Building Effective PowerPoint Presentations
Written by James R. Neaves
(with due acknowledgements)
Today individuals have at their fingertips power to build slide shows that a professional audiovisual graphic production unit alone could produce twenty years ago. A picture is worth a thousand words still applies. It is important to keep in mind that the slides are not the message. Instead, they merely support the message being communicated.
A key element of slide show production is this: Every visual you use in a slide show must amplify, clarify or simplify the message. If your visuals are not doing this then they are doing something else, which is noise in the channel.
This article points out some basic tenants required to ensure the message of the slide show is communicated. I don't want to get ultra-technical but some discussion of communication basics is important if you are to understand what you are doing when creating a slide show. So, lets review "Communication 101" basics.
To have communication we must have a source, message, channel and receiver. The source generates the message and encodes it in some form that is transmittable, transmits it through a channel by a medium to the receiver, who then decodes the message. Using this article as an example, I, as the source, have a message about the creation of visual support for communication that I want to convey to the reader. I have encoded the message in words to transmit them, using the print media (channel). The receiver reads the words and decodes them, hopefully understanding my message.
All parts of the Source-Message-Channel-Receiver communications model must exist to allow communication to take place. If no source exists then, obviously no message exists. If the source does not encode the message in some form that is understandable by the receiver, it cannot be transmitted successfully. If there is no channel available to transmit the message, the receiver will not even get the encoded message. And, obviously, if the receiver does not receive the encoded message, or understand the message, there is no chance for decoding and understanding.
All parts must exist for communication to take place.
Having all parts of the communication model in place does not ensure communication will occur. There exists some outside interference that can diminish or block communication. This interference is simply called "noise". It is your most serious challenge in communication.
Noise can impinge anywhere in the communication model. The source may experience noise when he or she has difficulty expressing or encoding the message. If the channel is experiencing noise, or is blocked by noise, the message may have difficulty getting through. Visuals that do not relate to the message, or are not understandable by the audience, create noise. Complex visuals, or those cluttered with non-vital data, create noise.
Here are some real life examples of noise that interfered with communication during a slide show:
A barking dog animation running across the bottom of the screen that had no relation to the subject matter but was included to supposedly grab attention.
Animation of text for animation's sake may create noise. Text flipping and rotating in from the side will only add value if it is intended to emphasize a point (like the corporate profit, or ROI figure for an investment, and so forth).
Choice of colors of text and images that clash or do not comprehend trouble experienced by people who are color impaired.
Use of photos that were not appropriate for the subject matter (i.e. equipment that is not part of the inventory at a work site).
You may be asking yourself "So what? It can't be that big of a deal." Wrong answer, and here is why.
The Seven Questions
Maintaining the attention of the receiver is critical during the communication process. Anything that breaks the focused attention of the receiver will require the he or she to re-establish themselves in the information flow during the communication process.
It can be said the viewer loses his or her place. While the viewer is trying to figure out what you just said, and get back in the communication flow, he or she may lose information required for understanding the message. If the information is critical to understand the message in its entirety, the purpose of the entire presentation may be jeopardized.
When faced with the problem of preparing a slideshow to support the messages there are several initial steps to follow. The following questions should serve as a guide:
Who will be viewing the presentation? (Who is the audience?)
What is the message you wish to convey to the audience?
Why do you want to communicate the message? (What is the purpose
or objective of the presentation?)
Where will the presentation take place?
What equipment is available to make a presentation?
What media production facilities do you have available?
What are the time constraints regarding production, and time slot for
You must know answers to these questions before successful visualization of messages can take place. This might seem complicated, but it is not. The following is an example in which all seven of the listed questions are answered.
Your task is to prepare a presentation for advanced (1) realtors who are considering some advanced certification. (2) You want them to understand the value of the certification to them from a professional point of view, and (3) you want to impress them favorably so they will take the certification courses. You want to make the presentation (4) at the annual awards banquet, (7) two months from now, and you have 30 minutes on the agenda. (5) The facility has a ten-foot ceiling with a large screen on the wall, with no sound system. (6) You have PowerPoint on your portable computer, your own projector, and know how to use it. You do not intend to use audio and video so the sound system is limited to a good PA.
As you can see, it is fairly simple to obtain answers to the questions and it should be obvious that little effective communication can take place without these answers.
Lets look at each question individually.
Who will be viewing the presentation? (Who is the audience?) This is important for obvious reasons. An audience of heavy equipment operators will probably not identify with a safety presentation that shows office workers at work. Make sure your presentation reflects the individual differences of the audience.
What is the message you wish to convey to the audience? You must have a clear understanding of the message you want to convey. This means you must outline and organize the message in a way that facilitates clear and concise communication. I like to use a general-to-specific approach. Further, outlining the message allows you to ensure you are not leaving something out that would prevent communication. Remember, as a subject matter experts we can easily be guilty of assuming our audience knows material they do not, or passing over what we consider to be so basic it is not worth mentioning. Sometimes we just forget to include stuff because we did not plan properly.
Why do you want to communicate the message? What is the purpose or objective of the presentation? Why do we want somebody to receive the message? What do we want them to know when the presentation is finished? All of our efforts in producing the slide show will be directed towards achieving the goal. Our layout, design, information, use of visuals, and so forth is dependent upon knowing what we are trying to achieve. You must clearly define this so you will know if you can claim "victory", or that you have achieved you goal.
Where will the presentation take place? The location where the presentation will take place is vital. If the room or facility does not have electricity it is unlikely you will be able to run your computer, projector, and audio equipment. The computer may run off of its battery but not the other equipment.
If there is no way to darken a room sufficiently to project the slide show it will interfere with the message transfer (i.e you can't see the pictures!).
If the room has a low ceiling you may be limited in projected image size. The people in the back of the room may not be able to see the slides.
Conversely, if the room is huge, and the audience size is very large, the image may washout if it is projected too large.
This problem can be overcome with a projector that has a very high lumen rating (2000-4000 lumens). In a large room, sound can be an issue. If you have added sounds, or linked to a mpeg movie, the sound system playing the audio must be capable of reaching everyone in the room without damaging the hearing of some people in the room while causing other to strain to hear the sounds.
This is true for a personal microphone also. Your narration can be "noise" if not properly delivered. What equipment is available to make the presentation? This is just logistics. You can usually carry all necessary equipment to any room, including audio. The biggest issue you are facing is operability of the equipment. Regardless whether you bring it or it is furnished, always check it out for proper operation.
I once made a presentation to a regional electrical group where they furnished the projector. I had the opportunity to bring a projector that I knew worked on my computer but did not because I was assured they would provide one. The one they had was a "brand-X" projector and my operating system did not have drivers that supported it. I would have been dead-in-the-water had I not practiced "a back-up plan". I had transparencies of my slide show and was able to use a standard overhead projector to make the presentation.
Since my slideshow was about Online Documentation I faced a skeptical audience. However, I was able to overcome the "noise" because I knew the material and had prepared for adversity. After I finished the audience gave me a round of applause because I delivered the message anyway.
What media production equipment do you have available?
Do you have equipment to print out quality hard copies of the slides? As we just discussed, making a back-up copy of the slide show is wise. If audio or video is part of your show do you have appropriate editing equipment to make professional media? Poor quality video and audio is worse than none at all.
A poor presentation will introduce "noise" in the channel. A view might ask, "Why would he or she use that crap?" Be just as selective in the use of audio and video as you are in graphic design.
What are the time constraints? Time is an issue from at least two points of view. How much time do you have to create the slide show, and how much time are you given to present the slide show? Many times you will be notified that you must prepare a presentation for showing less than a week later. If preparing the slide show is all you have to do then that should be plenty of time, however that is usually not the case.
Because time is usually short to create the slideshow, the more critical is the planning. The previous steps are the essence of the plan. The detailed plan will help wasting time during production.
One problem that plagues us all is making a slide show that covers the message but is presented in a relatively short period of time. It has been my experience that getting a slide show that is both short and effective is difficult.
Be cognizant of your audience's time. A slide show that drags on may cause them to tune out if it quickly loses value to them. It is part of the "noise" thing again.
The Slide Show
Now that we have looked in depth at why the seven questions and why they need to be answered, the ideal next step is preparation of the text or script, or at least an outline of the message. The script is the message that is to be transmitted. The script, or detailed outline, must be developed sufficiently to work with as you create the slides to support the message. The slides are there to amplify, simplify, or clarify the information being transferred. If the slides are not doing theses, they are doing something else.
The "something else" is interfering with message transfer, or in other words, creating "noise in the channel." I can't say it enough; constantly keep in mind the slides in the slide show are not the message. Rather, they are a visual representation of information used to assist in delivery of the message.
All too often we forget this and causes noise in the channel instead of reducing or eliminating it. This is likely to happen when we are "blinded" by the neat tools in PowerPoint. Being familiar with layout, balance, contrast and other aspects of successful visual design is important but not the only discipline to be maintained.
As a matter of fact, sometimes visuals are plainer than we would like because they are more effective that way. This is very hard for us to accept, but eventually we must in order to be a successful "visualizer" of messages. Remember, if the slides are not simplifying, amplifying, or clarifying the message, they are doing something else.
Depending on the complexity of the message, the storyboard can consist of simple sketches or detailed rough layouts. This is intuitive. However, the storyboard gives you an overview of your slide program and allows you to ensure the message is being presented in a concise, continuous and consistent format. It should illustrate how information flows through the program.
In the actual designing of visuals we must keep in mind that we are concerned with the "Channel" part of the Source-Message-Channel-Receiver communications model and with the reduction or elimination of noise in the channel. Designing visuals is the point where the producer alone will be responsible for reducing noise, or even possibly causing noise.
Until now, the initial answers to the seven prerequisite questions have more or less dictated our response and handling the presentation design. The content and style of the presentation have determined where visual support is necessary. The producer must now design and produce visuals that will transmit the message for delivery to the audience. There are several things we must consider when designing visuals.
We know the who, what, where and why of the message, therefore, we should have a fair analysis of the audience and the situation. There are three basic requirements of every visual produced:
The visual must illustrate the message.
The visual must be considerate of the audience.
The visual must compliment the mood of the presentation.
Let us examine each one:
The visual must illustrate the message.
If the message is not illustrated correctly, then the message will change. Changes in the message caused by incorrect visualization are a good source of noise mentioned earlier. One bad visual is not likely to destroy the presentation, but it can certainly disturb the continuity and flow of the message. During the time required to reestablish the continuity more information can he lost, making it difficult for the audience to follow material presently being shown. Office again, the disruption is noise.
The visual must be considerate of the audience.
This requirement is actually subtler than the first because here we take the background and attitudes of the audience into consideration. The most learned people agree there is no way to determine someone's attitude about things, only his or her professed opinion. If your presentation is targeted to a specific segment of a work force or population, it must incorporate graphics, and/or photos, to which the audience can relate.
Regardless of the accuracy of the information being presented, if the audience cannot identify with the presentation, the chances of successful message transfer diminish. Take into consideration things such as likes, dislikes, age group and level of education, and so forth.
The visual must compliment the mood of the message.
If the message were serious, obviously a lighthearted treatment would not be good. The information in the message may be transmitted but the intent and purpose of the message may not be achieved. How much impact would a program on early detection of heart disease have if done in a way that prompts audience laughter?
Above all, remember that no matter how well an artistically illustrated wrong message, it is still a wrong message. Visual communication, as it pertains to slide production, is visually encoding a message in a manner that allows the message to be transferred with as little noise interference as possible.
Creating slide shows is simple. Creating effective slide shows is more difficult. The purpose of a slide show is to augment delivery of a message. Amplifying, clarifying or simplifying messages is the primary task of the slide show. By following the steps listed in this article will go a long way to ensuring your slide show is effective.
If your visuals are not doing this then they are doing something else, which is noise in the channel.
Learn and Let Learn!