Why look and feel matter in business presentations


This is a compilation post that brings together my views on closely related topics, collating articles that I published earlier on this blog. It doesn’t contain new content, although part of it may have been slightly reworked. Knowing that the whole is often greater than the sum of its parts, I hope this update provides you with a bigger picture, a more complete list of good practices, or a better grounded opinion.


De gustibus et coloribus non est disputandum” is a Latin expression that translates as “it’s no use debating taste and colors.” A good presentation is like a tasty dish and it requires the right skills —as well as a cook with ample personality and passion— to prepare. I  know that not everybody is a three-star chef, but this doesn’t mean that you have to serve mediocre junk food to your audience. Anyone can acquire, adopt and apply some basic kitchen techniques. Read my words. Taste and colors DO matter. And so do the look and feel of your presentations.

Check out the visual below. Doesn’t it look a bit tedious, ugly and tasteless?

cheese_cake_bad

  • Fonts: do you really want to mix that many typefaces on one single slide?
  • Colors: are you sure that people in the back of the room can read the pink emphasized words?
  • Bullets: will you be able to present the slide without reading out the entire text?
  • Background: this looks like a stock PowerPoint template. Boring, isn’t it?
  • Images: are these the best or most original pictures you could get?
  • Multimedia: not visible on the static image above, but imagine the clip art animated and the bullets flying in from left and right… (ugh!)

For an entertaining hands-on on how not to use PowerPoint, you may watch the video “Life After Death by PowerPoint” by stand-up comedian Don McMillan.

So, you’d better fetch your pots and pans, light your oven, and sharpen your kitchen knives! Because, in the next 6  sections, I am going to dig into the art of creating compelling visuals and give you some easy-to-follow do’s and don’ts for making your slides look more professional and yummy

cheese_cake_good

Fonts

One of the “blessings” of the first WYSIWYG computers and laser printers that hit the market in the second half of the 1980’s, was the rich collection of bitmap and vector fonts that came with them.

In those days, I was working as a free-lance trainer at Apple Computer, and as such I have been exposed to extravagant compositions of some of my Desktop Publishing students — with dozens of newly-discovered-exotic-typefaces literary dancing before my eyes.

Times have changed and people have got smarter, or haven’t they? When I look at certain Powerpoint (or Keynote or Prezi or …) presentations today, I still experience the same cacophony of fonts projected in front of me.

Here are a few basic rules to respect:

  • Slides must be readable, also by the people sitting in the back of the room. Use font sizes 28–36 for your titles, and don’t go below 20 points for the body text.
  • LARGE BLOCKS OF CAPITALIZED TEXT MAY BE HARD TO READ. You may capitalize some titles or the first characters of each line, but don’t over uppercase.
  • Sans-serif fonts are best for titles and bullets, while serif may be better for small sizes and large texts.
  • Don’t mix too many fonts into the same slide show, avoid too exotic typefaces, and never use script types. Also try not to deviate from the format prescribed by the presentation template.
  • Beware of fonts, such as the infamous comic sans, that may impact the credibility of your presentation.
  • Use boldfaceitalic and (contrast-rich) color instead of underline.
  • In case you want to be creative with fonts, then don’t overdo, rely on your good taste or (when you’re not sure of yourself) ask an expert.

Believe me, if you follow these simple tips, your will come over more professional as a presenter and your audience will go home without a font-ache.

Color

Color is a powerful means for presenting information. The tints you choose and the way you use them can have a strong impact on your audience. They may have special meanings in certain cultures (read e.g. the example in an earlier post about the use of red and green on the Japan stock exchange), and even have an emotional appeal (as indexed by Robert Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions.)

Emotion and perception. That’s the reason why marketers carefully pick ‘appropriate’ color schemes for their collateral and websites. Did you know that Google apparently tested 41 shades of blue to maximize the click-through rate on hyperlinks?

  • Red is a strong color, with both positive and negative meaning: loveenergydanger, … You can use it to emphasize your messages, but sometimes you better avoid it because of its negative connotation. Also note that red text is often poorly readable, both on a light and a dark background.
  • Blue expresses trustconfidence and loyalty. So it’s a perfect background or foreground for business presentations. At least if you don’t mind coming over as conservative  ̶ which is unfortunately also a synonym for boring.
  • Green represents healthnature and novelty. An ideal tint when you want to talk about the eco-friendliness of your products or the sustainability of your business.
  • Yellow stands for logic and intelligence, but also for caution and cowardice. Unless you put it on a dark background, don’t use yellow fonts.
  • Purple means creativity and innovation. That’s why e.g. Alcatel-Lucent, the company I work with, has chosen it in their logo.
  • Black is most commonly associated with power and elegance. It’s a good and neutral color for your presentations. One caution about using a black (or any other dark) background: it may cost you a lot of ink when printing out handouts of your slides.
  • White, although the opposite of black, is also a neutral shade. Personally, I prefer to work on a white background as it gives my slides a clean look, creates a feeling of open space, and combines perfectly with any other color.

Don’t feed the chameleons! Use colors vividly but wisely. Don’t mix too many of them on one single slide, and avoid improper combinations like red/green (can’t be distinguished by certain color blind people) or orange/blue (seem to vibrate against one another).

Earlier in this post, I mentioned Plutchik’s wheel. A color wheel also helps you to understand the relationships between colors. When using colors it’s always good know the theory of primary (red, blue, and yellow), secondary (green, violet, and orange) and tertiary colors (made from combinations of then former six) and know which combinations work and which don’t. If you need some advice, there are a few great tools on the web like ColorBlender or Color Scheme Designer.

As a final note, many of the statements I made above about the use of colors in presentations are also valid for a presenter’s attire. Colors don’t make the man (or the woman), but poor choices can spoil your appearance, take away attention from your message, or even give another meaning to the things you tell.

Images

There’s this old wisdom that says “a picture tells more than a thousand words”, but incidentally some images in PowerPoint presentations tell nothing at all. They’re just there because they’re pictures. They don’t add anything to the content, and they also don’t add anything to the aesthetics of the visual — sometimes they even do the opposite, and just make the slide look ugly.

In the previous posts of this “look ‘n’ feel matter” series I have touched upon fonts and color. Today I am giving a few practical tips to get more out of the clip art and photos you add to your presentation:

  • First of all, it’s a mistake thinking that all images have to be functional elements, such as data charts, product pictures or organograms. There’s nothing wrong with adding some eye candy to your slides, and appeal to your audience’s emotion.
  • Of course, you’d better pick some images that are related to the topic you’re presenting about and that enhance or clarify the content. It’s a bit awkward to show a beautiful photo of a sunset on a tropical island, when you’re presenting your company’s air suspension compressors portfolio.
  • In any case, avoid using standard clip art that comes with your presentation software. Most of the people in the room will get a déjà vu feeling when you show them a man climbing a bar chart, a colorful dollar sign, or yet another one of Microsoft’s stale screen beans. There are ample places on the internet where you can buy or borrow high quality and original images.
  • When your picture is too big, scale it down or crop it to fit (and compress it afterwards – if you don’t want the size of your file to grow explosively.) But when it’s too small, don’t try to enlarge it! You will blow up the pixels and end up with something blurry and unprofessional (tip: you may always try to use a reverse image search tool like TinEye or src-img to find a similar bitmap with a better resolution.) If you don’t want to change an object’s dimensions, keep the shift key down while resizing it. Otherwise, you may end up with some unwanted results. Just have a look at the picture below, and guess who’s the real Elvis duck…

elvis_duck

  • And, finally: don’t feed the chameleons! Try to be consistent in style and colors. Avoid mixing photos and line art (of course you may insert charts and diagrams whenever they’re needed.) Though black-and-white photographs and color highlights make a great combination.

A few words about copyrighted material: always make sure that you have permission to use the images. Looking for media made available under a Creative Commons license is probably the most safe and legal way to go. When searching on Google, you may set a filter on usage rights in the Image Advanced Search function.

Bulleted lists

I have only one important thing to tell about bullets: they are dangerous! So, use them scarcely and with caution. If you eventually shoot one into your own foot, you will be the only one to blame.

Although bulleted lists are probably the #1 layout component that people associate with PowerPoint presentations, they can make your sheets dull, boring and ineffective. As your brain interprets every letter as a picture, wordy lists literally choke it. As a consequence, people tend to forget what you have spelled out. Your visuals should only contain your key message(s). Keep the full text details for the handout. Make people listen to the words you say instead of read the characters on your slides.

If you want to use bullets anyway, make sure that each slide contains only 1 message (read my “Master of the house” post on how build a message house). Explain it in maximally 5 lines of no more than 7 words each. Highlight a few key words to help your audience focus. Avoid complex, multi-level lists and nested bullets. Each statement should start with a capital letter. Never use fly-in and fly-out animation effects.

As an alternative, try to convert your bullet list into a series of visuals – one slide per bullet point. Although this approach will make your PowerPoint look longer, you actually won’t spend more time presenting it. After you have iterated all key messages, you may still consider showing the (original or shortened) bulleted list on a summary slide.

Multimedia

I still remember delivering my first public presentation using a stack of hand-drawn plastic foils and a 10 kilo heavy overhead projector I carried with me. Times have changed, and in the age of the digital, presenters can now apply, mix and match many different media, platforms and formats to enrich their presentations and bring their stories to life. Delivering a narrative across multiple media and multiple platforms is often called “transmedia storytelling”.

Here are a few practical tips on when and how to incorporate animation, video and live demos into your presentation:

  • First of all, use animation scarcely and wisely. Don’t over-animate slide transitions and object builds. There’s nothing more annoying and distracting for your audience than seeing titles, bullet lists and images tumble and fly across the big screen in the front. For the same reason also don’t use PowerPoint sound effects – I have seldom heard any stock sound that added value to the content of a presentation.
  • Switching between different media, not excluding the (often overlooked) analog ones such as white board or flip-chart drawing, are a common means to extend or reset your audience’s attention span.
  • Video clips and audio bites are ideal tools for enriching examples, use cases and testimonials. Always make sure that all files are timely uploaded on the presentation PC and properly linked into the slide show. As an alternative (or a back-up if you like) you can also post the movies on YouTube.
  • Corporate videos are often dull and unimaginative. In case you have a budget for producing your own movies: spend your money well. Work with creative professionals, and exploit video as a complementary channel for delivering your key messages and an alternative medium for telling your story.
  • When including live demonstrations, always keep them short and simple. Prepare a detailed demo script well upfront and freeze it. Show only the “sexy” features that really matter to the audience (and match with the rest of your talk). And never, never show an untested function.
  • As both Murphy and the Demo Devil may be just around the corner, don’t forget to make arrangements with the conference organizers (or the people hosting your speech) to have all A/V equipment installed and tested –with your presentation material and demo scripts running on it– before you start talking.

Templates

Companies that care for their brand provide their employees with presentation templates. This is certainly a good practice, because it enforces a common brand identity, and ensures a uniform background and consistent layout for all company visuals.

Here are a few tips for designing a good template, and applying it effectively to your slides:

  • First of all, never use the templates that come standard with your presentation software. Most of them belong to the world’s PowerPoint heritage and will provoke a déjà vu feeling. Create your own backgrounds (or them built by a professional designer), but don’t overdo and leave ample space for content.
  • Use contrasting colors (dark text on a light background or light text on a dark background) and stay consistent with fonts, colors and bullets (as explained in my preceding post in this “look’n’feel matter” series).
  • Keep logos and other design elements discrete – when you introduce yourself properly and deliver a first-class presentation the audience will remember you and the name of your company. On the other hand, it may be good to add a (rather large) page number to each of the slides, especially when they can be presented to remote audiences (e.g. in conference calls or webinars) that may not get speech and visuals delivered in a synchronized way.
  • When creating presentations, be careful with moving slides from one layout to another, as this operation –when the tools are not used as directed– may ruin your whole slide show. An often-made mistake is copying and pasting content between standard-screen (with a 4:3 aspect ratio) and wide-screen (16:9 ratio) formats, resulting in squeezed images and distorted company logos. Also make sure you don’t mix up fonts and color themes originating from different templates.

(this compilation post has been published earlier on Business2Community and on LinkedIn)

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