Neither Fish nor Fowl

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You've probably seen them, too: Slides that have a photo on the right - and a list of bullet points on the left. They're neither fish nor fowl - slides that are halfway there, but that indicate that the presenter couldn't quite let go of bullet points yet.

These sorts of slides are both good and bad news. They're good news because they show that people realise that the old ways don't just cut it any more. They see more and more presentations being done in a more visual way and start doing something similar. Which brings us to the bad news: They also show that the presenter hasn't really understood the purpose of the visuals yet - they are only mimicking.

Actually, you have to look closer at those neither-here-nor-there slides to see where the presenter really stands. Are the graphics relevant or are they only decoration?

I see the latter in corporate environments mostly: The company has a set of stock photos (officially approved to match the CI) that they use in every presentation. A slide that poses a question to be discussed in the presentation will then always use the same image of, say, a question mark or a photo of a person thinking. This is just mimicking - someone told the presenter to "use photos" and they picked a photo and use it over and over again.

Photos can of course have different meanings depending on the context, so reusing a photo is not a problem as such. It only becomes a problem when it doesn't add anything to the message or idea of your slide. Then it's only decoration (at best) or a distraction (at worst).

If, however, the photo next to the bullet point list is relevant to the topic of the slide, then there's still hope. The presenter understood the importance of good visuals and is on the right track - they just haven't managed to let go of bullet points entirely.

Please note that this post is not meant to be condescending. In fact, if you look at my older presentations, you will see a lot of those neither-fish-nor-flesh slides (like the example on the right). So I do know how hard it is to let go of bullet points, especially if you're a "techie" or when you present in a field that highly values facts and data.

Try this approach for your next presentation:

  1. Have only one idea per slide.
  2. Reduce each of the bullet point items to just one or two keywords.
  3. Use the keywords as your presenter notes, so you know what to talk about.
  4. Find a relevant photo or graphic and put that on your slide - full screen!
  5. Find a short summary for your slide (now that it represents only one idea) and put that on top of the photo.

"Better", i.e. more effective, more visual slides are only one part of a good presentation, of course. The above steps will not only improve your slides but also force you to think things through in the first place (What's my point with this slide?) and you will also have to rehearse more. But there are really no excuses not to at least try and deliver a better presentation. Start with the slides and see where it takes you.

(Image Credits: "Sky and Water I" by M. C. Escher (1938); Photo on slide: "Untitled" by skr0l, from Flickr)

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Creative Commons Licence "Neither Fish nor Fowl" by Dirk Haun is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International Licence.