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Effective Communication through Visual Design:

Tables and Charts
and Dashboards

Rebecca Carr
National Coordinator
AAU Data Exchange

Mary Harrington
Director of Institutional Research and Assessment
University of Mississippi

The content of this handout was originally presented as part of a workshop at the
49th Annual Forum of the Association of Institutional Research
May 2009, Atlanta GA

Effective Communication Through Visual Design: PowerPoint

AIR Forum Workshop, May 2009
Mary Harrington, University of Mississippi, ccmary@olemiss.edu
(NOTE: This document provides supporting detail for the ideas and concepts covered in the
PowerPoint presentation. In conformance with best practices; this document serves as the
handout, in place of a copy of the presentation slides.)

I suspect we have all suffered through presentations that make the phrase Death by
PowerPoint ring all too true. There is strong sentiment on the part of some experts
to blame the PowerPoint software. For example, Edward Tufte, a preeminent scholar
in visual communications theory, says: At a minimum a presentation should do no
harm. Yet PowerPoint promotes a cognitive style that disrupts and trivializes
content. Since 1010 or 1011 PP slides are produced yearly, that is a lot of harm
(Tufte, 2006, p.184). However, most communications experts argue that PowerPoint
itself is not the culprit. Rather, it is the way we use PowerPoint.
In preparation for this presentation, I read several books and articles by authorities
in the field of visual, verbal, and non-verbal communication (all of which are listed in
the references section of this paper). Although their advice varies in certain areas,
there was almost unanimous agreement that PowerPoint can be an extremely
powerful communication tool when used properly. Unfortunately, most people do not
use it properly. Garr Reynolds in his book Presentation Zen (2008) remarks:
Most presentations remain mind-numbingly dull, something to be endured by both
presenter and audience alike. Presentations are generally ineffective, not because
presenters lack intelligence or creativity but because they have learned bad habits
and lack awareness and knowledge about what makes for a great presentation
and what does not. (p. 87)
This paper and the accompanying presentation seek to provide guidance on how we
can transform our PowerPoints by abandoning the traditional bullet-point format
and implementing techniques that communicate effectively, are appealing, and
create meaningful learning.
This paper will first summarize problems with typical PowerPoint presentations, and
will then discuss three main guidelines for creating effective and engaging
PowerPoint presentations.
1. Be


2. Be


3. Be


Before discussing how we might improve our PowerPoint presentations, lets look at
some of the most common mistakes people make when designing a presentation.
1. Too much text. Slides, in general, should not contain complete sentences.
The notable exception is a direct quote that is intended to be read aloud. When
there are complete sentences on a slide, it is nearly impossible for the
presenter, even the most experienced presenter, not to read it. A related issue

is putting so much text on the slide that it is difficult for the audience to read
and tedious for them to look at for an extended period of time.
2. Distracting elements and backgrounds. Its tempting to use glitzy
backgrounds for slides, but they can detract from the main focus of your slide.
Similarly, logos on a slide are discouraged because they do not contribute to the
main idea of the slide.
3. Poor choice of fonts. Many presentations use fonts that are difficult to read.
In general, san serif fonts, such as Arial, Calibri and Trebuchet, are preferable
for presentations. Its best not to use the default font of Times New Roman.
Avoid all uppercase (the audience will feel like they are being yelled at), and
use bold and italics for emphasis only. Avoid underlining because it makes
letters more difficult to identify. Use color only for emphasis, not for
decoration. (Please note that serif fonts are better choices for printed
4. Poor color choices. You will always be safe choosing either light on dark or
dark on light. Never use a combination of green and red, because of the
prevalence of red-green color-blindness, particularly in males.
5. Inappropriate use of clipart and animation. There are many websites that
offer high-quality photographs that will engage your audience much more
meaningfully than clipart. Be very careful with animation. If something is
moving on the screen, peoples eyes will be drawn to it, which means they will
probably not be listening to you.
Now that we are aware of the most common problems, we will look at three
guidelines that can enable us to create presentations that will engage, entertain, and
inform our audience.

Communication is the transfer of emotion, says Seth Godin, author and agent of
change. Create slides that demonstrate, with emotional proof, that what youre
saying is true not just accurate. (Godin, 2007) He argues that when you display a
slide with an evocative image, people in the audience will be intrigued about how you
will tie the image into what you say. According to Godin, you can ruin a
presentation with inaccurate facts or faulty logic; but you cant make it an excellent
presentation without emotion. The way to make your audience care about what
youre saying is to be passionate about it.
There are two sides to our brain. The left side is analytical, logical and objective,
while the right side is emotional, intuitive and subjective. People want to use both
sides of their brain when listening to a presentation. They want to use their left side
to evaluate what youre saying, and the right side to be engaged and even
Left-brain (logic and analysis) were very important in the information age, but are
not sufficient now that information and data are so readily available. Right-brain
thinking is increasingly important now in the conceptual age. Thus our
presentations need to be not only informative but provocative and inspirational.

How do you create a presentation that evokes passion? First, ask yourself two
1. Whats my point
2. Why does it matter?
These two questions enable you focus on exactly what is critical and why your
audience should care, and will serve to frame the remainder of your presentation. At
this early design stage, experts advise going analog rather than digital.
(Reynolds, 2008; Atkinson, 2005) I suspect the first step for many of us when
preparing for a presentation is to sit down at the computer, bring up PowerPoint, and
start hammering out bullet points. That is almost certain to compromise the
potential passion in our presentations.
We can take a lesson from most professional designers, who do much of their creative
work such as brainstorming and conceptualizing on paper, rather than on a
computer. A variety of analog tools, such as pen and paper, whiteboards, and sticky
notes, can be used very effectively for the initial design of a presentation. Going
analog enhances our ability to ensure our presentation clearly focuses on the main
points we want our audience to grasp. Physically sketching ideas and graphics
promotes creativity and freedom of expression, whereas sitting in front of a
PowerPoint screen can actually detract from the creative process because it forces us
to pay attention to the technology. When designing within PowerPoint, we risk
getting caught up with finding the best graphic or the best slide design, and often
must switch from normal view to slide sorter view to see the big picture. Nancy
Duarte, CEO of the worlds leading presentation design firm, uses sticky notes and a
Sharpie pen. (Reynolds, 2008) She believes that if the idea takes more space than
what can be written on a Post-It using a Sharpie, then it is too complex for a single
Going analog enhances our ability to tell the story, a key to creating a
presentation that connects with the audience and evokes passion. Several
experts recommend the use of a storyboard, which is a hand-written or
hand-sketched version of your presentation in a story format (Atkinson, p.
16). Using the storyboard technique, you approach your presentation in a
classic story-telling way: Act 1 sets up the story elements (i.e., setting,
characters, conflict); Act 2 develops the conflict introduced in Act 1; and Act
3 presents the decision the main character must make to resolve the conflict.
(Atkinson, 2005).
An important component of creating passion in presentations is the use of
high-quality images. Clip art, low quality photographs, and confusing or
complex charts can very quickly shut down audience passion. Conversely,
high-quality images can evoke powerful responses from audience members.
Researchers Lidwell, Holden, and Butler (Reynolds, 2008) discovered visual
images displayed for more than 30 seconds enhance learning and retention
of information.
Audience interest, and by default passion, is enhanced when the image
dominates the screen, and the words and graphs are tertiary. The examples
to the left, provided by Reynolds (2008), illustrate the point very clearly.
Which one is the audience more likely to connect with and remember?

Although there are a number of internet sources which offer high-quality images, I
used photos from istock.com for my PowerPoint presentation. Although I had to
pay for these photos, I found them to be well worth the price, particularly because of
the wide assortment of photos available and their sharpness and clarity. Fotolia.com
and Shutterstock.com also offer low-cost photos. In addition, there are a number of
sites which provide free images, some of which are listed below:

Being focused and passionate about your presentation is a good first step. However,
you must also be precise about knowing how best to communicate your message.
How can we be precise in our presentations? By synthesizing ideas and communicating
them with a few well-chosen words, high-quality pictures, and clear graphics. This is
very challenging for most of us simply because it to so much easier to use phrases or
sentences, rather than to select one or two words to represent what we are saying.
However, simplifying our slides by choosing precisely the correct word, striking picture,
or clear graphic can be extremely effective. When creating presentations, we should
keep in mind the advice of Albert Einstein who said, Everything should be as simple
as possible but not simpler (Kapterev, 2006) and Leonardo da Vinci who stated,
Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.(Kapterev, 2006)
Most PowerPoint presentations consist of slides containing several levels of bullet
points, or even complete sentences. There are two basic problems with this approach.
The first is that most presenters speak at a rate of 150 words per minute, but most
people read at the rate of 250 words per minute (Kapterev, 2006). This means that if
your slide has lots of words in the form of sentences or bullet points, the audience will
be much more likely to read the slide than to listen to you. In addition, they will
finish reading the slide much faster than you can verbally present it, resulting in a
bored and unengaged audience.
The second problem with slides containing many words is that this approach is not
the most effective means for promoting learning. Richard Mayer, a researcher from
Cambridge, studied how to use multimedia to promote meaningful learning. Two
important findings from his research that are applicable to PowerPoint are:
1. People learn better from words and pictures than from words alone.
The lesson we can learn from this research is that we should use many more
images in our slides, images that reinforce (not repeat) our words. However, this
result does not suggest that you must have a graphic on every single slide. One
or two words on a slide can function as a visual.
2. People will understand a multimedia explanation better when the words
are presented orally only, instead of both verbally and on the screen.
This is called the redundancy principle, and is particularly pertinent to
PowerPoint presentations. The common practice in PowerPoint presentations is
to summarize what we are saying in bullet point form, yet Mayer says this
approach actually impedes learning. He did discover, however, there are some
cases where verbal and on-screen redundancy is acceptable, for example when
introducing technical terms or concepts, or if audience members are not native
speakers or have hearing problems.

What a tremendous effect these findings could have on the traditional guidelines for
PowerPoint that many of us follow, such as the 6x6 Rule which states that a slide
should have no more than six lines of text, and no more than six words per line.
Some authors say the 6x6 format results in slides that look like a first-grade reader:
I see the brown dog run. Run, run, brown dog, run fast. Others say this format
results in slides that are predictable and orderly, but terribly boring and not
particularly effective in communicating.
But wait a minute, you might say. We are institutional researchers. We have data
to display. We cant use words and pictures for that! Accordingly to the research,
there are three approaches to this dilemma:
1. Use a picture and a few words to highlight the main point.
For example, instead of showing an Excel table with graduation rates for the
past 10 years, or a line graph demonstrating the ten-year change, insert a highquality picture representing a graduate and embed a short text message such
as, 5% increase in graduation rates.
2. Use a handout.
Tell your audience ahead of time that you will be providing a handout at the
end of your presentation with all the details discussed in your presentation.
This enables the audience to listen to you and not be distracted by reading a
paper copy of the slides. Many people try to let their slides function as a
document, but slides and documents have two distinct purposes. In fact, a new
term has evolved for this practice of combining slides and documents:
slideuments. According to Garr Reynolds, a noted communication authority,
with this kill two birds with one slide approach, the only thing that gets
killed is effective communication. He continues, Attempting to have slides
serve both as projected visuals and as stand-alone handouts makes for bad
visuals and bad documentation. (Reynolds, 2008, p. 68) Conference
organizers should not ask presenters for their PowerPoint slides, he says, but
should instead ask presenters to prepare a detailed handout that can
effectively function as a stand-alone document.
3. Create a graphic that is clear and simple.
One principle to keep in mind when creating graphics is the Signal to Noise
Ratio (SNR), a term which originated in technical fields such as radio and
electronic communication. The SNR is the ratio of relevant to irrelevant
information in a slide (Reynolds, p. 2008). We should strive to maximize this
ratio because people have difficulty processing extraneous information. A rule
of thumb when considering signal vs. noise is: if the item can be removed
without degradation to the chart, then it should be removed. We should
consider removing grid lines in a graph, conflicting backgrounds, and logos.
The use of 3D bars is particularly in conflict with the SNR. Steven Few in
Show Me The Numbers, (Few, 2004) says 3D renderings of two dimensional
quantitative information rarely work. He cautions we should not sacrifice
effective communication just because 3D might look attractive. Look, he says,
at what happens when you add a third dimension to a series of bars in a bar
chart. What is the result? Nothing more than bars that now occupy more space
than they did before and are more difficult to align with a value. (Few, 2004)

This example from Reynolds (2008)

illustrates the principle of signal to
noise. Note in the after picture how
the distracting background was
removed, 3D bars and grid lines were
eliminated, and a summary statement
was added, resulting in a much cleaner,
easier-to-read graph. Ironically,
PowerPoint itself promotes graphs
similar to the one on the left by
defaulting to 3D, gridlines and
row/column labels.
A final concept dealing with precision is
the Rule of Four, which states that
humans can only hold four concepts in
their mind at a time. (Kosslyn, 2007)
Therefore, slides which contain more
than four concepts will be confusing and
ineffective. However, once four concepts have been introduced, you can provide up to
four subpoints without breaking the Rule of Four. For example, if you are showing
an organizational chart, the first slide should show no more than four boxes.
However, the next slide could show one of the four original boxes, and then introduce
up to four additional boxes below it.
Creating presentations that are precise is not simple or intuitive. It will, however,
pay dividends in terms of your audiences understanding and appreciation of your
presentation. Although precision and passion are critically important, your
presentation must also be well prepared to be successful.

In giving presentations, Steve Jobs uses simple, stunning visuals along with a
conversational style that exudes passion and enthusiasm. Because it looks so easy
and natural, one might think it simply comes naturally to him. However, the reason
his presentations are so effective is that he practices, solicits feedback from his team,
and continues to enhance and practice his presentation.
Here are some techniques you should consider when preparing your presentation.
The introduction to your topic should be well-orchestrated and designed to put
your audience at ease. Most experts advise starting out with something light
that will make your audience relax and connect to you. You might start out with
a joke, a bumper sticker or a slogan, but make sure its appropriate, applicable,
and not offensive to anyone. A technique that is strongly recommended and
involves almost no risk is to tell something funny about yourself. You
immediately form a connection with the audience who recognizes you as a
regular person who can laugh at him/herself.

Then you need to start with a BANG! Find something that will get your
audiences attention very early in the presentation. Research has shown that
many people make up their mind about your presentation by the time youre on
the second slide. (Reynolds, 2008) So its extremely important that you start
with something powerful.

It is advisable when preparing your presentation to thoughtfully and deliberately

build in mental breaks. Research has shown that people can only concentrate
for about 15-20 minutes at a time. There are a number of ways you can insert
mental breaks into your presentation. You might engage the audience in an
activity, or ask them to answer a question. One technique that can be used for
any presentation is to ask the audience to turn to the person next to them and
take two to three minutes to share something they have learned from the
presentation, or to react to a concept introduced in the presentation. This
activity is especially effective because people remember things better if they talk
about them. After the mental break, the audience returns to you refreshed and
ready to pay attention again.

Three pointers when delivering your presentation are: avoid podiums (which
tend to distance you from your audience), use a wireless mouse (so you arent tied
to the keyboard), and leave the lights on during the presentation (to keep your
audience engaged).

Of course, a key element in being prepared is practicing your presentation. This

is particularly important because if you follow the guidelines about eliminating
bullet points, your slides will not necessarily cue you on what to say. Therefore,
you must be much more diligent about practicing the remarks which accompany
each slide. Experts suggest first practicing in front of a mirror to monitor your
expression and body language, and then practicing in front of your colleagues
who can provide constructive feedback.

The phrase timing is everything is particularly applicable to a presentation.

Its very annoying to go to a presentation at a conference and have it finish in
half its scheduled time. Likewise, its frustrating to see a presenter hurry
through the last half of the slides because of time limitations. By practicing your
presentation, youll be able to adjust it to fit the allotted time. Its useful to have
someone at the back of the room to alert you when you have about 15 minutes
left in your presentation. Then you can adjust the pace of the remainder of the
presentation. If you are running behind, never let the audience know it. Do not
say things like, Im going to very quickly cover these next slides because were
out of time or I dont have time to cover the next concept but you can read the
slides. If you are running out of time (which shouldnt happen if you have
practiced your presentation numerous times), cover the remaining slides more
briefly than intended, but do not give the appearance of being rushed. Be sure to
leave at least five minutes (preferably ten) for questions at the end.

It is time for us as IR and IE professionals to abandon the traditional presentation
format composed of bullet points and graphs. We need to be aware of and incorporate
the findings from communications theory and visual design research. This transition
will, indeed, be challenging. But it will be rewarding, both to us as presenters and to
our audiences. There is no doubt this new approach to PowerPoint will require a
huge investment of time and creative energy. However, the investment can yield rich
rewards. The next time we are asked to do a presentation, lets remember to be
passionate, be precise, and be prepared. Doing so will allow us to more
effectively communicate our message, and in turn, better serve our institutions and
our profession.

Altman, R. (2007) Why Most PowerPoint Presentations Suck and How You Can Make
Them Better. Pleasanton, CA: Harvest Press
Atkinson C. (2005). Beyond Bullet Points. Redmond, WA: Microsoft Press.
Few, S. (2004). Show Me the Numbers. Oakland, CA: Analytics Press.
Godin S. (2007) Really Bad PowerPoint. Retrieved October 2, 2008 from
Harrington R. & Rekdal S. (2007). How to Wow with PowerPoint. Berkeley, CA:
Peachpit Press.
Kapterev, A. (2006 ) Death by PowerPoint and How to Fight It. Retrieved September
15, 2008 from http://www.slideshare.net/thecroaker/death-by-powerpoint/.
Kosslyn, S. M. (2007). Clear and to the Point: 8 Psychological Principles fo
Compelling PowerPoint Presentations. New York: Oxford University Press.
Mayer, R. E. (Ed.). (2005). The Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning. New
York: Cambridge University Press.
Reynolds, G. (2008). Presentation Zen: Simple Ideas on Presentation Design and
Delivery. Berkeley, CA: New Riders.
Satyajeet S. (2006). Designing Effective PowerPoint Presentations. Retrieved
September 12, 2008 from http://www.slideshare.net/satyajeet_02/how-to-makeeffective-presentation/.
Tufte, E. R. (2006). Beautiful Evidence. Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press LLC.
(NOTE: If I had to recommend just two books to you from the above list, they would
be Presentation Zen and Show Me the Numbers. They are both excellent resources for
improving PowerPoint presentations!)