The cliché goes this way: “My content is so complicated that I simply cannot communicate it in a creative way" or "my audience and I are so smart, my slides don't have to look good."
The complaint from the audience is “that was the ugliest, most complicated slide I’ve ever seen. It made me feel stupid.” I tend to side with the audience. I’ve worked with a lot of smart people, and I tell them that when they present complex information, they can choose to sound brainy and brilliant (and turn off the audience) or they can focus on making sure the audience understands the issue.
The first example shows a before-and-after approach presenting 650,000 years of data illustrating a connection between atmospheric carbon concentration and temperature. In this clip, the first slide (white background and red and blue lines) is often shot up on the wall while the presenter talks about each intricate detail of the chart. It’s used statically. It just sits there. Compare that to the last part of the clip (black background and white and blue lines).
This slide is from Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth slideshow. It not only fades in various parts of the data – giving the presenter a chance to explain each of them. But it also brings in two new variables – today’s concentration level and the projected level in 45 years. These two new data points make the slide more relevant to the audience: Not only do carbon and temperature rise and fall together, but we’re in trouble if we don’t change our emission trends.
The second example illustrates the flaws of Microsoft’s default graphing feature compared to a cleaner, more attractive graph. You’ve seen charts like the first one (made in Excel). The colors are ugly. The lines are faint. The legend is choppy. And the data is tossed up on the screen all at once. Like the previous example, the only way for a presenter to explain each line is to whip out the dreaded laser pointer, turn his back to the audience and talk to the screen (so the guy in the back of the room can check his BlackBerry). Contrast that with the second half of the clip. The chart is presented in phases. The colors match and legend looks clean and neat. The difference between the two slides is a 10-minute formatting fix in PowerPoint or Apple’s Keynote. Sure, Keynote has more “pretty” features than Microsoft products. But PowerPoint can get the job done. So make data easier on your audience. Space it out and think about how the audience needs to digest each piece. And resist ugly. An attractive slide (even if it contains the same information) will beat an ugly one every time.
Colin Rowan owns Rowan Communication, Inc., an Austin consulting company that helps non-profit organizations hone their messages, tell better stories and build stronger communication plans. He is conducting a one-day training session in Austin that will cover this and other core communication topics on December 10. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.