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:
It’s a bit of a myth that people won’t read bullet points.
Stand near the magazine rack near the supermarket checkout, and tell me you aren’t interested to learn more about Angelina’s Hot Tub Romp Shocks Brad - Pics!
You just have to make your bullet points more interesting. Yes, tabloid mags have juicier subject material to work with than you do, but you can adapt their techniques to add more zing to your presentation about indexed pension fund returns.
Rule 1: What’s in it for them?
Great communicators think about the subject from their audience’s viewpoint. How will your material make them more successful or popular, or save them from pain or stress?
So you can take a line like this:
New fund products will generate market outperformance of 3% over industry equivalents.
Average person $7000 a year better off with new funds.
All staff will be required to have Blackberries switched on at all times to ensure customer response times are minimised.
Mobile communications means less need to stay at work late.
Rule 2: Trim the Verbal Shrubbery
When you’re writing tabloid headlines, you don’t have much space. Every word has to justify its existance.
Good PowerPoint writing is the same.
A headline writer would be sacked for writing Angelina’s Romp In The Hot Tub Came As A Shock To Brad, Pictures of it Inside!
So you can trim this:
All new products will be rolled-out in all state markets commencing in January.
January national roll-out of all new products.
Rule 3: Hold Something Back
The job of a good bullet point is to arouse their interest, and make them want more.
In the tabloid mag, you read the cover headline and want to see those shots of Angelina in the tub.
You can do a similar thing with a presentation by not putting the whole story up on the screen. The whole point of presenting live is to focus the attention on you, not on your slides. So use the bullet point to pose a question that you can answer verbally.
So instead of:
The top 5% sales achievers in our company attribute their success to our new interactive laptop product demonstration system.
The secret sales weapon of our Top 5% achievers.
Build up a bit of tension as you read out the line. Let their curiosity focus the attention on you. Then tell them the answer.
If you insist on handing out printed copies of the presentation - and for the sake of the planet, don’t, because nobody ever reads them - then create an amended file with all the information included.
OK, you’ve read this far, here’s your shot of Angelina in the tub. That’s an impressive personal library of clip-art she’s got there.
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.
Last post we spoke of how two revolutions have overlapped to lower the quality of picture and sound reproduction in every area of our lives. The digital entertainment revolution has compressed everything to fit through the web, and the Chinese manufacturing revolution has made equipment cheap and disposable. So the overall production values of presentations have plunged.
Here are a few tips to restore the production gloss so that people at your event get an experience worthy of the effort they made to get there.
Hotel ceiling speakers are designed for wedding speeches, and generally sound thin and tinny. A quality PA system will transform the impact of your video material, and lets you use music to greater effect.
Separate bass subs (professional ones, not the ones that came with your $200 surround sound system) take it to the next level. Movie theatres use them create that massive sound that makes going to the movies worthwhile. Your audiences ‘feels’ the soundtrack, and that creates a powerful impact.
Improve Your Image Quality
A lot of material is produced in HD now, then crunched down to standard DVD resolution for the live presentation. On the big screen, it can feel a little grungy, now that everyone has HD TV at home. Authoring your own DVD’s on your computer is another quality killer, as most domestic programs compress the picture even further.
If you need DVD’s to hand out, use a professional studio. If you’re showing something important, like your new ad campaign or corporate video, bypass the DVD’s, get a good, fast computer, and play it straight from a high-res .mov or wmv. file instead.
If it’s a important video, don’t embed it in PowerPoint, as it takes quite a while to get rolling, with your audience staring at the screen wondering what’s happening. Run the file in its native player in the computer.
Nothing adds atmosphere to a room like well-designed lighting. A good lighting designer can give your room instant emotion. And with modern lighting, you can change the mood instantly. Good lighting makes presenters look much better too, making them the star of the show rather than blending into the stage backdrop.
Use A Stage Set
Sets don’t just look good, they condition your audience’s expectations, so they perceive the presentation as being better than a standard speech. Here’s a more detailed explanation of how it works.
Use an Event Producer
Hire an experienced creative producer to plan out the presentation for you. They’ll do two things. Firstly, they’ll come up with creative ideas to get your message across. Secondly, they’ll stage manage the presentation so it all ‘feels’ right, like a theatrical show, with walk-on music, presenters entering and exiting the stage professionally, and all the other details that audiences draw a subconscious impression from.
Yes, they cost money. But consider the cost of the alternative: paying to entertain a room full of people who leave the room feeling ambivalent about your company and unlikely to take any positive action as a result.
This, by the way, is not a service Scene Change offers, being humble providers of technical services, but ask around and you should be able to find a good one.
We’ve put another episode up on the Presentation Channel, on how to work with wide screen graphics.
You haven’t been able to buy a TV that isn’t wide screen since 2006. Yet the default setting for every screen graphics program is the old 4:3 TV format, like you’re watching it at your grandparents’ house.
This means that if your images are being stretched across a wide format plasma or LCD screen, your logo is distorted and people have unappealing melon-shaped heads.
Learn the secrets of wide screen in 3 minutes with no reading here:
There must be a PhD thesis in the anti-productivity effect of long holidays. Two weeks back and I’m still struggling to become a useful part of the business world.
I’ve got all the tools laid out before me: laptop, phone, notepad, the specific brand of pen that I trust to generate ideas. But it’s like a chimpanzee tea party, and I’m still sticking teacups into the middle of my forehead and thinking in nonsensical grunts.
Which is pretty much the right frame of mind for photo editing – sorting through hundreds of fairly identical shots, trying to work out which CEO portrait has that magical king-of-beasts eye glint and shoulder tilt.
Photos are the best way to set your presentation apart and help people remember what you said: shots of your product, your people, your stores, or anything else to break up the wall of words.
Get a better background
The best way to make anything look better in a picture is to put it against a better background. When most people take shots, they’re concentrating so hard on the subject that the setting doesn’t get noticed.
Here’s an executive, photographed with a flash against a standard wall of photo paper.
This can look pretty flat, particularly when you have lots of execs in the same setting.
Now let’s take some similar-looking executives and take them outside, where there are interesting shapes and colours that can lift the background mood, and sympathetic natural light.
Shots taken in and around offices tend to be quite depressing. You don’t notice the clutter of old fax machines, memos pinned to boards, and Garfield coffee mugs when you’re taking the snap, but it makes for a pretty ordinary image. Particularly with the added harshness of fluoro lighting.
Here’s a perfectly pleasant-looking IT guy, in his natural habitat.
Now let’s take 3 other IT guys, and put them on a better background, and in this case, a reflective foreground. And lower the camera for a bit of drama. Now they look like cool crime fighters defusing a bomb.
Background is just as important for product images. Here’s the attractively-designed Breville Citrus Press in its naked form.
Here’s the same item, after we made a better background for it. Now it’s something to aspire to.
Yes, we used a stylist and rented a nice kitchen for the juicer shot. But there’s a lot you can do even when you’re shooting by yourself with a cheap camera.
Borrow a friend’s nice house to shoot your product in. Think how people actually use it, and put it in that context, rather than up against the nearest wall.
Shoot staff photos in the lobby of someone else’s good-looking new office block, which are always full of Barcelona chairs and nice diffused white light. Or use a stylish cafe as a setting.
For more tips on creating images that jump out, read this excellent article by Andrew Gibson. It’s about travel photography, but the same rules apply to taking interesting shots for presentations, particularly the bits about later afternoon light and finding blocks of colour.
Next post, we’ll look at a different kind of background – what’s actually behind you, the presenter, and how it can transform the effectiveness of your message.
There was a time, a million years ago, when projected material at events could only be made by seasoned production professionals, who knew a lot about creating a spectacle.
Then the invention of PowerPoint infused the DIY ethic into 95% of presentations. Anyone could knock some visuals together, so we ended up with presentations that were democratic, affordable, and uniformly uninspiring, like a communication version of a Billy bookcase.
That’s fine for a sales update, but if you’re launching a major new product, it’s worth letting go of your laptop and hiring some external production talent, who can use those projectors to create something really engaging.
And way up there on the global scale of video projection genius is Netherlands video production company Nuformer
We’ve posted about building projection before, but this takes it to an entirely new level.
It’s a breathtakingly beautiful spectacle that messes with your mind, and bear in mind that web video makes this sort of thing look about 10% as good as it does in real life.
What will presentations look like in the future, when a generation raised on txt communication get to the top of the career ladder?
I’m looking forward to fewer slides and less clutter on the screen.
Let’s look at a presentation by, say, near-bankrupt car makers asking a US Government committee for money. Using txt compression, you can fit their entire argument onto one slide in a readable font size. Like this:
Here’s the same message, as delivered by a verbose older person using entire, uncompressed words and punctuation and stuff.
That’s not a layout that will open up the funding barrel, even with the cost-saving initiatives.
As a bonus benefit, older persons in the audience have to work harder to decode the message, so they won’t be able to read ahead of you and get distracted. Gr8!
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.