When Olivia Mitchell invited me to discuss what I’d like to see in PowerPoint slide design in 2009, she referenced a recent blog post by Laura Bergellis. In her post, Laura highlighted how we’ve shifted from detailed, bullet-point-riddled slides to simple, highly visual slides. She questioned whether the pendulum swinging from one extreme to another has replaced one set of problems with another set of problems. Laura asked whether we can somehow find the middle ground between these two approaches in 2009.
What I’d like to see in 2009
I don’t feel it’s about finding the middle ground between these two approaches as Laura proposes. Rather it is about choosing the right or most effective approach for your specific audience and presentation situation. When it comes to PowerPoint design in 2009, I’d like presenters to step back and consider two important things this year:
- PowerPoint presentations are used in diverse situations.
- There are no silver bullets in PowerPoint design.
Diverse PowerPoint projects in 2009
If you’re familiar with this blog, you’ll know I like analogies (e.g., PowerPoint slides are like sushi!). If I were to compare PowerPoint design to carpentry, I would say people are working on lots of different projects – everything from bird houses to picnic tables to entire houses. To say what worked for one carpentry project will work for all carpentry projects is naïve and misleading. For example, recommending nothing less than 3 1/4-inch nails (i.e., 36+ font size) based on your framing experience can be disastrous if applied by someone building model airplanes.
As a technology consultant, I prepare various types of PowerPoint presentations. Some of my presentations focus on data and analysis for clients and are delivered via web conference. Other presentations are more conceptual and are delivered to large audiences at web marketing conferences. As a manager, I also prepare internal presentations that can be strategic or instructional, and are presented to small groups in informal settings.
I’m just one person, but I present three or four different types of presentations – each requiring unique approaches. Where one approach works well for one type of presentation, the same approach can fail dismally in other situations. In some cases, it may make sense to use both approaches in a single PowerPoint presentation. One slide introducing a new concept may lend itself to a highly visual approach, and another slide on a new process may need to be detailed and elaborate (not complex!).
A toolbox or just a hammer in 2009?
In 2008, popular new books such as Presentation Zen and Slide:ology highlighted the effectiveness of a more simple, visual approach to PowerPoint slide design. Many readers of these books are searching for a set of immutable rules or a “silver bullet” approach to PowerPoint design. I am concerned that rather than adding the simple, visual approach to presenters’ “toolboxes”, presenters will use it as a hammer for all presentation situations.
Although there may be many useful PowerPoint “guidelines” or approaches advocated by various experts, in my book there is only one golden rule of PowerPoint design — all PowerPoint presentation rules, principles, and guidelines are secondary to doing what is right for your audience. Just because bullet points may be perceived as the duct tape of PowerPoint design (inelegant and ugly), it doesn’t mean bullet points aren’t effective in certain situations. Just like carpentry, good materials (content), skill, and experience are important in PowerPoint design. Equally important is a well-stocked toolbox, and knowing the right tool to use in different situations can be the difference between effective presentations and ineffective ones in 2009.