The rusty-haired man from the third row was next in line to talk with me, scrolling Instagram while he waited. When it was finally his turn, he moved his phone to his left hand and shook mine with his right.
“I was going to ask how you came up with the images for your presentation,” he started. “But I’ve decided just to compliment you instead. I love that your slides are so visual, so simple, so clever. But I could never get away with that where I work.”
I raised my eyebrows and took in a quick breath, laying my hand on my chest. For a split second, my mind’s eye glimpsed the broken heart emoji.
But that mental image disappeared quickly, replaced by a cartoon lightbulb over my own head.
“Are you sure?” I asked him. “I mean, you can’t really know until you try. Sometimes the best way to lead change is simply to make a change.”
And then we spent a few minutes considering some practical steps for bringing visual appeal to PowerPoint slides. Here’s what I suggested:
Know what you want to say.
Write or outline your message first, in whatever format comes naturally to you. Sharpies on scratch paper. Paragraphs on a screen. Bullet points on PowerPoint pages (but only if you pinky swear that you will delete or move this text to your speaker notes later).
Study your message and imagine the slides advancing. As you talk through your points, when will you click to offer up a brand new visual? Write one short headline for each of those transition points.
For each headline, search your mind or the internet for an image that could reinforce your point. You can start with the obvious, but you must push past the predictable.
Let’s say you’re talking about change, and you want to acknowledge that people may be apprehensive about trying something new. Do a Google image search for “nervous.” Start scrolling, and you will see a lot of nail-biting and sweating. That’s the obvious image.
So close Google. Move your search to your own memory. When have you felt nervous or apprehensive? Maybe at the start of a zip line, taking center stage at a vocal recital, or on your own front porch, watching your 16-year-old drive away alone for the first time.
Now you have more than a visual concept; you have a story.
At this point, you could re-open Google Images and enter your innovative, visual, story-centered concept in the search bar. But remember to filter your search based on usage rights. Guess what? Restricting your search is likely to eliminate the best images. Bummer!
So try a different source. I like Unsplash (where all images are free for use) and Flickr (where it’s easy to search for Creative Commons images). In just a few minutes of scrolling, you’re sure to turn up a unique photo.
Catalog and credit.
Once you find the perfect image to illustrate your point, download and save it with a file name that will remind you of its subject matter, source, and creator. My naming convention looks like this: white-tulip_flickr_james-nyland.jpg.
Why capture these details, if you’re using images that don’t require attribution? Because giving credit is the classy, respectful thing to do. Adding the photographer’s name to your slide takes just a few seconds. Choose a small, unobtrusive font, and nestle the credit line in the corner of the image or slide.
When you insert that stellar image into your presentation, give it as much real estate as possible. A high-quality, expressive photo may not even need a headline, enabling you give that image full-screen attention.
If you must include words over or alongside the image, keep the message short and the layout simple. Aim for the photo to occupy at least half of the slide.
* * *
Before I said goodbye to that rusty-haired man, I offered one last piece of advice.
“Think of each slide as an Instagram post,” I told him, and we both glanced at his phone.
“Look: the image is what grabs your attention. And most of the time, it’s all you see, because it’s all you need to see. The caption and comments enter into the conversation only when we need to explain, elaborate, or discuss.”
I know that young man felt apprehensive, but he also seemed emboldened. Replacing text-heavy slides with meaningful images can mean much more than a reduction in word count. For your organization, it could represent a radical shift in culture. By following these steps, you can lead the change by making the change.
Photo by James Nyland on flickr