The good, the Bad and the Hideous: experiments with visual presentation styles

6 min read


By Jøran Vagnby Lillesand


December 22, 2020

Remember the Global Surveillance Disclosures from Edward Snowden in June 2013? Of course. We all remember that faithful day when the world become a slightly more scary place, but also a bit more illuminated. What you might not remember, is the the widely publicized slide deck that the Guardian dubbed “Prism: the PowerPoint presentation so ugly it was meant to stay secret.” Top secret and scary? Certainly. Pretty and inspiring? Nope:

Well, I’ve been on my own journey of trial and error on how slides should look in order to captivate, entertain and, not least, inform the audience. Without the dubious joy of a TOP SECRET classification to protect me from prying eyes. As I divulged in my previous pre-holiday musings, experimentation has been a central theme for me when learning to embrace public speaking. So, let's have a look!

Basic: simple bulletpoints 👦

We've all been there! Standard template in Powerpoint, bulletpoints galore. Maybe even, for good measure, throw in some simple animations:

Obviously, it's not the most visually pleasing. But it gets the job done. It makes it easier for people to follow what you're saying, as there are pegs to help them focus their attention on the most important points you're making.

I often start with something like this to structure my thoughts and to get past the "OMG, I have NO idea how I'm gonna get this done" phase. But I very rarely end up with something looking like this.

Good for

  • Structuring thoughts
  • Those times when you've panicked and don't have time for anything else
  • Setting low expectations to your sense of esthetics

Gearing it up: bullet points with emphasis 🎯

If you've ever sat through an hour of slides like the ones above, you've probably noticed that it does very little to help your audience focus over time. Worse than looking dull, they give little information and does little to direct attention where you want it.

A simple step forward is to write out sentences a bit more, and for good measure highlight what would otherwise be the single point in a list:

This is usually my go to for short, to-the-point decision making type of presentations. If elaborated a bit further, they could also be used as handouts.

Good for

  • Summarizing contents without bells and whistles
  • Presentations that also need to be distributed afterwards
  • Creating quick presentations about a topic, with very little time spent on non-essentials

Captivating the audience: Photo time! 📸

I still remember the first time I saw a photo-centric slideset. I'd been working for about half a year, and I was totally doing basic bulletpoints in all of my own presentations. Then someone showed up with a set of quite vanilla stock photos. And it blew my mind.

Although visually pleasing, there are certainly times when loading up on photos isn't the way to go about it. It tends to give presentations a more lofty feeling, and for better or worse, it might pull some attention from what you're actually talking about.

Use photos that are related to what you're talking about if you can. But, alas, all presentations can't be about terroir and the ageing of wines. A time honored way of finding nice-looking free to use photos for presentation is Unsplash. Just remember to give credit to the photographer!

Good for

  • Visual and engaging story-telling
  • Captivating your audience
  • Distracting from your contents, intentionally or by accident

Mixing it up: emojis 🔥

Those who know me, know that I likeemojis. Emojis are a simple, if not necessarily tasteful, way of making your presentations more lively. They can be used to emphasize points, steer attention and set the mood for a given presentation.

The simplest way of using them, is just scattering them around in sentences and headings:

And once you start doing that, you can really go wild. Not saying that you should, just saying that you could:

Good for

  • Adding more life to simple presentations without too much work
  • Giving a more personal touch to your slides
  • Not looking professional

Let's get crazy: drawing! 👨‍🎨

For better or worse, a huge breakthrough for me was when I discovered the drawing tool in Powerpoint. It was one of those… moments. I was working in a weekend to get a presentation ready, I was getting a bit bored and was looking for something else. So, this abomination ended up in that presentation:

It can also be used for (slightly) more useful things:

Obviously, this isn't fit for all (or even most) situations, but I find it creates a really neat personal touch on light subjects.

Good for

  • When you want to add a personal touch
  • Lightening the mood with entertaining slides
  • Visualizing concepts, for example with technical drawings

Just because you can, doesn't mean you should: bring it all together! 🤠

You can probably see the trend here. And feel the worry: will he go there? And yes, I've went there. Before you judge: remember that all presentations have their context. Sometimes you want to teach, sometimes you want to preach, sometimes you need to win an argument. And sometimes you just want to entertain.

A relaxing opening slide:

A much less relaxing opening slide:

How to horizontally scale infrastructure:

Good for

  • Creating stunning or surprising slides that capture people's attention by sheer audicity
  • Showing complex interactions and flow
  • Entertaining and creating emotion

So… now what?

So that's a brief intro to what I've been doing. And I'm pretty sure I don't really need to tell you that all of these are good ideas. Especially in all contexts. And that's the key word here: context.

I've used all the techniques described above with great success in the right context. And it's obvious that they could all crash completely when used at the wrong time.

In 12 years of giving presentation, my visual style has changed a lot. But most importantly, I've grown my toolbox. Sometimes I give straight up powerpoint presentations like everyone else, at other times I go completely bonkers with animations, drawings and everything else. Experimenting with what works and what's effective in a given context, makes creating presentations both more fun and gives a better effect over time.

So that's my message to you. There's more to giving presentations than standard templates and bullet points. Once you start opening that box, there's so much fun to be had!

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