The Graphics Spectrum — Lives of Quiet Desperation

The Graphics Spectrum — Lives of Quiet Desperation

Created: Wednesday, May 25, 2011 posted by at 9:30 am

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By Jerry Weissman

In 1845, the American author, philosopher, and naturalist Henry David Thoreau felt the need to get away from it all. He sequestered himself at an idyllic lake in the Berkshire Mountains for two years and wrote Walden; or Life in the Woods in which he famously observed,

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.

Mr. Thoreau’s words are applicable to business people today who lead lives of not-so-quiet desperation every time they have to make a presentation. Of all the many reasons for their desperation—time pressure, workload, and the fear of failure—perhaps the most pressing is the self-imposed practice of using their PowerPoint slides as not only the presentation graphics, but also as speaker notes, send-aheads, and leave-behinds. This multitasking approach produces images of encyclopedic detail that serve none of the functions.

This bane of presenters has become a boon for another constituency: professional designers and authors who offer solutions to help business people create simple, expressive, and purely illustrative graphical images. The best of the breed is Garr Reynold’s marvelous book, Presentation Zen, which offers readers design concepts based on the principles of Japanese minimalism.

These polar opposites of the graphics spectrum leave a largely underserved area in the middle made up of presenters who want to break away from those encyclopedic slides but find Mr. Reynold’s Zen ideal is too far a reach for them. At one end of the spectrum, some presenters protest,

But I’m not a designer!

At the other end, others protest,

We don’t have the time to do that!

For that large majority, here is a simple set of guidelines for the two most basic types of garden variety graphics used in presentations today: bullet slides and bar charts.

Effective bullet slide

Effective bullet slide

The guiding principles of this simple but effective bullet slide can be summarized in four bullets:

  • Consider every line as a headline and not a sentence
  • Avoid wordwrap by restricting every item to one line
  • Start each line with the same grammatical part of speech: verbs, modifiers, etc.
  • Distribute all the lines proportionally

Effective bar chart

Effective bar chart

The guiding principles of this simple but effective bar chart can be summarized in four bullets:

  • Omit the y-axis and place the numbers directly on the bars
  • Represent the legend in legible font size
  • Use color-coded large labels
  • Make it easy for your audience by minimizing their search

Or to paraphrase the last bullet in terms that Mr. Thoreau would appreciate, help your audience to lead lives free of desperation.

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About Jerry Weissman

Jerry Weissman

Jerry Weissman
Jerry Weissman is among the world’s foremost corporate presentations coaches. His private client list reads like a who’s who of the world’s best companies, including the top brass at Yahoo!, Intel, Intuit, Cisco Systems, Microsoft, Netflix and many others.

Jerry founded Power Presentations, Ltd. in 1988. One of his earliest efforts was the Cisco Systems IPO road show. Following its successful launch, Don Valentine, of Sequoia Capital, and then chairman of Cisco’s Board of Directors, attributed “at least two to three dollars” of the offering price to Jerry’s coaching. That endorsement led to more than 500 other IPO road show presentations that have raised hundreds of billions of dollars in the stock market.

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