Category Archives: Books

Book Review: Images with Impact

My shelves overflow with books on presentation, graphic design and public speaking, but it has been years since I’ve added one to the collection that is so damn practical and hits the nail on the head over and over when it comes to creating effective presentations.

Kerri L. Ruttenberg is the author of the recently published Images With Impact: Design and Use of Winning Trial Visuals. Kerri is not a designer, but an accomplished trial lawyer who has carved out a niche in her world as an expert in using visual for trials. (Trial graphics is a niche itself in the niche world of presentation design, and an area I know nothing about.) Like so many of us, Kerri kind of fell into the world of presentation. And like many of us, she read and learned from the classic authors which she quotes often from: Nancy Duarte, Garr Reynolds, John Medina. The big difference with this book for me—and the reason why I so enjoyed reading it—is that she has taken all the conventional presentation design wisdom and synthesized it into a practical handbook with real-world examples in practice on nearly every page.

I have grown so weary over the years of reading about Gestalt theory where the author shows the grid of circles and says, “Use the principle of proximity on your slides to indicate relationships,” and moves on without showing examples of exactly how proximity can be used in slide design. Kerri steps in with a quick definition, but then gives a real-world example over two pages where moving an image of a signature closer to a contract clause communicates how the two are connected—the kind of thing you want your jury to clearly understand.

It’s all about the jury

And keeping a focus on the audience—in her world, that is the jury—is what Kerri does constantly throughout this book. Because this is a niche subject and the stakes in this world are so high, the book does more than most in driving home the importance of designing effective presentations for an audience and controlling the flow of information to that audience. As she says, “When I present slides…I control what the jurors see, when they see it, and how much time they have to absorb it.” If I were on trial, this is exactly what I would want my lawyer doing. No matter who your audience is, managing information flow is vital. The situation is made clearer when the audience is a murder trial jury, but even if it’s just an insurance conference audience, you should still build your bullet points so that audience doesn’t get ahead of you.

The book adds to the traditional audience studies (i.e.. Picture Superiority Effect, 3M) with those on juries. For example, apparently jurors immediately forget as much as 2/3 of the facts presented to them and studies show that visuals clearly help in the courtroom. Good trial lawyers also know that jurors tend to take more notes when there are fewer words on the screen.

Legal considerations

I loved learning about Federal Rule of Evidence 403 which essentially means a photo can be excluded from evidence if it is unfairly prejudicial by being too emotional rather than factual. So, while lawyers need to tread carefully and not plaster a photo of the defendant with the words guilty pasted across it, non-lawyers should take this as a reminder of how powerful properly designed imagery and slides can be for audiences.

And then in this context, Kerry discusses what can make an image more emotional—even subconsciously: full bleed, dark backgrounds, faces, etc. Take from that what you will…

Manipulative charts are discussed as well, and some days I wish I could do what Kerri sometimes does: Use her opposing counsel’s visuals against them by pointing out the manipulations and flaws. As she says, “Often you can get a lot more mileage out of using your opponent’s slide than you can from excluding it.” Hence the importance of truly understanding y-axis manipulation on a bar chart.

Text: More and Less

Another topic I see rarely covered in other presentation books is how exactly to harness the amount of content on a slide to your advantage. Sometimes filling a slide with text, such as a huge list of every person a defendant reported unethical behavior to, communicates a message better than a traditional “Presentation Zen” slide. But, of course, a mostly blank slide can do wonders as well like this great example:

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(That’s not the start of a build. That’s all there is to the slide.)

There’s Always More to Learn About Design

I learned a ton about trials and evidence, of course, but I also learned a design trick or two. Like if you have two photos of similar looking white dudes, flip one to face the opposite direction to help differentiate them. Going to use that one…

 

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What’s Not to Like?

Did I have moments of disagreement? Sure: you should never embed fonts, but that’s nitpicking. The big problem with the book as it stands now is the price. Published by the American Bar Association, it has a cover price of $129.95, and it’s not discounted at all on Amazon. There are discounts for Bar members, and maybe it will drop in price on Amazon, but obviously that’s kind of a big barrier for someone who doesn’t charge $400/hr and who’s law firm won’t pick up the tab as an expense. But if you can pick up a copy, it’s a great addition to the presentation design canon.

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Categories: Books.

Visual Thinking by Emma Bannister

There are endless books on the scene covering presentation, but I can’t remember one quite as beautifully designed as Visual Thinking, the brand new addition from Emma Bannister.

Emma is the founder and CEO of Australia’s Presentation Studio, the largest presentation firm in APAC. And, full disclosure, she’s also just one of my favorite people in the world. So I forgive her insistence on incorrect spellings like “colour” and “practise”…

Visual Thinking is not a comprehensive manual on design, but rather a concisely assembled guidebook on what goes into a well-designed and effective presentation. The focus is largely on speaker-guided projected presentations that aim to persuade. Emma doesn’t quite assume that all presentations should fit a TED Talk model, but she does avoid addressing the challenges of many business presentation needs with statements like “It’s important to remember that you’re not putting together a report.” That’s one of the few disagreements I would have with the approach of the book, but then maybe we wouldn’t have the nicely focused and easily digestible one that we do. The focus of the book is squarely on producing tight messages and visual communications in a presentation context. 

There is some familiar territory covered and reinforced (Nancy’s Duarte’s Resonate sparkline story structure, John Medina), but ultimately Emma manages to avoid overwriting and endless references making points with just a sentence and graphic or two (such as with discussions of white space, color and contrast). Not only is she practicing with the book what she is preaching about presentation, but she’s taking Saint-Exupery to heart. And I don’t think any design book is complete without a reinforcement of his all-important advice, which is, of course, included here:

“Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

If there’s anyone on your Holiday Gift list that needs a little convincing or opening of the eyes on what effective visual presentation should be, this is the book to get. Easily finished in a single setting, it’s really a wonderful visual read.

And, of course, it’s an excellent calling card for the work that Emma’s studio does as well. If you’re not familiar with their work, just take a look at a bit of their portfolio.

Not available on Amazon just yet, but you can order direct here.

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Categories: Books, Design.

Book Review: The Presentation Lab by Simon Morton

The Presentation Lab makes very clear upfront that readers will not learn how to create more visually appealing or better designed slides. And while this is one of the more illustrated business books I’ve read in a while, it just isn’t about the visual side of effective presentations, but rather what needs to go into a presentation’s intent, structure and story creation.

After busting some presentation myths (such as the 10/20/30 rule), the book launches into a discussion of storytelling for the sake of your audience and stresses the fact that a presentation must be about the audience first, foremost and always. Okay, audience-focused presentation is nothing new, but what The Presentation Lab brings to the table is what I think is the most solid of nuggets in the book: The Audience Heat Map. Morton identifies three essential audience types (which are not mutually exclusive) and then shows how to craft a presentation specific to a unique audience. Examples and case studies are used to show how to appeal to audiences that may be factual, visionary and/or emotional. Even if you put the book down at this point and began incorporating this thinking, you’ll find yourself creating better presentations.

The book then moves onto story flow, although I do wish there continued to be more examples and case studies of this topic as there were with audience identification. There is a valuable discussion of simplicity and some wonderful simple arguments for the same: is you message simple enough to be shared with others?

The book reads quickly, and is witty (“rumor has it Churchill was rubbish at PowerPoint”), but being more of a system (though thankfully a well-thought out and simplified one), it’s harder to skim or to jump around. What Morton makes clear throughout, however—and really brings home with some appropriate client stories and case studies from his firm Eyeful Presentations—is that this disciplined approach is not for the careless or extremely time-crunched presenter. A deliberate approach to creating a successful presentation doesn’t have to mean endless hours of storyboarding, sticky notes and outlining, but it does require attention to one’s audience and one’s goals. If you’re willing to meet the Presentation Lab halfway there, I think this is an excellent book that has the potential to dramatically improve the effectiveness of one’s presentations. If you are like many of Eyeful’s clients, and are genuinely serious improving your presentation and not just making pretty pictures, give it a careful read. If you just want pretty slides, look elsewhere.

What do I think is missing? I would have loved to have seen more examples of what Morton considers successful slides. For example, in declaring the Presentation Zen style a busted myth, it would have been great to have seen some actual visual counter-examples. And while certain one-off topics do seem on-topic, the very brief discussions of data, infographics and stock imagery still struck me as not quite part of the organic whole. But that’s just me quibbling.

I had been looking forward to the book for quite some time, and I was not disappointed. I think it’s a valuable addition to the bookshelf of any serious presenter and presentation creator.

Buy it here!

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Categories: Books, Simplicity, Storytelling.

Slidedocs

Nancy Duarte and her firm Duarte Design have just released Slidedocs, their latest presentation book.

Continuing their trend of releasing books for free and in multimedia formats (see resonate), this latest is available for free download at their site in PowerPoint format. Though it seems odd to release a book as a PowerPoint file, in this case it is entirely appropriate as the entire focus of the book is creating print documents using PowerPoint, something Nancy calls “Slidedocs.”

Practical Business Solutions

I have known that Slidedocs has been in the works for a while, and I’m excited for its release as it addresses an uncomfortable truth about corporate environments that often goes unaddressed by many presentation experts: PowerPoint is used far more than just as a tool to create formal on-screen slideshows. I’m not talking about the amateur poster designs at the water cooler announcing a canned food drive (although that’s certainly a valid use), but rather high-stakes reports, memos, strategy documents, proposals and even white papers—things that once were the domain of Microsoft Word.

But Microsoft Word has become an entirely unusable program for most (myself included) if one wishes to inject any degree of design or complexity. This fact, coupled with the need for all types of communications to be more concise, produced more quickly and delivered more visually, has made PPT the default and de facto method of business communication creation.

We can debate whether this is a good thing or not, but it’s a fact. Unfortunately, PPT’s intrinsic design as “slideware,” leads most to create stereotypical on-screen slides even when their work will never see a projector or large LCD screen. (Microsoft’s default pages don’t help, pushing its users to make 44pt headers and 32pt body copy).

The trend toward using PPT to create print documents was something I started seeing years ago, and instead of fighting it, I have long advocated using PPT in 3 distinct formats:

Note: I’ll save the definition of a “Walking Deck” for another time, but let’s just say it’s a bit of a hybrid between the other two formats.

What I have always simply called a “Printed Document,” Nancy has termed a “Slidedoc.” I like the term, although I am still on the fence about whether it is too limiting, since what we really are talking about here is using PPT to create well-designed print documents as one might do in InDesign (although Nancy would disagree as we’ll see below).

A Quick Review

The book is well-designed, well-organized and offers a lot of practical examples. Unlike most business books, Slidedocs is appropriately heavy on the visuals. 

Slidedocs begins by making a case for using PPT for more text-heavy documents. But Nancy sees a Slidedoc as sitting in a unique place between on-screen presentations and documents: More textual than a presentation, but less so than a document. I won’t quibble here, because if this gets people thinking more like a document in appropriate cases, everyone benefits. (And yes, there still is a place in the world for a 50 page text white paper…it’s not a place I’d like to be very often, however…)

The book makes an excellent case for the use of hierarchy and organization (table of contents, navigation, headers, sub-heads, pull-quotes, etc), things severely lacking in most PPT creations. Nancy also reminds us of basic writing techniques such as active vs. passive voice, things which shouldn’t fly out the window, “just because it’s PowerPoint.” I was happy to see columned text and a grid layout as major characteristics of Slidedocs. Few people realize that PPT allows for columned text boxes and that spanning text across a landscape page in a single column makes for very difficult reading.

Book layout is often used throughout as a format to emulate, and it’s a good model for Slidedocs. I particularly love Nancy’s comparison of a company logo to a publisher’s logo: no need to put Random House on every page of the book, right?

It’s obvious that Duarte Design has developed the style of Slidedocs over the years in direct response to client needs, and there are good examples of Duarte’s work proving how useful the format can be as a pre-read to a presentation, as an “Emissary” (sent to an executive or client), as reference material or as a follow up to a meeting. The book is quick to point out often the utility of the format in the context of typical business situations where on-screen slides are not appropriate. And we all get the reminder that Slidedocs, like most things these days, needs to be scannable. Left unsaid is the sad fact that nobody is likely to read everything you write anyway…

For fans of Nancy’s other books, you’ll find some slight repetition in the areas of diagrams and charts, but nothing to prevent you from adding this to your presentation bookshelf.

Lastly, Duarte has kindly made available two Slidedoc templates for free download to get you started creating your own.

What’s Missing?

I do wish a bit more time had been spent on implementing grids and actual layout from a design perspective. But, as Nancy admits, she is not a graphic designer, but does employ and work with some very good ones. And again, the book itself is very well laid out. I also wish Nancy had explored more opportunities for creating portrait style documents with PowerPoint. She mentions it in passing, but I have actually had a lot of success using PPT in this format, and I think Duarte could really add something on the topic.

I have to disagree with the suggested use of Arial Narrow for headers. As I often say, if you’re using Arial Narrow, you’re writing too much. And since the type size on a Slidedoc is much reduced anyway, there’s no harm in reducing header sizes and still being able to use a better font. But I do love that Duarte makes healthy use of Georgia, a very overlooked standard font. And I also have to disagree with the statement that white space indicates a luxury brand. White space should always be used, even if your subject is beef jerky. It may just be that luxury brands generally have a higher sense of brand design, so they often make very good use of white space.

A Final Caution

One last thing left unsaid in Slidedocs is that at the end of the day, PPT is still an imperfect tool for creating these types of documents. It’s very good, but remember that you still do not have text linking from page to page, text wrap around images or paragraph and character styling. And just because things look great on your screen does not mean that the same file opened on your client’s or boss’s machine will look exactly the same—unless you create a PDF, something I would always recommend. Indeed, the initial release of Slidedocs had a few formatting glitches that appeared for some people. That’s just the way it goes when you publish a book in an editable format—that’s right, Slidedocs is just an ordinary old PPT file that you can edit intentionally or unintentionally yourself.

Slidedocs is one of the most important books on presentation and business document creation of the last few years. I highly recommend everyone download it and start putting its principles to use.

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