Whistles and bells and spoke cards

I remember that, when I was a kid, we used to place playing cards in the spokes of our bicycle wheels. As the cards made quite some noise when they flapped against the spokes, they created a false perception of speed (just like some motor bikers or car freaks believe the more racket their engine produces, the faster the vehicle will go.)

Well, from experience I can tell you that these spoke cards where nothing more than whistles and bells. My bike didn’t run any faster. But, the idea that an object that makes a lot of noise or reflects a lot of light must be very impressive, very powerful, or very expensive still exists. Take, for example, the average boom box kid who thinks he’ll rock everyone who passes by. Or the gold-colored smart phone owner who wants to make his/her cheap phone look kind of premium. Or even worse, those people who buy a bling bling case to pimp up their mobile device to a pocketful of glitter and glamour.

A similar syndrome also exists with certain speakers at public events. I still remember the guy dressed up in a three-piece black suit talking to… a geeky audience at a software developer conference (you may revisit my “Dress to impress” and “About white shirt, black shirt, and tee-shirt gigs” posts to read more about speaker dress codes.) Or with those business presenters that create fancy slide decks, ornamented with comic sans text, kitschy colors, or meaningless clip art (slide design topics also covered by my “Don’t feed the chameleons” and “Why look and feel matter in business presentations” posts.)

But, always keep in mind that whistles and bells are not half as bad as smoke and mirrors – showing off with a gold-colored iPhone never compares to wearing a fake Rolex. Or to delivering a presentation that you didn’t prepare yourself about a topic you hardly know anything about. Or to telling lies to, cheating on, or fooling your customers… (as reported on in my “Marketing, promises, and real products” post.)

Beauty and the beast

This week I read two articles about robots. One was about Jia Jia, a hyper-realistic young female-looking android, dressed in traditional Chinese style, which is capable of having a conversation with humans. She (or, should I rather say “it”?) can understand what people say, though she mostly just reacts to compliments on her appearance, like “You are beautiful” and “You look like an 18-year-old…”

The other piece covered a more functional species, named SpotMini. Boston Dynamics’ latest creation could be characterized as a ‘helpful giraffe-dog’.  It can grab all sorts of things, including fragile objects such as wine glasses or dirty dishes. Although less a pleasure for the human eye than robot goddess Jia-Jia, robodog SpotMini is probably more what the average person would expect a robot to be and to look like.

robots

Watching the pictures of both cyborg creatures made me think about the trade-offs between beauty and functionality. Even in this era of gender equality, most people don’t associate a sturdy machine with the looks a beautiful young woman, or vice versa.

Unfortunately, similar prejudices also often apply to the (PowerPoint) presentations we create. Working in a high-tech environment, in the heart of a community of engineers, I experience on a daily basis that most of my colleagues prefer creating long and (often) ugly slide decks with lots of complicated diagrams, detailed tables, and technical jargon. They seem to consider any visually appealing presentation a marketing gimmick — a kind of Jia-Jia, who’s only good for accepting “you are beautiful” compliments — that is not to be used for explaining complex ideas, designs, and creations. They put functionality before simplicity and aesthetics.

And still Beauty and the Beast can live together in perfect harmony. The Apple II personal computer was launched in 1977 with the slogan “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,” and although Steven Jobs is sometimes quoted for saying that “design is how it works, not how it looks,” many people still buy an iPhone because of its premium look and feel. A thing of beauty is a joy forever. And so should be your business presentations!

You can watch some videos of the robot creations I mentioned above:

And, by the way, beautiful robots can be smart, ambitious, and wicked too. Have a look at another humanlike robot, Sophia, who “in the future, hopes to do things such as go to school, study, make art, start a business, even have her own home and family…”, and — oh my — “destroy humans” too.

De gustibus et coloribus

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!)

So, you’d better fetch your pots and pans, light your oven, and sharpen your kitchen knives! Because, in my next 6  posts, 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

For an entertaining hands-on on how not to use PowerPoint, watch this video of stand-up comedian Don McMillan:

Other articles about this topic that are worth reading:

Space, the final frontier

 “Without space, you’re dead”
– Garr Reynolds in Presentation Zen Design

As a professional storyteller, you should never overload your audience with visual or auditory information. Therefore, space is a key design element for shaping your presentations.

  • Space on your slides. White space, also known as negative space, helps you to enhance the look and feel of your slides. As a rule of thumb, never fill more than 50% of a PowerPoint slide with text and images. Let space take up the remaining half of your screen estate.
  • Space between your words. Silence sometimes says more than words. Did you realize that 20-30% of a stand-up comedian’s time on the microphone is spent in silence? Short pauses add emphasis to your key points (and allow the speaker to take a breath…)
  • Space at the end of your talk.  Always reserve around 20% of your time budget for questions and discussion. Tell the audience before you start presenting that there will be a Q&A at the end. This will save you from unwanted interruptions and allow you to plan your presentation properly.

Following these simple rules will help you deliver a clearer message in less time, with less words, consuming less slide real estate.

Less is more. Space is a design element. Emptiness is an art.

blank_space

Don’t feed the chameleons

Sometimes (I am sure that my colleagues at work would even say often) crafting a business presentation is considered a last-minute job. And when there’s little time left for being creative yourself, it’s tempting to rely upon material that others have created before you. Nothing as easy as making a slide deck by cutting and pasting slides from existing PowerPoints into yours.

Should it be a surprise that 99% of these cut‘n’paste slideshows look like chameleons, that change colors, fonts and layout with every slide transition?

chameleon

Read my words: look and feel do matter! If you want your audience to perceive you as a professional, then never compromise on the layout of your visuals.

  • Real estate: Don’t overdo. Beware of creating slideuments. Apply the same template to all slides. Use plenty of white space. Limit the amount of bulleted slides as well as bullets per page.
  • Colors should contrast with the background. Don’t put together too many colors on one screen. Avoid using red text on a white or black background. Use tools such as Shyam Pillai’s add-in to select and customize your PowerPoint color schemes.
  • Fonts must be readable from the back of the room. Be consistent in style throughout the whole deck. Don’t mix too many typefaces. Avoid script fonts. Bold and italic are good to emphasize text, underline isn’t.
  • Images are there to complement or emphasize your message. Don’t insert standard clip art that adds no extra value (we all know the man climbing a bar chart, don’t we?) Avoid mixing line art and photos.
  • Vocabulary: Consequently use the same terminology everywhere. Beware of acronyms and abbreviations. Don’t use jargon or slang.

So next time you need to build a business presentation, start well in advance and take your time to tune each slide. Don’t take existing material for granted. Be creative. Be consistent. Be professional.

And if you have some time left, take a look at the blog posts below: