Dump that Text! Transform Your PowerPoint Slides into a Visual Feast

By Robert Lane and Stephen M. Kosslyn

“Oh, no, not again! Don’t tell me I have to sit through another boring meeting staring at line after line of text on a wall,” she mumbled. “Why can’t these people learn how to make their PowerPoint presentations more interesting?” We’ve all wondered the same thing, but monotonously bullet-pointed, text-filled slides continue to be the norm in most presentation venues. Be different: Show, don't tell.

Does Anyone Really Read All That Text?

There you are, staring at a PowerPoint slide stuffed full of enough reading material to last three days. You wonder: “Does anyone actually read all this stuff? Does anyone read even a fraction of it? How many people politely sit through these bullet-pointed performances with eyes glazed over, pretending to pay attention?" Even worse, if the presenter reads the slide aloud, why does he bother showing all that text in the first place? Trying to pay attention to his words and read at the same time is more than just annoying—it’s downright frustrating. Sound familiar?

Figure 1 bullet point slide
Figure 1: Typical Bullet Point Slide

Sure, text-based slides are easy to create, but let’s face it: they are deadly to watch and clearly offensive to some viewers. The common reaction is: “If you’re too lazy to do anything besides type words on slides … geez, give me your notes and I’ll read them over a glass of wine back at the hotel bar. Either show me something more interesting or black out the projector and just talk.”

The Problem Is No Secret

Usually, we speakers want to be more interesting—and visual—but how? Some of us compensate by pumping up the visual stimulation. All the text stays in place, but, by gosh, slides get prettier backgrounds, content flies around via fancy animations, and Smart Art diagrams acquire cool-looking bevels and glows. We even search online for clipart that looks like something other than what our five-year-old plasters on the refrigerator, and download slick stock photos of smiling people shaking hands. Surely those will help.

Then the realization hits. “OK. I think my slides are prettier and my bullet points flop around in twenty different ways, but am I really saying anything in more meaningful, visual ways?” Usually, the answer is a disappointing, “No.”

Figure 2 bullet point slide with decorative background
Figure 2: Bullet Point Slide with Decorative Background

A few brave souls probe bank accounts, hoping to find a couple extra thousand dollars lying around for Photoshop® classes. “No doubt,” they reason, “becoming a graphic artist will improve my visual communication skills.” Months later, they can make ultra-pretty bullet points and morph all those pictures of people shaking hands into dolphins drinking martinis … but visual communication skills remain elusive.

Becoming More Visual

What does it take, then, to "speak visually" in powerful ways? Sure, having graphic arts talent can be very useful. Understanding design principles is important. Working with pictures, animations, video clips, and attractive layouts … that’s all part of it, too. However, these obvious components are trivial if not used properly. A picture isn't always worth a lot of words; the wrong picture—or even the right picture, but at the wrong time or place—can be worthless, or even harmful. Concepts that guide how visuals should be used in communication are called visual language. Here’s what that term means, along with a few practical suggestions you might try. (Also, download a free visual language PDF guide here).

Any language—spoken, written, or signed—has four key aspects:

Physical Form

In a spoken language, physical form refers to the sounds of words. In a written language it’s the marks on a page or screen. In visual language, physical form is the pictures, animations, and other visual elements of a message that people see. A visual communicator shows imagery carefully just as a speaker articulates words carefully for maximum verbal impact.

The trick here is to make sure that the forms are large enough to be easily recognized and are easily distinguished from each other and from the background. Also confirm that the colors are not grating, that contrasts are great enough, and so forth.

It’s at this basic level of visual expression that those design and media skills mentioned earlier do come into play, and are important. Getting the physical form right is equivalent to pronouncing words correctly. If these aspects of visual language are amiss, the entire presentation comes crashing down— the viewers simply won't be able to make heads nor tails of what they are seeing.

Syntax

Syntax represents the rules of grammar that determine how different types of words (nouns, verbs, etc) go together to form sentences. In visual language, syntax is how we organize what the audience sees and what we say about it.

A picture story relies on proper syntax. It combines the incredible power of storytelling with a progressive series of explanatory images. The images gradually help tell the story, step-by-step, as it unfolds—as though reading through a children’s picture book. Including this kind of device in performances is like a magnet for audience attention.

Here’s a picture story of how a Canadian couple unexpectedly found themselves running a business:

Kristin and her husband always enjoyed an active lifestyle, but when their first baby came along, everything changed. The logistics of being a parent soon seemed to threaten the outdoor pleasures they so cherished.

Kristin looked at many different baby-carrying products, but always came away unsatisfied. She wondered whether there was a more natural, convenient, safer way to carry and breastfeed her baby during outings. Sure enough, a little experimentation and good sewing skills eventually produced a lightweight sling that worked nicely.

figure 3 westcoastslings.com
Figure 3 Baby sling, www.westcoastslings.com

( images below courtesy of www.westcoastslings.com.)

The sling worked well, that is, until towering six-foot-six Travis tried it on. It ended up being way too small for him. So, back to the drawing board Kristin went, adding adjustable ties for extra flexibility (Figure 4).

figure 4
Figure 4: Baby sling evolves, adding flexibility.

Then the Canadian winter set in and it made sense to add a detachable fleece covering for warmth (Figure 5).

figure 5
Figure 5: Baby sling with fleece

That innovation led to making another removable layer—this time waterproof, keeping baby protected from both rain and wind (Figure 6).

figure 6
Figure 6: Another iteration of waterproof baby sling

A third removable layer joined the team a short time later, offering lightweight 95% UV-protection for summer treks (Figure 7).

figure 7
Figure 7: Summertime baby sling with UV protection

It didn’t take long before other mothers saw the possibilities and wanted their own slings. Kristin and her mother found themselves devoting long hours to sewing sling after sling, until they couldn’t keep up with demand. They then made a decision to contract with a manufacturer and soon were off and running with their company: West Coast Slings. Today, these images tell their story, a journey that started with a humble sewing machine in a living room and went all the way to Las Vegas tradeshows.

Could words alone convey this journey with the same force? Not really. The organized progression of pictures brings the unfolding story to life so that the viewer doesn’t have to try to imagine what is being described. Why not do the same favor for your audiences?

Semantics

Semantics deals with the literal meaning of words, phrases, sentences, and discourse that we as a culture arbitrarily define; "dog" could have stood for that slinky animal we currently call "cat," but somebody long ago associated the letters “d-o-g” with the animal we know as a dog. As a result, now a dog is a dog. The story we just told relied not just on syntax, but also semantics and physical form – the elements all work together.

Visual semantics operate similarly to verbal semantics. Presentation visuals don’t necessarily have a set meaning or purpose until we define these qualities—usually verbally.

figure 8 What is the meaning of this picture?
Figure 8: What Does This Picture Mean?

Perhaps we display the picture in Figure 8 and ask, “What’s its meaning? Why are we showing it to you?” Right now, the picture probably doesn’t have any particular meaning or purpose at all. Yes, it depicts a glacier, but so what? It could be part of a vacation picture show, a lecture on global warming, a study of subtle shadow and lighting effects for an art class, or a thousand other contexts. The picture takes on true significance only after we use it as a launching point into more detail.

We might go on to explain that this unusual glacier is in New Zealand, that it is among a very small number in the world that are advancing rather than retreating, and that it exists in one of only two (the other is in Argentina) warm glacial zones (you can walk on the glacier in shorts and t-shirt and feel perfectly comfortable—it’s almost at sea level).

There’s a high likelihood that after reading those facts you instinctively looked back at the picture. Your brain wanted to fill in the dots and associate that extra information with the scene it initially observed.

This is a very important concept: Excellent “visual” communication, especially in a presentation context, works best as a combination of sight and sound. We could delete the picture and force feed you those facts via bullet points … but then there wouldn’t be anything to look back at and say, “Huh. That’s interesting.” On the other hand, just showing the visual alone wouldn’t be enough, either. You need the accompanying facts for full meaning. Randomly throwing pictures on slides without going on to define their reason for being is almost never acceptable.

To that end, be careful. Many presenters think, “Well, to become more visual all I have to do is place a picture or graphic on a slide, right?” That’s not quite true: some visuals help to convey your message, and others do not. It very important to make a distinction between decorative and content imagery.

Decorative images typically are stock photos, graphics, or clipart that add visual flare, but really don’t communicate anything meaningful or substantive. A content image, on the other hand, helps to convey your message—such as by showing a compelling example.

For instance: While giving a sales presentation to a potential customer, you draw attention to your company’s superior customer service while showing the photo of smiling people in Figure 9.

figure 9 decoration or content?
Figure 9: Decoration or content?

If these smiling people are merely a random stock photo, downloaded and inserted onto the slide to "give the feel" of good customer service, the image is purely decorative. Its people have no particular significance. Any photo of smiling models would do. There’s no reason for the customer to give the slide a second glance because the smiles are fake and empty. A viewer wonders, “Who are these people? Why are you showing them to me?” Purely decorative images paraded as content are a very weak, almost intellectually offensive, form of visual expression. They attract attention initially and then leave people hanging.

Now, change the scenario. Let’s say the people pictured here actually are your company’s representatives—the very individuals this customer will work with after signing the contract. In that case, the photo takes on genuine significance. It is legitimate content, helping customers put faces with names while simultaneously personalizing your company’s operations. “Marica on the left is the point person coordinating incoming requests. John next to her handles maintenance issues. Fred on the right is in charge of purchasing.”

If in doubt of whether a visual is decoration or content, look at it and ask, “Will my message’s meaning or depth suffer if I don’t show this? Will people understand less without it?” If so, it’s content. You can download a free PDF guide here that explores picture roles in more detail.

Pragmatics

Pragmatics is the indirect or implied meaning of language. If someone says, "Can you please open the window?", the literal semantic interpretation is that you've been asked a question. But only a sassy teenager would answer "Yes." The rest of us would understand this as a request that we open the window.

Visual elements on slides clearly can have indirect meanings, as well, which go way beyond what might be said literally otherwise. It’s crucial to ponder what imagery might be implying on your behalf.

An advertisement for vodka that shows a beautiful woman in the arms of a studly man speaks an emotional message that you, too, can be that woman or man—but only if you drink this particular brand of vodka. Scientists can sway impressions of their work by showing attractive, professional illustrations of what they think to be true—and they do. Politicians are not averse to associating images of pollution, war, over-crowding or crime with their opponents, whether or not such associations are justifiable.

The implied meanings of visual displays can be a very potent force—for good or bad. It’s up to you to make the ethical distinction of what is acceptable and what goes over the line.

Excellent visual speakers study, experiment with, and understand these four aspects of visual language, above and beyond anything they create in PowerPoint. Eventually they reach a state called visually fluency, where graphical expression flows with the same ease as speaking or writing words. At this level, presenters incorporate visuals that are simple, clear, and visually distinct (physical form); organize visuals in ways that help viewers better understand the messages being conveyed (syntax); clarify why images are being shown and what they mean in context (semantics); and, crucially, pay attention to the non-verbal associations and emotions these images might evoke (pragmatics).

Of course, visual fluency doesn’t happen by accident. It takes time and work, just like learning any other language. With the above principles in mind, try approaching your text-based slides as follows:

Moving from Text to Visuals

Step 1: Simplify Content

“OK,” you say, “I have a bunch of slides full of bullet points at the moment. How do I convert those into visual language?” Perhaps your slides look like Figure 10.

figure 10 dense content no imagery
Figure 10: Text-heavy presentation slide

The trick is to back into this process: Start with the semantics and pragmatics, and let them guide the physical form and syntax you use.

The first step is to simplify the amount of information on slides. Analyze your existing slides and isolate the individual ideas they express. Then, separate those ideas onto their own respective slides. In other words, if a slide contains 6 bullet points, and each of those points communicates a different thought, make six new slides with only one point each (Figure 11). Delete the original slide when finished.

figure 11 reduction of text in slide
Figure 11: Single-point presentation slide

Such simplification is vital because richly visual content performs best when viewers focus on only one element at a time. Multiple elements on a slide may cause distraction or confusion.

Step 2: Reduce the Amount of Text

Next, when each slide holds its own unique idea, reduce the number of words per slide. Boil them down to their essential core, what you really need to convey. Almost without exception, complete sentences, or even paragraphs of text, can be reduced to a few words—normally five or less (Figure 12).

figure 12
Figure 12: Compact message text slide

“Yeah, but, if I do that, my points will lose critical details and audiences won’t understand what I’m saying.” No, the opposite is true. Simplified text acts as a quick visual summary that people rapidly digest, allowing them to focus back on the extra details you provide verbally.

The reason billboards along a road contain very short, catchy phrases is because advertisers know we don’t have the time or concentration to read entire paragraphs of text while driving. The same strategy applies to PowerPoint slides that maximize visual impact. People physically cannot read a large amount of text on slides and simultaneously focus on what the speaker is saying. They will do one or the other, or try to do both and end up with neither. Showing a simple textual phase on the other hand, followed by verbal expansion, avoids this conflict.

Step 3: Think Visually

A slide design like the one in Figure 12 is a significant visual improvement over Figures 10 and 11, but go further. Look at your simplified bullet points and ask, “How can I express those same ideas using some form of visual content such as a picture, video clip, graphic, illustration, or meaningful animation?” In other words, how can you use that text as a guide for shifting to a mostly visual language? People remember pictures and illustrations better than words, so you will be well-served by making this transition.

Figure 13 think visually
Figure 13: Think Visually

In short, after you know what you want to say, you then can focus on how to say it—by using imagery, illustrations, and symbols that will complement and expand what you say verbally. By working with the four aspects of visual language you do more than merely present pictures—you tell a story. And by becoming visually fluent, you tell a compelling story, one that catches the viewers's attention, convinces them of your points, and leads them to remember your contributions.

Photo of Robert Lane Robert Lane is a US-based presentation consultant specializing in visually interactive communication theory and is the author of Relational Presentation: A Visually Interactive Approach. His Web site, www.aspirecommunications.com, features free demonstration video clips, tutorials, guides, and other resources that further explain the concepts discussed in this article. Contact him at: rlane@aspirecommunications.com.
Dr. Stephen Kosslyn Stephen Kosslyn formerly chaired the Department of Psychology at Harvard University, and is now Dean of Social Science at Harvard. His 35 years of research have focused on how the brain recalls visual stimuli in the form of mental imagery and how psychology can be used to facilitate visual communication. He is the author of Clear and to the Point: 8 Psychological Principles for Compelling PowerPoint® Presentations, and the forthcoming Better PowerPoint®: Quick Fixes Based on How Your Audience Thinks. He can be contacted at stephen_kosslyn@harvard.edu.

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