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By Jim Endicott, Owner/Manager of Distinction
Jim Endicott is owner/manager of Distinction, is a nationally recognized consultant, designer, speaker and author specializing in professional presentation messaging, design and delivery. Jim was a Jesse H. Neal award-winning columnist for PRESENTATIONS magazine and has also contributed presentations-related content in magazines like Business Week, Consulting and Selling Power. He is a paid contributor for a number of industry-related websites. http://www.distinction-services.com/ E-mail Jim at firstname.lastname@example.org
I’d like to think that the word “professional” still means something today. I want to believe that a professional carpenter would build a home with greater proficiency than a typical homeowner – a professional roofer would understand the tricks of laying down a 3-tab shingle better than most, and a professional auto mechanic has a better chance of fixing a nagging engine idle problem. The word professional still has meaning in many places today but we rarely equate professional and presentation design in the same sentence. Why?
I’m guessing that it has a lot to do with how we perceive the whole category of presentation graphics. In the 80’s, expensive computer graphic service bureaus with custom computer workstations were one of the only sources of computer-generated artwork. There were few viable do-it-yourself options.
Then later in the 80s, PowerPoint 1.0 hit the scene with the promise that every businessperson could now wrestle control over that expensive process and become a “professional” designer in their own right. A template here, a placeholder there, throw in a few pieces of canned clipart and you had arrived as a presentation designer. In many business circles today, the process has never returned to the hands of design professionals and has become ad hoc, at best, making most presentation graphics painfully pedestrian in appearance.
I’d like to share some inside secrets about how true presentation design professionals view this whole process and the tools that support it. You won’t typically hear these things from your administrative assistant or overworked graphics department because presentation design specialists look at the process through a different set of eyes. Here’s what they’ve understood for some time.
Look at PowerPoint as simply a delivery mechanism for message and graphics.
Instead of seeing PowerPoint (or your equivalent) as the one-stop tool for everything your presentation needs, consider the fact that it simply orchestrates text, graphic and media elements. For those who have experience with higher-end tools like Macromedia Director, they’ve learned a long time ago that the quality of the final deliverable was a careful orchestration of the sum of many custom elements. The easiest approaches facilitated by our presentation software rarely yield a look and feel that elevates the tool to unique levels. You need to go farther.
Use external design tools to enhance the professional appearance of every image.
Can you image an Internet where every web site only used the low-end clipart that came with FrontPage? It’s hard to imagine, but in many circles that’s what we’ve done with presentations. When we tap into the power of Adobe PhotoShop (or similar bitmap editing packages) for designing background templates and integrating custom, photo-realistic imagery, PowerPoint begins to transcend its customary look and feel.
If the audience’s first impression is “oh, another PowerPoint presentation”, we know that there are telltale signs that we’ve taken the path of least creative resistance. If they are impressed with the visual communication tool and have momentary doubts about how it was created – you are starting to succeed as a designer. We don’t define our end product by the tools we use and neither should they. Traditional rectangular photos airbrushed subtly into the background can create powerful impressions. Gone are the hard sharp edges that betray the fact that we’ve dropped in a quick and dirty photo.
Don’t let the software tools dictate how you layout information.
Can’t get the placeholder to do what you want? Copy/paste a number of text blocks and lay in custom text elements exactly where you want them to go. Use the alignment tool to create perfect pixel alignment from slide to slide. Don’t like line spacing? Change it. Tired of bullets for every line of text? Then think more critically about what the bullets are saying. Perhaps the first line of text is describing the rest and should be subtitle or non-bulleted treatment.
Most professional presentation designers do not use PowerPoint’s charting features because they can only produce extremely basic, predictable charts. Could you imagine a PowerPoint chart being used in USA Today or in an annual stockholders report? The answer is no. Just like a professional presentation designer, charts are custom created within the context of what the chart is trying to describe. It doesn’t always take a lot longer to do, but it always conveys a more powerful impression. And remember, simpler is better when it comes to conveying quantitative information.
Raise your expectations for the use of animation, then make the tool emulate those ideas.
If you watch the network 6 o’clock newscasts, see the types of effects they use. Yea, I know they have animators on staff just to do those sorts of things but we can emulate those professional effects with the tools you have. Instead of seeing flying bullets as the ultimate in moving information, set your sights to a higher goal. Use animation to “blow out” additional detail from a complex document (that no one can read on screen anyway). Break down that complicated illustration that causes your audiences eyes to glaze over into palatable chunks of information. Watch, learn and get creative. Subdue that testimonial letter into the background and use PowerPoint text to convey that one compelling statement from the copy. Use your imagination.
Choose professional imagery to support a professional presentation.
Choose your supporting imagery carefully – those choices are a dead giveaway as to your professional skills. Jaggy artwork, gif files stretched to their limit or badly composed or lit photographs would not be tolerated in a professional visual communication tool but frequently accepted at the amateur level.
Inexpensive stock libraries for photos and logos exist. Marketing departments will often provide you with a good logo on request but you have to take the initiative. Clipart is too informal for most external presentations. Select your images as if you or your presenter were going to be delivering the presentation in the national spotlight.
I’m not unsympathetic to the plight of those who are constantly creating presentations on impossibly short time frames. I don’t overlook the fact that not everyone has a significant level of expertise with tools like PhotoShop to leverage its design capabilities in PowerPoint. Some internal presentations simply don’t merit the extra time and energy it will take to step up that presentation to the next level.
But for many presentations today, the stakes simply require more of us as presentation designers than simply the easiest and quickest approach we can find. It means taking back control of a process that has normally driven us. For many, it will begin to demand skills that they may not possess today but will be required of them tomorrow as our presentation graphics raise to the same level of importance as our other professional communication tools.
Maybe the problem is that many presentation designers don’t want to see themselves as professionals. There’s certainly an expectation that goes with that label but over the years I’ve met plenty of graphics department pros who understand and have set themselves apart with their expertise. They are partners in the process with the presenter because they breathe life into flat content and make the presenters look good. Perhaps it’s even time for some presenters to let go of the creative process and put it back into the hands of the “professionals” in their companies.