presentation.

The author, Nancy Duarte, owner of Duarte Designs (a Silicon Valley graphics firm), specializes in presentation development and design. During the 274 pages, she walks you through the creative process in fine detail. The book, beautifully illustrated, can be a modern college guide for presentation design. This approach is good. Unless you’ve graduated from college in the last four years, graphics has changed entirely and may invite a reintroduction.

The process can be broken down to three main steps:

First, generate the ideas for the visuals (Chapters 2 through 4). Visually expressing ideas is not always easy, especially intangibles such as company vision or change management. The point is not to create pictures, but ideas for pictures, and lots of ideas. Doodle, use pencils, even Crayons but not PowerPoint yet. Discard the first ideas since they tend to be cliché. Although a handshake on a background of a globe is a solid icon, does it really express your intent of specific partnerships in a domestic, niche market environment? Displaying Data (chapter four) is an especially helpful primer on chart design.

Second, think like a designer (Chapters 5 through 10). These are the most technical chapters and discuss the visual elements composing an image. Elements include understanding visual balance, object relationships, white space, motion, and text. Duarte maintains that presentations are a “glance media,” conforming to the three-second rule. The reader has three seconds to get the slide’s meaning or you lose control of the presentation. That means everything has to be succinct and meaningful. This segues into PowerPoint’s hallmark: Bullets. Use them sparingly. They are intended as headlines only, and as a presenter, it becomes your job to fill in the details. If you have to use them, stay to one level; and for the reader’s sake, be consistent (such as being grammatically parallel and using consistent letter cases and periods at the end).

Third, make the presentation (Chapter 11). This chapter contains the most radical proposals. Mainly, reduce the amount of text on the screen. This may make some presenters uncomfortable but that is from author’s perspective, not the audience’s. To reduce text, for example, highlight one key word or phrase per line item and reduce from there.

Example 1: Learning to Ride

• Put training wheels on the bike

• Raise the training wheels so you wobble

• Wear clothing and a helmet to protect yourself

• Remove the training wheels and falling in the grass

• Enjoy riding your bike whenever you need to go

Example 2: Learning to Ride

• Put training wheels on the bike

• Raise the training wheels so you wobble

• Wear clothing and a helmet to protect yourself

• Remove the training wheels and falling in the grass

• Enjoy riding your bike whenever you need to go

Example 3: Learning to Ride

• Training wheels

• Wobble

• Clothing

• Grass

• Go

Letting go of words is easier than it seems. Highlight the key words. Your presentation should provide the rest of the context, or better yet…

learntoridebike1…one picture provides the story.

Another radical proposal is to reconsider if PowerPoint is even needed. In a big room, it might be. With smaller groups, it could come across as impersonal. What if the projector breaks; would that stop the presentation entirely? Other options could be flip charts, white boards, handouts, props, or even electronic distributions such as PDAs/IPhones, social networks (check out, videos, or Web casts.

Finally, how many slides are enough? That depends on your speaking style, but there is always an overwhelming impulse to push through, speak quickly, and cram information because “we’ve got to get through this.” No, no you don’t. Rethink the topics to fit the time. Don’t cover Moby Dick when you only have time for One Fish, Two Fish.