For years, people in black clothes and matching square-frame glasses have told you that font choice is important for successful communication.
But how important are fonts, really? Maybe that’s just the designer’s opinion, rather than a scientifically proven fact. After all, communication is fertile territory for pseudo-science and wrong conclusions from legitimate research.
As it turns out, scientists have researched it, and found that fonts play a decisive role in how your audience perceives your message. And more importantly, how likely they are to act on it.
In this useful article in The Psychologist, studies have shown that fonts “influence how fluently new information can be processed. The resulting feeling of ease or difficulty, in turn, informs a wide variety of judgements, from judgements of effort to to judgements of familiarity, truth, risk and beauty.”
One example studies people who were considering a new exercise program, and wondering how much pain was in store. They were given two sets of printed exercise instructions, identical except for the font.
Asked to estimate how long it would take to do the routine, they estimated an average 8.2 minutes when reading instructions printed in Arial. Given the same instructions in a complex, harder-to-read font, they estimated it would take 15.1 minutes.
They list lots more studies in which the choice of font has a dramatic effect on how people respond to new information. If your job involves getting people to overcome their fears and act on new information, you know how hard it can be.
So check those fonts and make sure they’re easy to read, because that makes them non-threatening at a subconscious level.
By the way, article uncovered via @ChasLicc . Who would have thought that the wackiest Chaser prankster of them all would provide an endless stream of Twitter links to fascinating, thought-provoking information, much of it of a decidedly non-wacky nature? The man must never sleep.
The design guys and I are working on a food packaging project at the moment. It’s quite a fiddly task. There’s a Dan Brown novel’s worth of legal mandatories to fit on each box, much of it warnings about the two greatest threats to Western civilisation: nuts and crustaceans.
DANGER THIS FOOD MAY HAVE BEEN PREPARED USING EQUIPMENT THAT MAY HAVE COME INTO CONTACT WITH NUTS OR CRUSTACEANS, OR POSSIBLY OPERATED BY A PERSON WHO ONCE SHOOK HANDS WITH SOMEONE WHO ONCE ATE A NUT OR CRUSTACEAN, AND IN FACT IT IS POSSIBLE TO DIE A SLOW AND PAINFUL DEATH FROM JUST THINKING ABOUT NUTS OR CRUSTACEANS, THAT’S HOW DANGEROUS THEY ARE ACCORDING TO OUR LEGAL DEPARTMENT.
So there’s a lot of fine-print type going over the top of photos, which creates production dramas too tedious to relate here, but it has some relevance for creating presentation graphics.
A nice photo makes a more compelling background for your screen show than a cheesy graphic template. But adding words over the top can present all sorts of hassles. Here’s a quick guide to the words-on-pictures thing that you can do within PowerPoint, rather than having to use Photoshop, Illustrator or other fancy gear.
For demonstration purposes, here’s a picture of the handsome lads of Scene Change Tasmania, in their natural habitat of Constitution Dock (which, by the way, is ALIVE with dangerous crustaceans).
Like most shots, it’s a mixture of dark and light bits, so the black type disappears into the dark suit. Let’s try white type.
That’s a lot better, but it still gets a bit lost on the lighter concrete background. So we’ll add a subtle shadow to the text in the slide below. Adding the shadow actually reduces the perceived weight of the font, so I’ve switched it to Bold as well:
That’s much clearer. It’s a black shadow with a 75% transparency. It works best if your version of PowerPoint has an adjustable shadow facility. Some of the earlier versions had a single, very ugly setting with a gray, massively offset shadow which will do your photo no justice.
If adding a shadow still isn’t making it clear, try the ‘glow’ feature (Format/Font/Text Glow and Soft Edges). This is a black 8 point glow on 32 point type, at 75% transparency:
Almost all video titles use a glow, because of the legibility hassles with a moving background with changing levels of contract. It’s pretty foolproof for still images. But if you’re dealing with a super-contrasty background, consider putting a transparent background in your text box.
Drag the borders of your text box to the left and right margins of the picture, and centre your text. Now adjust the ‘Fill’ on your text box from ‘No Fill’ to black. Now adjust the transparency until the text is legible, without blocking out the picture too much. On this shot, I’ve set the transparency at 75%:
It’s quite a nice, elegant effect. Depending on the shot, and your personal taste, you could use black text on a white box, also set to 75% transparency, like this:
While the transparencies look great on screen, beware if you’re planning to print the pages. Some printers give you a messy, crosshatched effect. Test your printer well in advance of the deadline.
And after all those shots, you’re probably feeling a strong, subliminal attraction to Scene Change Tasmania. If you are, you should know the contact details for our beaut new office, a stone’s throw from where this photo was taken:
Westpac has rightly taken a lot of stick for its animated presentation on why they’ve raised mortgage rates beyond everyone else.
The overall idea is a good one - explain to confused customers what’s been happening with the money supply over the last year. And the simplicity of its animated figures might have worked well with a better thought-out message, even though the people have been taken directly off the doors of ladies’ and gents’ public bathrooms.
Between concept and delivery, the presentation ran way off the rails and ended up as something a 10-year-old would find incredibly patronising.
Lessons for presenters from this ongoing PR trauma:
Choose Your Analogies Carefully
If you’re talking about a high-commitment product like a 25 year mortgage, it’s wrong to compare it to something as trivial as a snack, even if the comparison works in terms of pure logic. It makes your audience feel that you’re too big and out of touch to understand their pain.
Don’t Underestimate the Intelligence of Your Audience
The whole tone of the speaker and the script suggests someone talking to children. Your audience might know less about the subject than you do, but that doesn’t mean they’re stupid. Beware of using a tone that suggests you’re talking to simpletons, or they’ll turn against you fast.
A bit of editing would have helped, too: “Once upon a time, there were big lush fields of banana crops.”
Understand People’s Preconceptions of You
People will hold certain beliefs about you and your company before you open your mouth. You need to know what those beliefs are, because that context affects your whole message. If you’re from a family-oriented company like McDonalds, you have to present in a style that matches their family values. If you know you’re starting with negative preconceptions, you can pleasantly surprise them as ‘the bank executive who was unexpectedly warm and human’ or ‘the IT department head who was amazingly open to suggestions from other departments’.
Given the general public perception of banks, perhaps ‘Being popular is not our focus’ wasn’t the best choice of words.
Get Someone Else To Check Your Material
When you’re immersed in your own subject, you can assume that everyone else feels the same way. And material that makes perfect sense to you might not work for everyone else. So show your script and visuals to an outsider and see if there’s anything in there that makes them scratch their head.
Like “We all understand this story, right? A+B=C.”
Well, no, we don’t.
Understand How Fast Material Can Spread
Once Westpac realised the folly of its banana-themed message, they pulled the video from public view. But the horse had bolted, and it’s easy to view on a wide range of sites. In the digital world, once you’ve released anything, it’s out of your control. So be more careful next time.
There you are up in front of an expectant audience, buck naked, without a script, and you open your mouth and nothing comes out.
That’s the standard presentation nightmare, though if you eat a lot of cheese before you go to bed, sometimes you get the enhanced version in which the audience consists entirely of llamas in lederhosen.
As you know, that sort of thing rarely happens in actual life. But the next worst thing happens all the time: you go to show an audience your thrilling video, and it’s NOT THERE.
Just a big empty black box in your PowerPoint.
You click and click, hoping that the laptop’s just running low on available memory.
“Just bear with me,” you say. “Any second now.”
But there’s nothing. So today we’re going to look at the two main sources of on-site video trauma for presenters.
1. Embedded Video Not There
When you insert a video clip into PowerPoint, it doesn’t become part of the presentation file like a picture does. It’s just a link to somewhere else on your computer.
AV technicians spend much of their life trying to help presenters who have copied their PPT file across to a USB stick, brought it along to the show, and are wondering where their video or audio clips went.
If you’re not using your own computer for the presentation, you have to copy all the video and audio files into one folder on the USB stick or disc. Then when you load it onto the on-site computer, make sure the links are still working. Get there early, before there’s an audience in the room.
If you are using your own computer, check that the linked video files are actually on your machine, not on the server back at the office.
2. Is it really a DVD?
“I’m bringing a DVD” can mean a lot of things these days.
There’s your ‘classic’ DVD: a video program using DVD encoding, like you rent from Blockbuster. You stick it in a DVD player, and it plays.
Then there’s video files burned on a blank DVD. It says ‘DVD’, but it’s not programmed like a movie DVD. It’s just another form of file storage. So you stick the disc in the rented DVD player in your trade show booth, and nothing happens.
There are two ways to check what you’re dealing with.
One is to stick it in a DVD player - an actual playback deck rather than the DVD player on your laptop. if it brings up an on-screen menu and plays, it’s a DVD and will work pretty much anywhere.
The safest option is to look at the disk in your file management program. Actual DVD’s have a distinctive-looking file structure, with separate video and audio directories, like this:
If it looks like this, it’s just video files stored on a DVD disc, not a universally playable DVD:
To complicate things, some DVD players will read other file formats and play them. But some won’t, and that introduces a scary level of uncertainty if you’re travelling around using rented AV gear.
When in doubt, ask your AV people what to do, well in advance of the event. That way, there’s time to get the DVD properly authored so you can sleep as peacefully as your hotel room allows.
People love ye olde medieval frolics. Who hasn’t been to a Dirty Dick’s or the Tournament of Kings at Excalibur? And at least one regular reader of this blog got married in medieval style with lutes and town criers and acres of velvet.
Until now, there hasn’t been much medieval work done in the world of presentations.
For your enjoyment, here’s a surreal feast of mixed metaphors and a banquet of bizarre speaker support from US Senator Chuck Grassley, debating on healthcare funding.
Legendary circus hustler PT Barnum used to put a sign at his overcrowded American Museum: This Way To The Egress.
Visitors would assume that an egress was some kind of amazing creature, like the Bearded Lady or Iguana Boy, so they’d flock through the door and find themselves out in the street. Because ‘egress’ means ‘exit’, and if they wanted to get back in, they’d have to pay ol’ PT again.
That’s the only use of ‘egress’ I’ve ever heard until this week. I’m involved with organising a school rowing regatta, and the local council has forced us to hire Certified Parking Managers to manage the small car park. They sent us a 20 page form full of ‘event impact statements’, ‘parking needs analysis’, ‘incident risk chain of command’ and so forth.
In their ’scope of operations’, their mission ‘covers the ingress and egress of spectator and competitor vehicles.’
What strange urge makes people say things like ‘ingress and egress’, when there are perfectly good words like ‘entry and exit’?
It’s the need to show that you’re the Custodian of Special Secret Knowledge that others cannot hold, thus proving that you are Cleverer and More Important Than Them. So you can exercise power over others! Otherwise, any hillbilly in a fluorescent vest could watch cars drive in and out of a carpark.
Which brings us to today’s Writing For PowerPoint lesson: using shorter, simpler words.
Because in presentations, using long words and sentences is not grown-up or clever. It makes you come across like a puffed-up petty bureaucrat.
There’s a justification for using long words, and that’s if you’re a scientist, where specific things have names like Xylomatophangalaceous and there’s no substitute.
But most corporate PowerPoint writing is puffed-up with words like:
In our estimation instead of we think.
Service users instead of customers.
Implement instead of do.
After you write a line, read it out aloud.
Does it feel natural, or kinda clunky?
Now imagine you’re at a barbecue, on a Sunday, with a friend who doesn’t work in your industry or understand your jargon.
How would you explain it to them? Imagine them saying “Sorry, I still don’t understand.” Keep saying it aloud until you sound like a normal human talking, rather than a lawyer dictating a brief.
Now write those words down on your slide. That’s clearer, isn’t it?
A big part of the art of PowerPoint is the ability to write slides with clear, short sentences.
So your ideas leap off the screen with the power they deserve.
So your bullet points never stray into the fatal second line.
So you can save money on AV because you won’t need a wider screen.
Over the next couple of posts we’ll look at how to whip flabby slidewriting into a lean, buffed’n’sculpted message.
The largest single flab generator is using the passive rather than active voice.
Here’s a typical passive slide sentence:
“Conferences are being held by all state offices.”
And here’s the active version:
“All state offices are holding conferences.”
“It is hoped that the program will be a success.”
“We hope the program will be a success.”
See how it’s shorter and clearer?
Start with who’s doing the thing, then tell them what they’re doing.
Politicians like to use passive sentences for their evasive powers:
“A wiretapping operation was implemented.”
By who? Your audience wants answers on that sort of thing, at a subconscious level. If you write and speak in the passive voice, you come across as a bit evasive. The audience feels that they’re not getting clear information, so they switch off.
They’ve built an excellent new library just around the corner from my office. It has free wireless and looks like some kind of Apple flagship store, so it’s quite a pleasant spot to do some work when you need a change of scenery.
In the bathroom, though, is this patronising piece of committee-driven communication. It’s not a presentation, but it’s instructive to think of it as a single PowerPoint slide trying to get an important message across.
That message is: wash your hands.
That’s an important message. Lots of people don’t wash their hands. Some of them - I’m looking at you, Mister Grey Suit who was in there before me - haven’t even grasped the concept of flushing. What is the matter with you people?
What we have here is an instruction manual on How To Wash Your Hands. There are no secret techniques here, just the stuff your mother told you. Rub hands together with soap. Rinse. Dry.
The first, and most important, part of getting a message across is to consider who you’re trying to communicate to. And how they think. Without that, you’re whistling in the wind.
In this case, the world can be divided into two groups: those who wash their hands, and those who don’t.
Trust me, non-washers aren’t avoiding it because they don’t know how to wash their hands. It’s because they’re crusty, unhygienic people.
They aren’t going to read this sign and go:
“Hey, thanks council people, I’ve been wanting to wash my hands for a long time, but until now I lacked the necessary information.”
You can just picture the committee meeting that led to these signs, with lots of talk of ‘enabling better public health outcomes’.
Whenever you hear people say ‘we really need to educate people about this issue’, you’re going to end up with something like this.
Instead, ask yourself ‘how can we persuade people that it’s in their own interests to act on our message?’.
More on people using PowerPoint to create visual spam in offices here.
When you present with numbers a lot, the reflex instinct is to go straight for graph template #1 on the PowerPoint menu. Good old trusty column graph, a friend you’ve known since primary school.
And for that very reason, unless you’re using the graph to show your staff that they’re all getting a 50% pay rise, it’s going to be very dull and predictable for your audience.
What you need is some inspiration on how to bring numbers to life. So stop reading this blog, and spend some time considering the work of David McCandless on his Information is Beautiful site.
He’s a London ‘visual and data journalist’ with a passion for communicating complex data with a minimum of words.
His simpler material is beautiful in its clean design and clear emphasis on what’s important. Who doesn’t want to know where’s the best place to survive a plane crash?
(All the graphs are too big to reproduce well here, so click on the thumbnails to link through to the originals.)
He can make a graph look like an artwork, so you’re drawn into the data:
We’ve spoken before of using comparisons to make numbers realistic, particularly large ones. McCandless creates a definitive example here that makes sense of all the billion-trillion dollar headlines that swamp us every day. Who would have thought the world drug trade and the world advertising trade would have identical turnovers? Compare the projected versus actual budgets of the Iraq War and feel better about your next cost overrun on a work project.
And he can pull together a book’s worth of behavior analysis into one chart, like this Heirarchy of Digital Distractions. It’s a mine of accurate analysis, like the descending interest level of checking out new Twitter followers depending on hotness.
His work is a reminder that numbers can be fascinating, if you present them with imagination and passion.
And hours after looking at these visuals, I can still remember most of the facts they were designed to communicate. When was the last time you experienced that when you watched someone present numbers?
As if in response to this afternoon’s post on public apologies, this story popped up. A 21 year old McDonalds manager at a island resort conference took phone shots of her 48 year old room mate sleeping naked and showed them around the next morning.
The room-mate, who had slept naked in the belief that she had a single room booking, was understandably enraged.
In court, the young photographer said:
“I am very, like, remorseful for what I did.”
Which should be added to the previous list of things not to say after you’ve done something appalling.
The other notable quote came from her defence lawyer, who said:
“Despite her being a manager of McDonald’s, [Murison is] a manager of flipping burgers, not a person who is trained up to deal with situations such as these.”
As if you need special training not to take nude phone shots without permission and show them around a conference breakfast.
Conference managers everywhere will be thinking: this incident represents one percent of the stuff we have to deal with, if the rest of it made it into court nobody would ever hold a conference again.
Ian Whitworth believes passionately in the power of live communication, without the buzzwords and bullet points. He works as a creative director and principal of agency A Lizard Drinking. He is also one of the founders of audiovisual company Scene Change. Ian is an ex-professional presenter and long ago, ex-audiovisual technician. For non-presentation stuff, try @ianwhitworth.