PowerPoint and Presenting Stuff

PRojects: Conversation with Simon Newlyn

Simon Newlyn is a PowerPoint artisan. Based in London, he works for advertising, design and public relations agencies as well as for direct clients through PRojects. His PowerPoint experience therefore brings him into contact with a wide range of styles and presentation needs and for fun… Simon has animated the London tube map!

In this conversation, Simon talks about PowerPoint inspiration, and the presentation design scene in the UK and Europe.

Geetesh: If you look at a PowerPoint slide and imagine a blank canvas, then what will inspire you to color that canvas?

Simon: In a word: Simplicity. Simplicity of design: Simplicity of language: Simplicity of color (usage: not too many and good contrast) with the overall objective of creating dynamic impact. This is not always easy to achieve as my work requires me to follow source material, complex designs and ideas, without the freedom to edit.

This is because I work mainly for advertising, design and public relations agencies who tend to use PowerPoint as a secondary medium. For example, I recently created a presentation about an educational DVD created by an advertising agency. The agency requested that I follow the design style of the DVD but this, with the all essential navigation links, made the PowerPoint slide far too complex. Secondly, the PowerPoint presentation was to be given to over 100 people whereas the DVD was designed to be viewed by one person at a computer.

The solution, working with the presentation presenter, was to use some of the images and drawings from the DVD as full slides (backgrounds) and then float in a key word or topic that she would speak to. In this way we created a simple dynamic presentation that stimulated audience interest in the actual DVD which the audience could then investigate, at individual computer terminals, after the presentation.

In my second example let me take you into the world of the competitive public relations pitch (A world where, in reality, it is virtually impossible to avoid use of the bullet point – despite the zen of Garr Reynolds). Often I’m working with up to 8 or 10 people giving me copy. At this stage the presentation can become ‘swamped’ in bullet points. This is for two reasons:

  1. the presenters are extracting their words from a written document and
  2. presenters are all too often scared to leave out any point.

This creates a PowerPoint presentation where every slide is desperately trying to breath – imagine what the audience might be doing. To avoid this problem and to focus the presenter’s needs I (try to) negotiate a maximum of three bullets per slide and if possible a picture or graphic to illustrate their key point(s). Once you have people working to this concept it is possible to give the presentation a little more ‘air’ and hopefully a chance for the audience to really understand the points under discussion.

I hope both the examples illustrate my first response to your question namely, simplify it. There is a good chance that a well-designed simple slide will do its job; that is, to help the presenter communicate his or her idea to the audience clearly.

Geetesh: How is the PowerPoint design scene in the UK and Europe compared to the rest of the world.

Simon: While I’ve worked around the world creating presentations, I would not consider myself a comparison expert. What I can comment upon is some of the UK trends which might or might not be present in other parts of the world.

Let me be blunt. Within the (professional) UK design community PowerPoint is not liked. The design community tends to favour A & A – Apple and Adobe. If, for every time I’ve heard: “We do not like PowerPoint” I received one pound I would, by now, be a very rich man!
The problem for the design community is that while they favour A & A the majority of their clients are PC based and want the final product in a form that they can both open and adjust on their desktops (The latter point also being a reason the design community does not like PC applications!).

So you find an inbuilt grudge against PowerPoint and if possible designers advocate Keynote as their presentation program of choice. (For the Über-cool agencies Prezi is getting a look-in but I have seen it rejected by clients who are not yet comfortable with it)

The way to win the design community over is to work-up some slides and then (hopefully) enjoy their reaction when they say: “is that really PowerPoint?” I should say that one of my specialities is animation which I consider to be the cinematic quality of PowerPoint. I believe that good animation can help to give your presentation sophistication, and a tool to aid audience navigation to your key messages. However, great care has to be taken not to over-animate presentations.

Complete PowerPoint design No-Nos: Clip art and Word art! Amateur beyond words; go for photo realism – I love the PNG file format. Equally bad are PowerPoint textures – have they ever changed?

Another tendency in the UK is to avoid any kind of patterned or fancy background. I see a lot of patterned sets of backgrounds for sale and wonder who buys them. PowerPoint graphs and charts (c/o Excel) again are frowned upon and work in Illustrator or InDesign is often utilised. Smart Art is also on the No-No list – why does Microsoft have to control everything is the polite way to express some of the sentiments that I’ve heard about this feature. Finally, the use of drop-shadow for text is long gone.

A major design consideration is the fact that presenters are now keen to keep the overall presentation time down i.e. shorter presentations. This, in design terms, means that each slide has to work harder and perhaps ironically this is leading to the use of less copy with presenters now prepared to speak to a single key message/statement and not a raft of bullet points. This key point is nearly always presented over or beside a strong image.

In conclusion I don’t think the PowerPoint design scene in the UK is either behind or ahead of the rest of the world but it is certainly a strong adopter of the points mentioned in a now increasing visual world or one that tweets in no more than 140 characters.

Finally, a whiff of worldwide controversy! So many religious, academic and educational PowerPoint presentations look as though they have been created while pressing all the keys on the keyboard at the same time. It seems to me that communities setting out to inspire, educate and inform often destroy their case with presentations that just do not work. These are the communities, around the world, who I for one would be prepared to help.

Categories: case_studies, design, interviews, powerpoint

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