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Why literal images pull down good presentations

The most over-used presentation image is a hand-shake. The hand-shake is often used to symbol cooperation. Today, two grasping hands mean agreement, deal or "Let us work together to solve this problem." Next up, is the the thumbs-up image. In most workplaces, these images are socially acceptable. As a result of over-use, acceptance stems from familiarity. However, such images rarely pack a punch, create connection, or elevate content.

Literal images add visual noise

Designing and developing presentations usually occurs under time constraints. After investing a great deal of that time and mental energy on developing presentation content, often only a fraction remains for choosing images. The reality is that choosing the right presentation images also takes a lot of time and energy.

Although we spend a good deal of time choosing images, there is a misconception that adding images will elevate content and meaning. Another misconception is images makes a presentation more attractive. Too often, presenters add images that are far too literal. Literal images pull down the credibility of the speaker and the content of the presentation.

As a member of an audience, we are seldom aware of literal image use. On a subconscious level, literal images fail to elevate understanding and undermine the intelligence of the audience. Worse, literal images add visual noise. When used repeatedly, literal images results in missed opportunities and cognitive overload.

What is a literal image?

A literal image is a basic or a replica of a word or idea. The opposite of literal is a metaphor. A metaphor is an abstraction, figure of speech, or an analogy. Analogies are excellent ways to educate and communicate new ideas or concepts.

Below are two examples of literal images inserted into slides following a simple slide redesign. In the first set of slides, the images fail to add value or enhance the content or meaning. Together with poor slide design, the images serve as visual distractions.

Poor slide design, literal image, text
Figure 1: Poor slide design with the use of a literal image.

TIP 1: Try an alternative approach. For example, in Figure 1 Redesign, we contrast the future emotions of saving and not saving. In general, the text should be avoided or shortened to a few words whenever possible. Presenters often underestimate themselves and write out full sentences. Listing trigger words can help to remember concepts needing discussion.

older couple future happiness sadness retirement slide layout
Figure 1 - Redesign: This layout uses the same title however the text shortened and relocated. Instead two future emotions portrayed. Which one do you want to be?

The second example shown in Figure 2 is a literal image of calculating costs and savings. The piggy bank image is also overused and adds no meaning. In this slide design example, however, there is one advantage. That advantage is the low amount of shortened text strings, as discussed above. The title of the slide is posing a question and answers are provided. In the current slide (Figure 2), the layout enables an audience to scan the text.

The risk is that the presenter will also read out loud the same text from the slide as a list.

When this happens, the presentation will lose grip of the audiences' attention. We have all experienced presenters reading from their slides. The outcome is always the same. Re-reading the text comes across as a wast of time and redundant.

Poor slide design, literal image, savings, piggy bank, healthcare, costs
Figure 2: Poor slide design with the use of a literal image

TIP 2: Try an alternative approach to a list. In Figure 2 - Redesign, we re-arrange the list as labelled regions inside an x-ray view of the piggy bank. The metaphor is where are the costs located and what is the diagnosis. The costs could appear one by one as a subtle transition. In this case, the presenter provides the expert insight, ideally stating a fact to each highlighted cost. Indeed the slide redesign does not completely deviate from the piggy bank, but it does play upon a healthcare pun.

Piggy bank, healthcare cost, slide design, layout, list alternative, simple
Figure 2 - Redesign: An alternative to a simple list and a play on x-ray procedures used in the healthcare system to explain where the costs are consumed. "What is the diagnosis doctor?"

Even the most accomplished professionals and scientists need a good tip once and awhile. If this article gave a bit of insight, like with a 'heart' and more will come.

By Shellie A. Boudreau, PhD


All images and slides are subject to copyright.

Original images: Istock

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