If you want to design great presentation slides - and most of us do - you've likely gotten this advice: Simplify your slides. It's arguably the most popular principle in slide design.
Pick up the DELETE machete, we are urged, and hack off all words we can, until only the most essential ones survive. If only one word lives, super. Best of all is no words at all - just a hi-res picture that speaks for a thousand of them.
Do not show lots of data. Avoid complicated graphs and diagrams. Put one single statistic on screen that takes 0.0000001 second to read.
Simplify, simplify, simplify. Relentlessly.
While I usually agree with this advice - since most slides out there tend to clutter - sometimes the impulse to simplify can go too far. In its zeal it can hack away actual substance.
And substance is very, very important for your credibility as a speaker and your ability to persuade an audience.
Let's now look at a case of simplification taken too far, then explore how we could design slides that are both simple and substantive.
When simplicity goes too far
Recently the great Carmine Gallo wrote a piece in Forbes titled Rethink Power Point, Don't Ditch It. As an example of how to "rethink Power Point", Mr. Gallo cites the slide makeover shown below. The "before" slide was made by NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and the "after" slide was redesigned by Empowered Presentations (captions in parentheses are by Mr. Gallo):
Mr. Gallo argues that the "after" slide is better because it's "more intriguing and memorable", and can be understood in under 5 seconds. In contrast, he labels the "before" slide an "ineffective data dump".
With all due respect to Mr. Gallo, I disagree.
Sure, if you were facing a general audience that already believed in global warming, the "after" slide might be better. But there are many other occasions where the NASA slide would in fact be superior. Here are three:
- For data-minded and technical audiences, actual data would be far more credible and convincing than a photoshopped image.
- For listeners who are undecided on climate change, and who need evidence, the first slide would likewise be more persuasive.
- For educating students on climate change, the data-heavy slide would be more informative. You could even leave the graph up and engage students in a 15 minute discussion on what's going on in these trends (such as why it shows "cooling" between 1900-1910).
As always, the key is to understand who is in the audience, and what is most persuasive to them - hard numbers? Stories? Images? Expert testimony? A combination of these? (Learning Styles obviously make a difference here as well. *Update: Craig Hadden of Remote Possibilities points out in the comments that Learning Styles have been called into question, see here, and here.)
An audience with scientific background might even be turned off by the redesigned slide, suspicious that they were being manipulated with alarming and altered images rather than substantive arguments and evidence.
Design for simplicity + substance
Mr. Gallo is right, however, that the NASA slide can be redesigned to improve clarity and impact. The true challenge here is not to be simple. Simple can be easy. But to express complex information and meaning clearly and simply? Now THAT's a worthy challenge!
So let's explore some ways of doing that.
First, the NASA slide is actually not bad. Presuming that temperature rise is what it hopes to convey (it may not be!), the message does come through. And that's a key test: does the data clearly and simply convey the speaker's message?
Here are some changes that would help the temperature rise stand out even more clearly:
- Recolour the grid to light gray, to let the trend lines stand out more.
- Cut the unidentified green triangles (probably volcanic eruptions) and the El Nino data below, to focus on the temperature trends.
- Add the main message, temperatures are rising, at the top.
I actually found a version of the graph that did precisely this; I only had to add the message on top, to produce this slide:
This slide should be easily understandable to any well-educated audience.
You could also show the graph first, explain it briefly, then have the main message appear to drive home the point. (Watch TED speaker Chris McKnett use this technique)
Add a picture for emotional impact
You may, however, still find the above redesign too geeky, boring, and... lacking in emotion, in which case we could:
- Make the graph background transparent.
- Find a picture that conveys the "warming" idea.
- Lay the graph on top of the picture (watch out for contrast!)
The result is a mix of data and image that support the same key message without getting in each other's way:
Yet another wonderful suggestion from Craig of Remote Possibilities in the comments: to take away the blue zigzag curve, so as to focus on the red curve, and to flip the photo so that the sun is behind the climax of temperature rise. Scientists might balk at removing the blue annual average, but the general audience probably wouldn't care about the difference between "annual" vs. "5-year running" mean. Remove anything that would distract the audience from the message.
And voila: a slide that conveys the data & message even more cleanly.
Another way of combining data and emotion is to not have them on the same slide, but one after the other. For example:
- First show a picture with the message: temperatures are rising
- Then back that up with data and graph.
- Finally, show pictures of heat waves so sizzling, the audience starts sweating in the air-conditioned conference room!
Use animated graphics
One more option is to animate the data. If you cannot produce animated data from scratch (Okay, very few of us can), there are usually excellent resources out there that you can borrow with proper attribution.
To talk about global warming, below is an excellent video you could play. I've seen scientists combine such videos with well-timed narration to great effect.
Simplicity is not a god to be worshipped blindly. In many cases, effective persuasion demands both simplicity AND substance. So for your next presentation:
- Find out what form of information your audience finds most persuasive.
- If it's stats & graphs, give it to them! Don't chuck them for the sake of simplicity.
- Use the techniques and principles above to ensure that the data evidence comes through clearly in support of your intended message.
What other techniques have you found to achieve both simplicity and substance? Please share them in the comments!
- Note: always ask: "what's this slide being used for?" The NASA slide would be okay for presentation to a technical audience, but it'd be perfect for presentation + discussion for small groups. And you keep all of the data - the volcanic eruptions, El Nino, everything. Because by keeping them you can investigate the effects of these on global temperature trends.
- Here are some further reading by the masters: how to remake slides with dense data, by Nancy Duarte. Seven Tenets of quantitative data presentation, by Stephen Few. How to give technical/scientific presentations by Garr Reynolds.
- Hans Rosling of Gapminder is the recognized authority on using data not just to convey a message - but to tell entire, compelling stories. All of his talks deserve your time. Here's another resource on data storytelling by Tableau.
- For climate change related data, the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP) is a great source.
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