Better visuals for college presentations

Today I wrote an open letter to my Masters of Public Management students on how to improve their visuals. It included these points:

Better visuals:

To improve your design, especially your use of space on slides, select a theme that suits your purposes. Consider a clean color scheme with good contrast to suit the light conditions at the university. (I used a black gradient with white letters.) Then create a slide master, which stores information about the template (theme, a set of layouts, color scheme, fonts, placeholders for positioning). That creates harmonious slide variations on one theme, all saved in one master. When you make a new presentation, you build your slide deck by selecting from among the possible layouts, changing from slide to slide, and positioning your content in the given placeholders.

Use the graphic tools provided in your MS Office programs. Create visuals (graphic organizers, flowcharts…) using the tools in Powerpoint and Word called SmartArt. If you can’t find a chart that works for your purpose, tailor organizers using Diagrams and Tables. Save your own visuals and use them in your Prezis.

Use clipart provided by your program, if necessary, but reduce your use of clipart in your academic work. Replace those generic illustrations with authentic evidence (visualized calculations, documentation, photographs) to back up your assertions effectively.

If you need evocative photos for emotional impact or reference, use license-free photographs and document your sources to use them. I like eltpics, a searchable creative commons collection curated by English teachers around the world.

Better use of text

I know that “Presentation Zen” author Garr Reynolds and Nancy Duarte advocate reducing text on slides. That works well for natural science presentations, which are best when you show just the evidence, and for marketing, which runs on emotions. However, in our international context, with so much potential for verbal misunderstanding, and in our academic tradition of analytical thinking, you do need some text! Include all relevant names, titles of works and conceptual keywords on your slide. Formulate your key thesis as a full sentence. Label your charts legibly, with 16 point lettering. Use the spaces suggested by your template to formulate a header for orientation, keep bullets points short (max. 6-7 lines x 6 words), or – better – label the containers you have created in your template to contrast or compare selected terms.

Present any quotes in full length and include the name of the author.

Your presentations are unique, and your teachers and peers respect and enjoy that variety. Use the ideas of Dan and Chip Heath in Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die (2007) to assess yourself:

Is what you present

simple – have you found the core of the idea?
unexpected – do you grab people’s attention?
concrete – can it be grasped and remembered?
credible – do you speak with authority on this subject, are your methods are sound?
emotional – do you share your sense of humanity with your audience?
stories – do you take your audience on an interesting journey?

Michael Pawlyn: Using nature’s genius in architecture

I’ll be teaching city planners, and so have decided to use this wonderful presentation (TED Salon 2010) by the designer of the Eden Project bubble dome, the biomimicry specialist Michael Pawlyn. The presentation is deeply architectural in nature. I’ll be asking:
Watch the first minutes (0:17-1:50) and answer:

  • What examples does he begin with?
  • What details does he highlight? Why?
  • How does he follow up to lead into his presentation?

The answer is that he provides a bridge to a classic 3-part structure. After the engaging examples, he postulates that to make progress in sustainability, we need to make 3 radical changes:


Watch the rest of the talk, then answer:

  • How does he come back to the structure?
  • What is his take-home message?

Under the impression of the Coursera course I’m taking (University of Washington, Introduction to Public Speaking, by Dr. Matt McGarrity), I’ll be asking: Is this more of a solo performance, or more of an interactive communication with the audience? You can make a case for both. The speaker must have learned the speech by heart, or it must come from the heart, because if he’s reading it off, he’s doing an unbelievable job. This is highly constructed, down to the last detail. Michael Pawlyn never falters. Yet he is deeply involved and passionate about the topic, and that adds so much life that his speech seems natural and authentic.

A natural presenter: Chris Glass, graphic designer

I’m taking a good course in Public Speaking on Coursera, recommended by Edward Tanguay (thank you!).
Looking for presentations to comment on for this course, and for examples to show in a presentation seminar I’m giving on Friday, I’ve been watching countless ones and stumbled across Chris Glass, graphic designer.

I really like the naturalness of Chris Glass’s presentation. Listening to him is pleasant because everything about him his congruent, from his beard and hat and relaxed clothes to the awesome slides he creates. There’s a very nice interview with him on The Great Discontent that matches the presentation in all aspects. This is a guy who knows who he is and what he wants to do. Refreshing stuff for anyone who is looking for some magic formula to presenting. Take it from the masters. Relax. Be yourself. That’s what makes you shine.

There’s another piece of advice going round, which is “fake it till you make it”, so: act relaxed and in control and soon you become just that. The techniques involve centering and breathing and coming prepared. I see the importance of that and many people will take comfort in the fact that, yes, you can psych yourself into taking space and standing tall until it becomes natural. It’s really very much like practicing the drawings in the book that Chris Glass presents, Ed Emberley’s Drawing Book: Make a World. Learning by doing in small, manageable steps. The important thing to keep in mind is that in the end you want to become … yourself.

Now remember, though, this is a peer-to-peer presentation. Chris Glass is sharing his stuff, not pitching to a client. To pitch or sell his ideas, he’d need a different kind of presentation, one containing arguments for or against each given solution. Chris carefully avoids any such argument here, letting his authentic stories speak for themselves.

Hans Rosling’s creative teaching technologies – realia, boxes, Lego

I’m thinking through how useful I find using small manipulable toys like cuisinaire rods and Lego to visualize information, to explain and teach things in a small classroom, for example in one-to-one training. Recently I’ve joined a group exploring the terrain of using Lego, and so I’m thinking back to how I have used these tools with various clients over the years.  Now I’ve stumbled upon a video of Hans Rosling using Lego, an opportunity to ponder quietly what the effect is on the learner.

Hans Rosling is unquestionably one of the best international presenters in the world, having captured the visual essence of development in his moving bubble charts (Gapmminder).But he’s also given  a mind-blowing presentation of progress using a washing machine. He has presented using Ikea boxes, and now, in a new video, he uses Lego. First, here are the three presentations with realia, boxes and Lego:

Washing machine:

Ikea boxes:


I frankly really appreciate the use of real life realia, they evoke emotion the way a multifunctional building toy simply can’t. I use things or at least pictures of things quite a lot. Saying that one abstract box represents one thing and placing it next to an identical other box representing a different thing places additional cognitive load on the viewer. That can be good or bad, depending on whether the load is rewarded in some way. It helps if you add visual distinction to the box, the way Hans Rosling does with the realia he pulls out of his Ikea boxes, like some magician. That adds a lovely element of play and surprize.

Bare Lego on the other hand without playing clown or dress-up will divide the public. It can be charming to those with happy memories of the building toy, or with lots of practice building with their kids. That charm can be harnessed to focus attention. I think, however, that the blocks need to be very well connected visually to stories as they are told. I once saw Mark Powell use cuisinaire rods that way, and it got me down the road of storytelling with little blocks and rods. I’ve found that once those stories start to materialize and are understood, there is a creative spark that you can kindle and develop as you hand things over, step by step, to the students. And then I think the additional cognitive load is actually exactly what you need, because the learners are more engaged and working harder at the same time.

Beyond that, however, what these presentations show me at least is that it’s easy to visualize the big picture with simple tools, or to tell a simple story, but to see and remember the details, e.g. ratios between groups or development over time, and in fact figures of any kind, you really need graphics. Nothing replaces complex graphics for communicating complex data, and in turn relating that, when it is well done, to a big idea.