Saturday, October 30, 2010

Simplicity in Presentations and Why it Matters

This morning, the Times of India newspaper was an ad-fest. Someone on the newspaper design team had decided that providing a page that was just a third of the original paper size would be a clever way of introducing a large advertisement before readers even saw the front page. Sounds like a great idea - preserve the sanctity of the front page, and still sell a costly front page ad that readers see first up. Turns out, they're not as smart as they think they are. No one on the Times design team seems to have thought once about the importance of function with form. People read newspapers sitting in their living rooms, in a train or at an airport and they need the convenience to hold the paper open, just as you see me do in the photograph. A page that's just a third of original width means that I can't hold my newspaper open without the inconvenience of one of the sheets continuously falling off. This is annoying; and Times, you've got to know how much I hate you for designing a paper with such little intelligence.

Then again, a lot of us tend to design beautifully without much emphasis on utility. In fact, we do it so often that it's unfair to call it design -- it's merely decoration. When I take this mistake to the realms of presentation design, this makes us create presentations that are either peppered with decorative information or decorative visuals. Simplicity however, doesn't need decoration. Simple presentation design demands that we make our idea easy to understand, visually clear and without confusion. In today's blog post, I want to discuss a few ideas that can help you create high-impact, simple presentations that'll make your message stick with your audience. I can't say I always do all of what I'm writing, but I can say for sure that if I did this more often, I'd be a much better speaker by the end of it.

Crafting an "Easy to Understand" Message

"Making the simple complicated is commonplace; but making the complicated awesomely simple - now that's creativity." - Charles Mingus

People often confuse simplicity with being simplistic or dumbing down your message. You can do no bigger disservice to your topic if you're trying to dumb it down for an intelligent audience. You want to let your topic be as complex as it really is, but your true creativity stems from being able to make it easy for others to understand. A couple of weeks back a colleague and I were talking about the rule of three in presentations. The rule of three is a simple theory that exists from the days of Aristotle and his book Rhetoric. The premise is quite simple, people comprehend, remember and enjoy information that comes in a group of three. There are several examples of this:
  • The Three Musketeers, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Three blind Mice and the Three Stooges are all symbols in popular culture and literature that are memorable and stick in your head from the first time you see them.
  • Several popular quotes and figures of speech incorporate the rule of three. "Friends, Romans, Countrymen..." from Shakespeare or "The father, son and the holy spirit." of the Holy Trinity and "Lies, damned lies and statistics." from Benjamin Disraeli are all great examples we all remember and quote till today.
  • You'll notice that filmmakers structure their movie scripts in a similar manner. Love stories start with how a boy meets a girl and then how their relationship faces some trouble and then how everything works out in the end. In tragedies, I guess everyone dies at the end! On the other hand, thrillers begin with a low-key scene setting, a high tension drama, and then a fast paced closure. Comedies too, follow the rule of three.
  • The 70-20-10 rule of learning, the 90-9-1 rule of online communities and Guy Kawasaki's 10-20-30 rule of presentations are memorable lessons in contemporary business. You hear them once, you don't forget them because of the way they use the rule of three.
I could keep giving you examples till I convince you, but I guess I'll rest my case here. The rule of three is a simple idea to apply to your presentations, so you can tell an effective story. Here are some ideas for you to chew on:
  • Consider structuring your presentation with three clear sections. Here are two examples:
    • Problem, Solution and The Way Forward (when presenting a plan);
    • or Current State, How we got here and Lessons Learned (when presenting a review);
  • Think of the three key things you'd like your audience to remember at the end of your presentation. Keep reinforcing those three key messages with examples, anecdotes and exercises in your presentation.
  • When you're teaching introduce no more than three critical tools that your students can use. If you're presenting case studies, present no more than three distinct examples.
The rule of three creates a lot of discipline with presentation design. Remember, if all you had to do was convey facts, then an email conveys facts much better than anything else. We know from experience though that people need persuasion. And if you want to persuade with your presentation, remember that storytelling trumps a fact-showcase each time. For some more excellent ideas on how you can tell an memorable story with your presentation, take a look through Scott Schwertly's Storytelling 101slidecast on Slideshare.

Design for Visual Clarity

People who say they "can't think visually" are liars and I don't mean to offend anyone when I say this. We are hardwired to thinking visually and there's enough research from Dan Roam's book that'll help you believe me. If you're one of those people though, think back to when you were a kid. If someone asked you if you could draw, when you were in kindergarten, what would you say? My guess is, you'd say yes. What happened in all these years? Ah! You got an education! And our education has taught us about 1000 word essays, bullet pointed slides and the need for verbose documentation. It's never too late to reach back to the natural, visual thinker amongst us and think of expressing ideas with simple images. And don't do it because I say so on this blog, do it because John Medina in his landmark book Brain Rules says that "vision trumps all other senses". If you hear a piece of information, three days later an average person is likely to remember only 10% of it. Add a relevant image and recall jumps to 65%. Now if that's something you want for your presentation, then you need to design visually -- you have no choice!

"Pictures beat text...because reading is so inef´Čücient for us. We have to identify certain features in the letters to be able to read them. That takes time." - Dr Medina

The good news is that being visual is real easy. You were a kid once (hopefully), so you have the natural tools to be able to visualise things. Stock photography and cheap digital cameras make the availability of high quality imagery a breeze. Add to that tools like Dan Roam's visual thinking codex, and you'll realise how powerful circles, boxes and arrows can be. Take a look at his simple napkin sketches breaking down the US healthcare problem, and you'll see what I'm saying.

A word of caution while I say this though -- the computer is only a bicycle for our minds. It can help you polish your idea if you have a good one, but it can't help you come up with the idea itself. Coming up with your ideas at the computer is the biggest presentation smell I can possibly think of. The computer is not only a source of several distractions, when you prepare at your computer you're forcing yourself to multi-task between coming up with your idea and representing it. You're thinking of the kind of image you want, and then you go to search it and then you decide it needs modifications and then you get sucked in and at the same time you're thinking about the order of your slides -- you get the idea, don't you? It's a mental mess. Take time away from your computer. Get some coffee, find a quiet place and plan analog (not digital). Sketch ideas on a notebook, draw out your slide details on index cards or storyboard using stickies. Get involved with your storyline so you have a visual connection with your concept. You'll see that this'll help you design your slides much faster as well! And guess what, by now you'll be so involved with your story that even if there's a catastrophe and your projector stops working you'll be able to tell your story with ease.

"If the presentation matters, you need time off the grid to prepare." - Garr Reynolds

Showcase an Uncluttered Mind
When I present about presenting or help others craft their presentations, I always mention that what you don't say is far more important than what you do say. When we know something about a topic, we want to say all we can about it. This is natural, and I believe this is a result of a speaker's passion for her topic. The problem is, that human brains aren't hardwired to remember as much in a short timeframe. Do remember that presentations are more about selling and exciting than about educating. If you wanted to teach someone something, you perhaps need to spend some time with that person in a real world context. On the other hand, if you can craft an exciting presentation, you'll encourage people to go out there and explore the topic for themselves. So the decision for you is: do you want overwhelm your audience with all that you've learnt about your topic from a decade's experience OR would you rather sell your topic so well, that you compel them to go learn more? The choice in my opinion, is quite simple - retain the signal, eliminate the noise!

I like to take the idea of unclutteredness to a slide level as well. Each slide needs to anchor just one key thought, not more. Don't try to cram everything into one slide! Extra slides don't cost money and depending on your presentation style you could need 10 or 100 slides for a 30 minute talk. Keep your visuals clear, minimise the decoration and focus only on the one message the slide aims for. In fact, I'll go to the extent of suggesting you ditch your corporate template because it gives you the visual clutter you don't want -- the logo, the page numbers, the decoration on top and the bottom. Anything that doesn't add to your message doesn't deserve to be on your slides.
I hope some of these ideas help you design a more powerful presentation the next time you're at it. In a subsequent blogpost, I want to deal with presentation stage fright and what you could possibly do to overcome it. I can't promise when that'll come up; you'll just have to wait and watch. If you want it sooner than later, drop a line in the comments section and let me know. Speaking of comments, do remember that your comments are quite valuable to me. So don't be shy to tell me what you thought of this blogpost. I'd love to hear from you.

BTW, if you're at DevLearn next week, do make an effort to bump into me. I'm on twitter and if you're around I'd love to catch up with you. I look forward to meeting as many of my small reader base as I can, at what promises to be an awesome conference!


Veronica said...

Excellent post!
thank you very much for all of yout tips and advices,
very useful!!!

Shekhar Goudar said...

Great Post
Thanks for all the tips
very helpful

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Great blog! I really love how it is easy on my eyes and the information are well written. I am wondering how I might be notified whenever a new post has been made. I have subscribed to your rss feed which really should do the trick! Have a nice day!

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