25 May 2014

This past Thursday was the closing ceremony of the Awesome Presentations Workshop, a 5-week get together where we talked about how to give better presentations. The last session served as an opportunity for the people who attended the workshop to show what they had learned during the previous month. William was one of the people who presented, and he has generously agreed to let me showcase his final presentation, along with one he built before the workshop. They couldn’t be more different.

Before we start playing Spot the Differences, let’s place the game in its proper context. Slides (good or bad) are not what makes a presentation. A presentation happens when a presenter tells a story to an audience who understands it. If any of those components is not in place (presenter, story, audience, understanding), it’s not a presentation. The slides are the visual accompaniment of the spoken track, and their purpose is to illustrate the main points of the story clearly and intuitively.

Notice and ask why

The key to creating effective visuals is noticing things and asking why they are there. What do you notice about this image? At first glance, it’s a bunch of numbers and letters. Ok, what else? To make it more fun, don’t scroll past the image until you notice at least five things.

The Measured Man

The image comes from an article in The Atlantic about the quantified self movement (hence the numbers). Here’s what I see:

  • The Measured Man is in black and it spans three rows.
  • There are numbers in 4 different shades of grey, and they are all used in every row (except for the Measured row).
  • There is at least one red number in every row.
  • There is a 25 between The Measured and Man.
  • There is so little spacing between rows that the ascender of the d touches the base of the T.
  • Numbers, letters and whitespace have different widths but every row adds up to the same length.

Why are all those things in this image? We can’t evaluate how effective or ineffective something looks if we don’t know what problem it’s trying to solve. My guess is that the numbers and letters are spaced to make up a square, the rows are so close to each other to make the square look compact, the numbers are grey so they don’t steal attention away from the title, they are also different shades of grey so they don’t appear flat and uniform, the red draws attention to the numbers without stealing it from the title.

Your cover slide just wants to be noticed

The more things you notice, the more information you have about the problem, and the better decisions you can make to solve it. When we’re building slides we think we know what we want them to look like, but we often don’t take the time to answer the lurking why questions. Take a look at William’s original cover slide. What do you notice? (You can also follow along with the actual slides)

cover slide0

I see a title in white, a red rectangle with rounded borders, a drop shadow, his name, the name of the university, a date and a curvy red-to-black gradient in the bottom. Those are perfectly valid visual elements. The question is why are those elements there? What is the purpose of this slide in the context of the story?

The main goal of a cover slide is to convince the audience that the presenter is going to tell a story worth listening to. There might be other goals—like showing your name and affiliation when your audience doesn’t know who you are—but they are secondary to giving them a reason to drop their cell phones and listen to what you have to say. This is what William changed it to:

cover slide1

Regardless of how little you know about heated gas-solid flows, that image is going to grab your attention. It’s so memorable that not using it is almost a crime. Since it’s symmetric, I centered the text and used another image from his presentation to solidify the connection between the word heated and the heated rod, but the improvements in clarity over William’s version are marginal.

cover slide2

Every tool has a bias

PowerPoint makes it easy to create bullet points, a piece of paper makes it easy to scribble, LaTeX makes it easy to write equations, Keynote makes it easy to do product launch presentations. Every time a tool makes something easy, it’s also making something else hard.

The LaTeX template that William used for his original slide made it very easy to add a progress header showing the current section, a title box with a red-to-black gradient and a drop shadow, red bullet points, and a two-color footer with his name, a mini-title and the slide number. All of these elements crowded what he really wanted to show, which was a schematic of the carbon capture simulation.

carbon capture 0

For his latest presentation, he skipped the LaTeX template and started with a blank slide. Then he added the image and a title.

carbon capture 1

Because he took the time to develop a story, he was able to skip the bullet points and describe the figure in a way that felt natural. However, the complexity of the schematic didn’t really align with the flow of the story (which was tailored to a general audience), so an alternative could have been to point out the inputs and outputs of the simulator using a toy diagram, show the motivation of the project in the title, and maybe add a picture of the simulator. Something like this:

carbon capture 2

Visual summaries are easier to remember

On the LaTeX presentation, William’s summary slide was the same as the initial outline slide: bullet points listing each section of the presentation.

summary 0

On the new presentation, William used the most important illustrations of his presentation to summarize the project. All three images had been previously shown in individual slides, so it was easy for the audience to recall the main idea behind each figure.

summary 1

To make it even easier to digest, I added animations that made each figure appear one by one. I also removed the right-pointing arrows (since the figures appear in the same order as they do in the process), and I used the take-away as the new title instead of Recap.

summary 2

Every design decision you make (or don’t make) brings your design either closer to your goal or away from it. It’s easier to get to where you want to be if you develop the habit of noticing the way things are and asking why those things are there. Practice with your latest presentation, what do you notice in each slide? What were your goals when you built them? How can you make them more memorable, cleaner, or easier to understand?