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Slide:ology, by Nancy Duarte April 16, 2012

Posted by Matt Chwierut in Uncategorized.

“Similarly, presentations all too often reflect the agenda of the presenter rather than build a connection with the audience.”

For me, this quote summed up they main thrust of the Duarte’s manifesto about powerpoint and presentations.   She borrows the term ‘sliduments’ from Presentation Zen to describe what powerpoint has too often become – slides of small text, layers of sub-bullets, dense and complex diagrams.  Slide:ology is about building a new ideaology for presentations, built on good design, visual reinforcement of ideas, and a connection with the audience.

I thought the ideas below formed the core of her arguments for this ideology.

It’s about way more than slides: ultimately, great presentations build a relationship between speaker and audience that is based on understanding and inspiration.  Such a relationship is built on more than slides, however good, and you need a design approach to all elements of “the presentation ecosystem.”  This leapt out as a particularly interesting paradigm shift that changed how I approached presentations, even seemingly mundane ones.  It shows how complex the system of presentation considerations should be.

The Presentation Ecosystem

Great presentations harmonize visual story, delivery, and message.

Practice Design, Not Decoration: or, as she puts it elsewhere – “Just because your slides look great does not mean they convey useful meaning.”  Rather, she emphasizes many design ideas that are core to the class – a user-centered approach to communication and using aesthetics to simplify and convey meaning rather than to just awe an audience.

Treat audience as King: they deserve more than boring text and confusing diagrams, and you should go through the work of thinking through what will resonate with them most.  As such, building the slides themselves comes after hours and hours of research, brainstorming, storyboarding, and writing.

Devote time time time.  She has a sobering recommendation that a 1-hour, 30-slide presentation should take a total of 36 – 90 hours of total preparation time (research, storyboarding, slide building, rehearsing).  I’m sure this is daunting to any reader who has waited until the last moment to throw together some slides.  While this kind of time probably is not realistic in most work environments, it is an ambitious target that, even just trying to hit it will be rewarding.

This ideology is argued well, but the real power of Duarte’s book is the countless pieces of well summarized design insights.  She draws from color theory, animation design, font and typography, even kerning (spacing between letters).  She descends into technical minutiae that seem like trade secrets, but she contextualizes them and gives pointed examples.  She also provides a library of potential diagrams, color palette combinations, and grid patterns.  This makes the book not just a good argument for thinking about presentations differently but a manual to actually overhaul them.  The book answers not just what and why but again and again, how – and it does so with great clarity.

For example, she devotes a section to working with data, and in one page, visually sums up some of the main points that visualization theorists devote chapters and workshops to.

Working with Data

Great data visualizations have only the minimum required level of detail and focuses attention on the key point.

Finally, she also brings her points to life with great before/after comparisons.Image

The book reinforces the importance of visual grammar in good design.  So much of our class emphasizes the design process, which is necessary in a world that thinks of design as pretty colors – but, Duarte makes a great case for how powerful good visual control is for conveying meaning.  When she brings the visual design process down to the tiny but important distinctions between serif and sans serif font, she brings design tools to life in very powerful ways.

Understanding Fonts

Serif fonts (with the small horizontal line at the bottom) are generally good for blocks of text, while sans serif fonts (without the horizontal line) are great for titles, captions, and small

This level of specificity has lead to more “a-ha” moments than the other design books we’ve been reading (and understandably so, given that it’s about visual grammar and not just process).  Even if you already get her main message, I’d highly recommend this book just to have a library of contextualized hints about making great presentations.

I would argue that there are three challenges with this book.

First, I got lost in the myriad tools and tips in the book, but at the end, I wasn’t sure how it would all fit together in a single presentation.  Duarte lays out so many powerful tools for powerpoint: images, words, visual frameworks, templates, etc., but one couldn’t use them all in a single presentation…or could they?  She shows how diverse the presentation world is, so what kinds of presentations are most useful when?  What’s required for inspiring a consumer base v. pitching an idea to a CEO v. a TED-style talk?  She does provide some pieces of advice, such as the 10-20-30 rule from Guy Kawasaki: 10 slides, 20 minutes, no smaller than 30 point font.  But I think a section at the end that involved an in-depth case study or two about a presentation from beginning to end, with all the design decisions made along the way, would have helped draw it all together.

Second, she emphasizes that slides are not the star in a great presentation, and that it’s ultimately about a relationship between presenter and audience.  In doing this, the books skirts around the fact that often, great presentations are built on charismatic presenters, and that is not easily trained.  I’m sure we’ve all seen great slides delivered poorly and poor slides delivered by a highly engaging speaker.  It’s obviously outside the scope of the book to take this topic head on, and it’s not good message, but it is an important one.

Third, she does rightly criticize sliduments and argues that great slides are reinforcement to a presenter’s message, but the reality is that in more organizations, slides are used to store and pass information without presentations.  Her point that size 11 font buried in 5-tiered bullets is well taken, but visuals and diagrams can still bring a slidument to life, but when there’s no verbal explanation, pictures without words are difficult to digest.  This is sadly the reality of how powerpoint is often used, and it’s arguably better than pure text in a report.  How should we navigate that?  There are two helpful pages at the end on presentations that are posted online, but more would have been helpful.

Finally, I’ll end with one of the best quote adaptations I’ve ever seen.

Courtesy of Abraham Lincoln:

Abraham Lincoln on Power(point)