Monthly Archives: April 2013

Make Your Slides Striking: The Rule of Thirds

Rule of Thirds | Slide CompositionGreat presentation design is a balance between art and science. Too often in the rush to fill the screen with facts and figures, we forget to view the slide for what it is, a blank canvas.

Since the time of the Renaissance, artists have experimented with ways to make their works more visually striking. Fundamental compositional design is just as important to great slides as the information that fills the screen. Taking composition into consideration during the design process produces more sophisticated, fresh slides.

The Rule of Thirds is a compositional rule of thumb for creating visual images. It was first named by John Thomas Smith in 1797, but can be spotted at work in paintings dating from the Renaissance and likely beyond. Using the rule of thirds increases the tension and visual interest of the slide, and helps create and balance negative space.

To use the rule of thirds, imagine the slide as divided by two lines, both horizontally and vertically. The 9 section grid creates guideposts against which to align areas of high contrast, negative space and “sections” of information.

Take for example, this simple slide on the soccer basics. This is a fairly typical slide and not all that terrible. The creator has included a visual element, paired down the text and used theme-appropriate graphic bullets. The composition lacks some finesse though – the picture on the right is crushed against the side of the slide and the text area is large and sparsly filled. The result is a visual imbalance that gives the eye no place to rest.

Rule of Thirds | Slide Composition

Apply the rule of thirds to elevate the sophistication of this slide to the next level. In the second example, the proportions of the slide fit the rule of thirds, creating negative space and a more visually interesting slide. The soccer ball now sits in its own grid section and the shadow of the goal line falls directly on the top bisecting line, creating a “horizon” with the top of the title. The text area of the slide feels more purposeful and cohesive when set against the negative space above.

Rule of Thirds | Slide Compostion

Great slide design is about much more than sharp graphics, carefully selected text and persuasive data. Think of slides as little works of art; basic compositional principles can be employed to make a good visual aid more striking and memorable.


Slides Should Never Be Handouts

Presentation DesignA quick peek into my personal life: my husband spent a decade and a half as a management consultant. He violates the rule I’m about to discuss more egregiously than anyone.

Although I’ve given up on convincing him, I do believe there’s hope for the rest of humanity: Slides and handouts are two separate animals. Never use one for the other.

Consultants, like too many other presenters, often rely on their slides to serve two purposes: presentation tool and take-away info-pack. When a presenter makes this mistake, the resulting slides are so jam packed with information that not only do they exhaust the audience, they become their own worst enemy.

The human brain can only hold so much information before deciding to commit it to long term memory or discard it. The more info available at once, the more will get tossed into the discard pile.

During a presentation or learning session, new information is kept in the working memory of the learner. Ideas in the working memory are subject to manipulation by reasoning and comprehension; it is where the presenter can massage the information, add his take, affect its meaning and plead his case. Working memory is where information is the most subject to persuasion.

What a wonderful workspace! There is one problem though – space is limited. Only so many ideas can be actively held and manipulated in the working memory. This limitation is referred to as cognitive load and the theory states that the more a learner has to learn at one time, the lower his or her comprehension rate will be. In fact, the general consensus is that the working memory can only hold between 5 and 9 pieces of information at once.

Comprehension happens best when the audience is coming to understand a visual with the help of audible explanation, rather than when the brain is trying to process spoken words, written words, images and relational information all at once. Slides should be visual, low on text and simple. The best slides focus on one main concept and leave the detail to the presenter. This frees up the audience to listen to the narrative and associate it with the elements of the displayed image.

So now that the slides are simple and visual, has putting together handouts become separate project all together? Not at all; most presentation platforms have an answer programmed in. In PowerPoint it’s called the Notes section* and it builds comprehensive handouts without overcrowding the visual aids.

Reserve bullets and details for the Notes section and free up the slides for that which they were intended: visual communication.

Instructions on using PPT Notes:
*How To Use Notes To Create Handouts
*How To Set Up Presenter View To See Notes While Presenting

Tell Me A Story

Stories are a major shaping force in our lives as individuals and as humankind. Since the time of cave drawings, which often depicted a series of connected events, humans have used stories as a way to make sense of the world around them. Children learn cause and effect, the rules of society, and many life lessons from stories told by those who have come to understand the world before them.

Stories, then, are the brain’s first language. As it processes the information in the world around it, the brain reaches for meaning: finding causal relationships and creating narrative from raw data.

But why is it that stories have such a captivating and lasting effect on the listener?

As it turns out, stories are a way to link minds with your audience – to communicate directly to their brains and activate temporal activity that keeps them engaged with your information. It all sounds very sci-fi, I know, but a 2010 study on brain activity between a story-teller and a listener, found just that. “Coupling,” a sort of synchronized dance of brain activity, occurs between the two participants during narrative verbal communication. Moreover, not only did the listeners’ brains react, the reaction itself was a very high predictor of comprehension during communication. The speaker was communicating directly with the listeners’ brains – creating thoughts and images where they previously had not been.

Next time you’re about to put a list of facts up on the screen, remember this: The brain dislikes stand-alone pieces of information and is more likely to discard them out of the working memory.  When listening to a presentation of raw data or sets of facts, the brain must engage in processing the information and creating the necessary links among the facts to make information memorable.

As we’ve discussed in other posts, meeting the brains in your audience halfway will not only increase engagement but also comprehension.  Weave your information into a distinct narrative that highlights causal relationships, linear order and associations between like information. Instead of listing facts and expecting them to speak for themselves, tell a story. Share a successful use-case scenario. Describe a victim’s harrowing ordeal. Tell a hypothetical story where your recommendations turn out to solve all the problems they are intended to solve.

Narrative story telling has remained pervasive throughout history for a reason, it works. Couple your story with visual aids and avoid text-ridden slides to maximize your engagement with your audience and guarantee that you’re not only connecting with your audience but also seating information in their memories, for easy recall. (For more on creating an effective narrative, see: When You Think Story, Think Structure, from the Persuasive Litigator)