When you’re in a meeting and somebody flips on a PowerPoint presentation, chances are you’re instantaneously bored or annoyed. Most people probably wouldn’t mind if they never had to watch another PowerPoint ever again.
But as a speaking coach for business executives, I know that PowerPoint presentations aren’t going away anytime soon–like it or not. They’re just too easy to make and too widely used to go extinct in the near future. So in the meantime, the best we can do is make them as compelling and relevant as possible.
According to one recent survey, the top two reasons why people loathe PowerPoint presentations so march are that “the speaker reads the slides” and uses “full sentences for text.” By now everyone should know not to read whole blocks of text to audiences verbatim. But it’s not enough to just convert them to bullet points, then present slide after slide of those, either.
If you really want to engage your audience and enhance your message, you need to use PowerPoint to tell a story–and you need to tell it as visually as possible. The good news is that you don’t need to be a professional graphic designer (or even necessarily hire one) in order to do that. What might not look particularly sleek or aesthetically compelling can still be effective. Here’s how to use imagery to get your point across and maximize your narrative impact, even if you aren’t the most visually minded person.
Don’t just illustrate. One of the best ways to make an impact is by connecting an image to the core of whatever you’re trying to say. The image should be something simple that’s easy to remember but has great explanatory power. For example, here’s an image we use in a speaking bootcamp my firm runs.
To be fair, this image looks like a PowerPoint image. Design critics may have some suggestions to make, but that isn’t the point–it’s still effective. This image translates the concept of interconnectivity at scale; we go from dozens of discrete boxes to a completely connected whole. Businesses tend to operate with so many different units that don’t always communicate with each other. So if you’re pushing for a more holistic approach to your organization’s communication, this type of concrete, straightforward image may be more effective than something more abstract and evocative, like a spider web or a group of cheerleaders getting in formation.
Which brings us to Tip #2. Using conceptual images is smarter than resorting to literal ones, but you don’t want to float into abstraction, either. It’s important to strike a balance. You want to avoid literal imagery for two reasons:
- It may not illustrate the nuances of what you’re talking about.
- It can cause your audience to immediately think about personal connections they may have to the image, which may not be relevant to your story.
In the above examples, maybe your listeners hate spiders or used to cheerlead in high school–and now, instead of thinking about interconnectivity, they’re thinking about that. That’s why, in order to discuss “flexibility,” we show a PowerPoint slide with this image:
This conceptual image visualizes the idea that you can make choices while maintaining your momentum. A more abstract depiction of flexibility–something bending, like a corn stalk in the wind–wouldn’t have expressed that. And a more literal one–like a photo of an actual highway roundabout–would’ve prodded participants to start thinking about the last time they were in traffic.
Once you tie your message to an image, make sure you introduce it image early in order to set the tone for the rest of your presentation. Then reinforce your message by putting the image on multiple slides throughout your presentation. You can even use the it as a highlight on each slide, like your presentation’s own personal trademark.
Don’t be afraid of seeming repetitive. It’s true that many people find PowerPoints dull already, so you may hesitate to introduce any redundancy. But not only is repetition acceptable in order to maintain your audience’s attention, it’s actually required. As Winston Churchill said, “If you have an important point to make, don’t try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time–a tremendous whack.” By repeating your big idea frequently–and visually–you’ll ensure that your audience is never left asking, “What was the point?”
No, these aren’t high-tech, aesthetically cutting-edge strategies, and they were just as effective last year and the year before that as they will be right now, in 2017. That’s the point, though. Some of the most powerful communication strategies don’t require bells and whistles and are largely immune to changes in technology–they’re just about how our brains absorb and process information.
That can be easy to lose sight of. When you design a PowerPoint deck, you think about copy, backgrounds, font size, and maybe even transitions–and that’s the limit of your aesthetic considerations. But don’t get so caught up in the details that you forget what’s most important: Do your slides help you tell your story, or are they just wallpaper? If it’s the latter, get ready to put your audience to sleep. It doesn’t take a design degree to wake them up.