In live presentations, slides function as the speaker’s backdrop, and have a secondary role. When presentations move into a virtual realm, your visual storytelling becomes more central to your viewers’ experience. Your PowerPoint slides have an opportunity to shine – as long as you use them cleverly!
There are two aspects to how you can use images to engage your remote audience: taking them on a journey through the evidence, and appealing to their imagination through metaphor.
Mapping data and signposting the journey
PowerPoint is a visual medium, so use it to display images that make your point. The cumulative effect should be to bring your viewers to the conclusions you want without them feeling bludgeoned into agreement.
Careful how you compose the agenda slide, if you decide to use one at all. Your audience will be incentivised to pay attention if they can’t predict exactly what you’ll say next. You should give the audience a sense of direction, but not the whole plot. Signposts work best as hooks to prompt the viewer to want to learn more rather than as summaries of the content you’re about to share.
Charts and graphs are more viewer-friendly than tables. Dr Alex Reppel, expert in data visualisation, recommends keeping it simple. He quotes the example of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: “In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away.” For more inspiration, check out Information Is Beautiful for creative solutions.
Colour, contrast and good design help too. This doesn’t mean overloading a slide with colour, as using the whole rainbow creates its own visual clutter. Greyscale can be an elegant choice.
Your own drawings will be more personal and memorable than Clip Art, even if you’re not a professional illustrator. If you do have access to a team with design skills, make the most of this asset by sketching out what you want on paper and giving your rough version to the designer to translate into something professional.
In this spirit, cut all captions to images and photographs. Along with too much animation, these can be distracting. Avoid fancy transitions. Don’t crowd a single slide with many images. A blizzard of several slides, each with one powerful image, can be more effective.
If you use text, keep to a maximum of 5 words per slide. More than 5, and you will force your audience to read. If they’re reading, they won’t be listening to you. Think slogans, not paragraphs. In this context, words are pictures too. Even your choice of font will have a subtle emotional impact on the viewer.
Metaphor and imagery
A longstanding collaborator of mine, Alison Branagan (author of Making Sense of Business), uses a great exercise for nudging workshop participants to approach their presentations more creatively. Giving each participant a piece of paper and a set of coloured pens, she asks them to draw their presentation. Sometimes this uncovers extraordinary talent that the participant had never thought to access for communicating a business project. And even when the drawing is mainly composed of stick-figures, the activity nearly always prompts participants to come up with a fresh approach. A visual metaphor for their core message can really drive the message home by evoking an emotional response.
So, what if you want to use imagery in a real life presentation but you don’t have faith in your sketching abilities? Capturing your idea with a photograph is a slick and original option. For instance, an egg box with different coloured eggs could represent the idea of contrasts and diversity in a team; or a photograph of a tree could evoke the concept of growth while keeping your roots in tradition. Moreover, if you take your own photographs, you own the copyright!
Presenting slides remotely
When you share your slides, remember that they can’t do all the work on their own. Your voice is crucial for directing the viewers’ attention, and your energy is crucial for directing their feelings about the arguments you’re making. Talking relentlessly all through the event will exhaust your viewers, whose only hope will be to zone you out so that they can read in peace. Prepare to deliver a voiceover that primes the viewers emotionally through tone, but also leaves pauses for insights to sink in.
There’s a widespread expectation that the slides you use as a visual aid during a presentation have to do double duty as a takeaway reference for your audience. This is true whether we’re remote or IRL. The pressure that speakers feel to accommodate this requirement can force them into creating a dull, over-explained deck that makes them redundant as communicators. The best way to manage this challenge is to make twoversions: one for broadcast, and another for the audience to consume in private – whether before or after the actual event. Your handout version can be detailed, and provide all the extra information and explanation that someone might require. This will liberate you to create an appealing, uncluttered deck that will keep your audience focused while you, as the presenter, supply the significance to the visual elements that have hooked them into paying attention.
Whether you’re presenting live or remotely, don’t forget your slides are there to help you engage and persuade.