Presentation Visual Aids: Some Fonts Are More Believable Than Others

It’s been a while since I’ve written much about designing visual aids. I’m more of a writer than a designer, but I’m completely intrigued by the impact that visual tweaks can have on the success of your presentation.

Fonts are especially interesting because they’re something most of us don’t even think about–the vast majority of people simply accept the defaults in Word, PowerPoint, Keynote, or whatever program they’re using. But fonts can have unexpected influence on how your presentations are received. In an earlier post I pointed out a study that surprisingly seemed to show that readers retained more information when it was presented to them in a font that was difficult to read.

Now there’s another experiment (I love these things, can you tell?) that suggests certain fonts are seen as more credible than others. Documentarian and generally interesting guy Errol Morris created a sneaky survey to see if changing the typeface of an article altered how believable it was to readers. And it turned out that it did.

After polling approximately 45,000 unsuspecting readers on, Morris discovered that subjects were more likely to believe a statement when it was written in Baskerville than when it was written in Computer Modern, Georgia, Helvetica, Trebuchet, or Comic Sans. Baskerville: truth’s favorite typeface?

It’s probably no surprise that Comic Sans wasn’t taken as seriously as some of the other fonts, but who knew that Baskerville conveyed such authority?

The lesson here isn’t that you should only use Baskerville from now on. But you should put some thought into all of the design choices you make and the impact they might have on your audience. It’s not just the words you use that matter–fonts, colors and images all make a difference as well.


How to Give a Great Keynote

You don’t have to be giving a keynote presentation or even be a professional speaker to benefit from the advice in this great post. My only quibble? Not being nervous about a big presentation isn’t just douchey, it’s a clear sign that you’re a sociopath.

Create your presentations as a writing process

There's a lot that should happen before your deliver a presentation.

Step away from the keyboard!

Instead, start thinking of writing a presentation as a process where you should only start creating your visual aids (whether they’re slides or something else) late in the game.

The moment you learn about a presentation you’re going to deliver is not the time to fire up PowerPoint and start typing out bullet points. At this early phase in the process of developing your talk you’re probably not even sure what your presentation is actually about, and you certainly shouldn’t be sure that you’re going to wind up using slides. Besides, PowerPoint is a lousy place to work on developing your ideas. The fact that it’s so linear (slide one, slide two, slide three) makes it a difficult tool for brainstorming, exploring ideas, moving them around and editing them. In our experience people get so attached to their slides once they’ve started creating them that they don’t make a lot of the changes that would improve their work– something about PowerPoint just looks “final” to many people.

The other element where drafting a talk in PowerPoint really fails is in accounting for the “performance” part of a presentation. It doesn’t give presenters a good format for planning what they’ll be doing during the talk; the jokes they’ll tell, how they’ll work with the audience, what they’ll be doing as they stand in front of the room. It really encourages presenters to focus narrowly on their slides, and presentations suffer from the lack on an overall plan.

Every presenter will have slightly different working methods. My initial brainstorming and working out of his thesis often takes place in the shower, but that isn’t going to work for everyone. Still, we encourage you to follow this rough outline while developing your presentations. This doesn’t mean that every stage of this process requires a lot of time, or that you need to do all of them for every little presentation. But each step here is something worth considering, even if only momentarily.

We’ll look at the different parts over the next couple of days.

The World’s Simplest Presentation Skills Class

I’m of two minds about whether Facebook is a force for good or evil in our lives. But I am pretty amazed about how it has helped me reconnect in person with friends I haven’t seen in ages. Last year I had lunch in Washington DC with my friend Liz Wiley, who I hadn’t talked to since high school (hi Liz!).  And a couple of months ago I managed to have dinner with Tim Goldsmith after discovering that we were both in Atlanta on business. Connecting wasn’t easy since neither of us knew the city very well and the GPS in his rental car seemed to be giving him lousy directions, but we finally met up at Taqueria del Sol in Decatur.

I’m not sure I’d seen him since we lived in Santa Cruz in 1990, so we had a lot to catch up on. As usually happens in these situations, one of the first things to come up was work. It’s kind of a shame how that happens, isn’t it? He told me about his brand new job and I explained that I was developing public speaking and presentation skills training.

“You should just tell your students to take all of the junk off of their slides and then show them a video of Steve Jobs,” Tim said.

It’s not exactly a comprehensive course, but it’s a good piece of advice if it’s all you have time for.

Class dismissed!

Writing Fiction in Slides: Jennifer Egan’s “A Visit from the Goon Squad” PowerPoint

One of the biggest problems with relying on PowerPoint for all of your presentations is that it’s not a very good format for the storytelling that needs to be a part of any persuasive argument. The interruptions between slides and the relentless onslaught of bullets aren’t very effective at creating a coherent narrative. At least that’s what I tell the people in my presentation training classes.

Here to prove me wrong is a chapter from Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad told entirely in PowerPoint. I guess winning a Pulitzer will teach me a lesson!

You can read (view? play?– we may need new language for these kinds of things) the entire chapter here:

Imagine my surprise when I turned (flipped? swiped?) a page of the novel expecting to find the next chapter and found myself staring at a PowerPoint slide instead. Because I was reading on my iPad it was even more startling than it would have been if I’d been reading the hardcover. It was almost as if I’d accidentally switched programs and was suddenly  working on a presentation instead of just enjoying a good story by the pool. My brain had to come to a full stop and switch gears in order to recover.

By the way, I’m not a big fan of e-readers, despite many peoples’ attempts to convince me of their benefits. Maybe it’s just my age, but I think it also has something to do with my academic training and the way I learned to love the physical elements of books at the same time I was learning to appreciate their contents.

My skepticism isn’t even about the technological limitations of e-readers– the advantages of certain kinds of screens or the limits of their battery lives. I like to own the concrete book itself, to be able to browse them on my shelves, hoard them, lend them to people I trust, smell the fresh ink when they are new and the dust they collect when they aren’t.

But mostly I like to be able to write in them. As a child I never would have written in my books out of fear of “ruining” them. But more than a decade of college and grad school put me in the habit of making notes in everything I read. I underline sections I think are important, put stars next to big ideas, make lists, brainstorm and note important page numbers on the inside covers.

It’s not like I’m planning to do any work on most of the things I read; I’m not going to write book reports about them. I just like being able to interact with my books this way and feel like it helps slow down my reading so I actually pay better attention and retain more of what I’ve read. Without a pen in my hand it’s too easy to just pass my eyes over the words and feel like I’ve read something and wind up with only a vague recollection of it later.

But last week I was on vacation in Santa Barbara (coincidentally where I picked up my habit of scribbling notes in college) without a book of my own to read and mark up. I did have my iPad, however, and downloaded a copy of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, a novel that I’d given to my mom for Christmas but hadn’t read myself. It’s a good read, cleverly constructed of interlocking chapters that tell the stories of a group of characters from different perspectives.

Not having a hard copy was actually kind of a fortuitous accident. I don’t know if Egan had given much thought to the added impact that PowerPoint would have when the novel was viewed on an e-reader, but it was the first time that I felt I was having a more powerful experience reading something on a screen than I would have in a book.

Confronted with slides, my brain just had no idea what to do and I was suddenly jolted out of my normal reading experience. There was the familiar slide format, the default layout of a title slide, the uninspired choice of font. But what was it doing in the middle of a novel? I even had to turn my head sideways to read the text since the slides weren’t rotating correctly on my iPad.

While the inspiration to write fiction in PowerPoint is brilliant and handled here with great skill, it also gives us an idea of how hard it is to actually tell a story this way. The biggest issue I find with following a narrative in PowerPoint is figuring out how to read the slides. Without a live presenter to connect the dots, how do you know at first glance how one slide follows another? What connects them? Transitions– the ideas, not the animations– are really hard to create between slides when you want to propel a story forward. And how do you even know how to read the elements in a slide? Do your read left to right, across then down? Clockwise? How do you interpret the graphic elements and how do they relate to the words? It’s a totally different way of reading then simply following the sentences that make up a normal narrative.

These issues are something that we all need to remember when we’re creating our presentations. We “read” slides differently than other kinds of texts and, despite the habits of many presenters, we shouldn’t create slides that are covered with paragraphs of text. Slides should be treated as visual aids that support what you have to say as the speaker, not as your script itself. By design, your slides should leave out a lot of what you plan to say. Slides are a framework– as the speaker you need to provide the connective tissue.

Egan talks about this discordant effect that including a chapter written in PowerPoint has on her book in an interview that’s posted on Amazon.
 Writing in a non-traditional and “difficult” format like PowerPoint highlights the gaps, awkward spots and changes of style and tone throughout the whole novel. She even says that she didn’t really understand the overall structure of the book until the rest of it was already written and she was working on the PowerPoint section, that the whole novel is about the kind of discontinuity exhibited in this one chapter. PowerPoint lets her really highlight this effect.

“PowerPoint is not continuous,” she tells her interviewer:

“It is not a flow. It is a series of images and moments.  Which is really how the whole book works.”

“This book is all about the pauses.  A lot of the action takes place during the pauses and we visit people at other moments after these pauses or before they begin.  I think it really is the lynchpin.”

The challenges of telling a story in PowerPoint, the problems of making transitions between slides and bullet points, are exactly what she’s trying to demonstrate.  They’re at the heart of the book.

There are at least a couple of things that presenters can learn from this novel experiment.  First, despite my insistence that PowerPoint isn’t the right tool for telling a story, it can be done. But it requires a lot of thought to do it well. It also helps to be an experienced and much-awarded novelist like Egan.

Second, it can be really useful to think of the pieces of your presentations that you don’t put up on screen in the way that Egan talks about the “pauses” that contain much of the action from her story. As the speaker you have to tell a compelling story, but you don’t have to put everything up on the screen.

Actually, an experiment in storytelling through PowerPoint makes a great exercise if you feel like giving yourself a little homework. Think about a story that you know really well. It could be anything: a fairy tale, the story of your prom date or the plot of a Seinfeld episode. How would you tell it in PowerPoint? What resources would you use? Visual aids? Bullet points? Sound effects or video?  What would you put on the screen and what would you just tell your audience in the “pauses”?

The bottom line is to figure out which parts are really important and are likely to be interesting and influential to your audience. Then try to create all your presentations by telling your stories that way. It’s not always easy, but finding a way to structure your presentations as stories is one of the best ways to ensure your success.

Egan on Amazon:

Use Slide Templates with Care

Starting your slides with a template (whether it’s one of those that come with your presentation software, one provided by the company you work for, or by the organization for whom you’re going to speak) can help save you time and effort by making some of your design decisions for you.  But keep in mind that no single template is appropriate for every presentation and that some of the templates you’ll see are poorly conceived in the first place.  Don’t use a template– or elements of a template– that are going to undermine what you want to say.

We’ve been given templates that contained clipart that we thought wasn’t appropriate, design elements that cluttered the slides, font and color choices that made them hard to read– and decided to change the template or not use it altogether.  So far we haven’t gotten in trouble for making this decision, and you probably won’t either as long as you’re able to explain why the template doesn’t work for you and the decision you’ve made not to use it.  Some organizations (and especially their marketing departments) are very attached to their templates– others couldn’t care less.  It’s up to you to figure out which situation you’re in when you’re going to give a presentation.