Okay, visuals are perilous, bad visuals hurt presentations, and great visuals can make a great presentation much better. So, why do bad visuals happen so often? No doubt, some presenters just don’t know any better — there are cures for that. And some presenters are perennially unprepared: The worst visuals often accompany the least prepared presenters. Presenters who don’t find time to prepare aren’t likely to make time to develop good visuals either. Worse yet, unprepared presenters are more likely to have visual “cue cards.” It’s bad enough to read to an audience. But when the audience sees what the presenter’s reading to them, it’s even more painful.
There’s another big—perhaps, more understandable—reason why presenters generally, and tech presenters specifically, create bad visuals: the same visuals must often serve two very different audiences. Many presentations are first given to alive audience with the helpful guidance of a real-time presenter. Often those same presentations—or at least the slides—are sent out and left to stand alone without the presenter’s personalized explanations.
Most visuals that are clean, clear and concise enough to best serve a live presentation don’t contain enough connective content and depth to make sense as a standalone piece. In fact, those dreadful “cue card” slides almost start to make sense in the context of a slide presentation that must go forth into the world without a handler, I mean, presenter.
Very similar symptoms and results occur with highly detailed presentations where the visuals (often charts, graphs or diagrams) are over-packed, every nuance labeled or color-coded to anticipate the full panoply of questions, objections and interests an audience might present. Here, the visual might appear live or as a standalone. In both cases, it’s expected to serve all conceivable audience members in one fell swoop—rather than to present the presenter’s point as clearly and simply as possible.
Earlier, I extolled the virtues of the billboard test, specifically because it forces us to cut out all the extra stuff. It lets us know our audience can scan our visuals quickly and just as quickly come back to us. But there is no us when our slide deck gets sent ahead without us. “Just send me your deck, we can talk about it later.” Sound familiar?
We all know how often this happens. So, being smart, proactive, efficient presenters, we prepare our deck with that inevitability in mind. Suddenly, poof! Gone the nice, uncluttered visuals. Gone all care for the billboard test, 6x6 rule, etc. Soon all that really matters is packing the deck with as much data and labeling and commentary as possible to let it stand alone for individual readers. That is to say that the deck is packed well enough to render the presenter optional. In a future post, we’ll have to talk about all the many alarm bells that should go off there. But for now, let’s just look at the damage this does to our presentation visuals.
Visuals designed to help individual readers often make the live presentation downright awful. I don’t know what’s more offensive: to give an audience visuals that replicate all that we’re saying or expecting them not to notice that they don’t need us to read to them. And yet, in many cases all the informational content itself is good—important even. Presumably, it’s the very reason the presenter creates the presentation and accompanying visuals in the first place. With “cue card” slides, we fault the redundancy problems between the slide and what the presenter says because it’s unhelpfully duplicative. That is not because of the substance of what’s actually communicated.
So, too, with overly detailed charts or diagrams. It’s not that there isn’t some relevance, importance or intrigue to all of that intricate detail. It’s just that only some small subset of it can be communicated simply and clearly at any given moment — especially where the presenter is a technician and the audience is comprised of mere mortals.
Fortunately, there are some fairly easy things we can do to avoid these problems without ignoring the double-lives most of our presentations must often live.
Ironically, PowerPoint, the software most of us still use to create presentation visuals, has included one solution to the problem that dates back almost to its inception (ie, back when it was “Presenter” and only ran on a Mac): the Notes pane. The whole reason for a Notes pane is to have a place for all that fulsome, non-visual information. The stuff that’s important enough to note but not necessarily display on any given slide. Ostensibly, the Notes pane is the perfect place for all the connective content and narrative to go so that it’s tied to the slide, but not imposing itself on the visual.
Unfortunately, the Notes pane is a pain to use. True, there are lots of articles that explain how to get just about any content you want into the Notes pane. There are just as many on how to print handouts that display the visual together with the notes on a page. Cliff Atkinson’s “Beyond Bullet Points” did as good a job as any advocating for this type of a workflow. But all that explaining and how-to-ing shows just how unhelpful and underdeveloped the Notes functionality remains. Over the years, Microsoft has given us helper doodads, ribbon thingys and automatic formatting whatsits that have probably kept the balance of pain and progress (though not the bloat) in stasis. But the Notes pane, that seemingly perfect place for all that important content and information stuff, hasn’t received much love and attention.
A Note to Future Users + An Appendix
David Zehren suggests that presenters include a slide with a note to future users at the beginning of the deck and add an appendix of slides at the end. The note to future users explains that the deck contains a deck of slides intended for live presentation by a presenter that is followed by an appendix of slides with more detailed information. The slides in the deck then refer (by slide number) to the corresponding slide(s) in the appendix; slides in the appendix refer back as well.
This approach provides a place where more detailed information of any kind (more text, more diagrams, etc) can go within the same deck of slides. The less detailed slides refer directly to/from the more detailed slides. This is useful and user-friendly for individual readers viewing the standalone deck. It also provides an easy way for a live presenter to take an audience on a deeper dive when necessary without weighing down the intended focus when it’s not needed. Of course, jumping back and forth is easy in a slideshow (ie, just type the slide number and hit “enter”).
Maybe it’s the musician in me, but I’ve always wondered why the “narration” feature of presentation software is so underutilized. Including a voice (or even video) recording with the presentation seems like the closest possible approximation of including the presenter with the deck. Maybe it’s too close. Before I even knew that people sent slide decks to each other, I recorded slide narrations so I could see what my visual looked like and hear what I was saying while it displayed. I always felt like you can’t really hear what you’re saying while you’re saying it. It also helped me sort out pacing and timing. In the end I always had a relatively self-contained presentation as well. Nearly all computers come with built-in mic’s (and even front-facing cameras) now. Yet few folks seem to even know about recording narrations for slides; far fewer yet ever play with it. That still surprises me.
A Pound of Prevention
It is incumbent upon presenters of detailed, complicated content of any kind to continually seek ways to simplify and break the information down into more manageable portions. That’s true for live presentations with a presenter present, phone presentations, webinars, and standalone slide decks. Sometimes the problem is not a matter of finding someplace for all that additional detail and content to go. It’s about breaking it down further into simpler parts. Maybe it’s less time spent across more slides, or more time spent on one really clear, well-designed visual rather than lots of half-baked sort-of’s, or taking time to develop a story, anecdote, or analogy that requires no visual at all. The more simplification and clarity we give our content and our visuals, the less stuff we have to shoehorn into a standalone deck or onto a poor, defenseless visual, or into the hearts and minds of our audience.
Phew. This small series of posts first talked about the second challenge tech presenters face: bad visuals can make a presentation worse. That led to a look at why visuals can be dangerous even though presentations with great visuals are often the best. Finally, this post focused on one understandable reason good visuals often go bad: the same set of visuals is asked to serve two very different audiences for two very different purposes.
Up next week is the third challenge tech presenters face: reporting data when they really should tell the data’s story and persuade.