Slides without Words

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It seems to be a bit of a trend right now and I also catch myself doing it on occasion: Having a slide with only a photo on it - but no words.

When you talk to people about embracing a more visual slide design, some get it - and some only embrace it half-heartedly. The latter group often ends up producing slides that have a somewhat relevant photo on the right - and a list of bullet points on the left side. People in the other group sometimes tend to go to the other extreme and start using slides that only consist of photos - with no text at all.

Neither of these approaches is ideal.

First of all, let me clarify that I'm talking about the general case, i.e. your average presentation. There are always cases where a certain format is more appropriate for the specific audience. Always remember: Your audience comes first. If it's a very visual audience (say, artists), slides with photos and no words could be just what they need. On the other hand, a more conservative audience (especially in certain business environments) may expect - even require - to see bullet points. In that case, adding a photo next to the bullet points could be a way to gently introduce them to a more modern slide design without alienating them. But again: Those are the exceptions.

When applying a more visual approach to slide design, you will often use high-impact visuals: Beautiful shots of nature, people, scenes, objects. And sometimes you will think: Why should I add any text to this photo? It's obvious what it stands for!

Sometimes (see above), this will work. More often than not however, you will still want to add some text for maximum effectiveness of your slide. Consider these:

The meaning of a photo may be obvious in the context of your narrative, but not so obvious any more when taken out of context. Let's say someone in the audience takes a photo and posts it on Twitter. Can your slide still be understood when it stands on its own?

Photos can change their meaning depending on context. In fact, you may find yourself re-using the same photo for different purposes. For example, consider the photo of a plastic bottle of water. It could be used in a presentation about

  • the need to drink a certain amount of water per day
  • the amount of plastic waste we produce
  • the importance of having access to clean water

There's also a very practical reason to add a caption as a service for your audience: People may get distracted for a moment (say, by their phone or by something that happens next to them) and miss your introduction of the slide. Adding a caption will let them understand what you are talking about without having to interpret the photo.

Slides should be used to support your message and high-impact visuals will help you with that. But to achieve this goal, the slide must still make sense when some of the context is missing. The easiest way to avoid misunderstandings is to add a short and meaningful caption.

("bottled water" stock photo by Michael Lorenzo, from stock.xchng)

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