2011-01-05

Stop using slides. Learn to communicate.

For most of my career I've been blissfully insulated from having to deal with misuse of PowerPoint decks as a means to convey information.  In fact, in many of the companies I have worked it was viewed as a bit unprofessional to use slides as a vehicle for conveying significant amounts of textual information to an audience.  Clear, highly summarized, compact communication with high information density: yes.  As a sloppy substitute for well-structured memoranda and notes: no.

In the past couple of years I've been working in an environment where slide decks are often used as the main tool for disseminating information.  In my experience this represents a drastic change in communication quality and effectiveness and I have never before had to deal with so much vague, incomplete and confusing information.


Language is important.

My main beef with abusing slides as a tool for communicating relatively large amounts of important information is that it encourages the use of sloppy and imprecise language.  For some reason people approach slides with a different mindset and the quality of their prose drops noticeably.  Rather than using complete sentences organized into proper paragraphs with an emphasis on precision and clarity you get woolly, sloganized statements that often omit more information than they convey.

Language is important.  As is the ability to apply a reasonable amount of structure to what you write.  Practice writing as often as you can.  If you have an idea, try to turn it into prose.   Try to cultivate a minimalist form of writing if you can, expressing yourself as clearly as possible without becoming too long-winded (something I've struggled to accomplish for a lifetime).  If you struggle with bulky prose, make up for it with structure and generous use of paragraphs.

Noise and distraction.

Another irritant with slides is what one might refer to as "noise level".  Many slide decks are a disorienting experience.  Some companies encrust their slides with excessive amounts of logos, borders and colors.   Please keep these to a minimum.  A busy slide template gives an unprofessional impression and it makes for a stressful experience.

Note that perceived noise level is subjective and the more used you get to a certain form of background noise the less you notice it.  This is why so many web designers are completely blind to the complexity of web pages maintained by them and their web sites are gradually growing denser.   Familiarity tends to breed noise blindness.  Keep this in mind.

The 5 second rule.

Some authors cram all sorts of visuals onto the same slide.  It should take no longer than 5 seconds to "get" a slide.  If the eyes of the audience have to dart around the slide in search of meaning you have failed and the slide has had a negative impact on your message.

If you include graphical elements on your slide, make sure that the element actually conveys unambiguous meaning.  A chart is a worthless waste of attention if not immediately obvious.  A structural diagram that is unclear does not aid the audience.

Aesthetics.

Make sure that your slide can "breathe":  ensure that there is enough empty space on the slide.  Make sure that the line spacing is taller than you would ordinarily use in prose.  If a slide appears crowded it will be much harder to read.  If it is hard to read people won't bother reading it.

If you slides contain a mixture of elements it may be beneficial to think about composition.  In disciplines such as photography and painting composition is often the difference between art and trivial blunderings.  That which is aesthetically pleasing is less distracting.  If you spend a lot of time creating slides you should make the effort to understanding some basic elements of composition.

Some advice.

If you are prone to abuse slides as a vehicle for communicating complex information I would implore you to perhaps think about what you can do to improve the way you share information and ideas with the world.  Here are some suggestions that might help:
  • Consider writing a well-structured memo or a brief note rather than a slide-deck.  If possible use simple, raw text to ensure portability of your notes across mediums (email, paper, note-taking tools etc).  For distribution, prefer open formats such as PDF which can be consumed on a wide variety of devices.
  • If you work with a group, prefer collaborative editing tools.  Do not use email or file sharing as a means to collaborate.  Use tools like Google Documents, a wiki or similar.
  • If you need to give a presentation, prepare two artifacts:  a well-structured memo that provides depth as well as including references to associated materials (URLs, other memos etc) and a slide deck that only summarizes an outline of your memo.
  • Always use huge fonts on your slides.  If a slide has room for more than 4 lines of text plus a heading you are cramming too much text onto your slides.
  • Always make slides usable as slides:  The audience should spend no more than 5 seconds absorbing the slide and then turn their attention back to you.  If more than 5 seconds is needed to absorb the slide, both speaker and slide will lose.
  • Make one point per slide.  Never cram unrelated topics onto the same slide.
  • Any visual aids (figures, maps, charts, sketches etc) must be obvious and carry more information than would a simple paragraph of text.  If your graphic elements are not clear or do require much explaining they do not help you convey information and should be dropped.
  • Learn some basic typography.  You should have at least some basic understanding of what tools you have at your disposal to make text legible.
  • Learn basic compositional rules.
  • When reading a paper or attending a presentation, try to analyze your own ability to make sense of it.  Try to identify which factors that confuse you and try to be aware of your preferences and familiarities.
A word on collaborative tools.

As for collaborative tools:  finding a tool that works for your context can be hard.  People have different ways of working and have different tolerances when it comes to the amount of friction they are willing to accept from the tools. 

I'll use myself as an example here: I had some initial difficulty in liking Wikis, but after a while I got used to the peculiarities.  I still don't think they are quite optimal, but for some types of information management there still is no practical technology that beats them.


Emailing Office files around never worked for me.  It is a clumsy, haphazard way of working that all but eliminates effective collaboration despite attempts made by Microsoft to address this.  Besides, people use a wider array of devices to absorb information.  Office documents are supremely heavy objects of very limited usefulness outside their narrow field of use.

Google documents is by far the best option for collaborative editing and sharing I've used, however many companies prefer not to maintain their documents outside the company (which is understandable).  Also, it does not have the same ease of cross-referencing as a Wiki offers, which means that it addresses a slightly different problem set than wikis.

I've tried to use Basecamp, but I find this to be a "high friction" tool.  Neither the organization of information nor the performance of the website or its associated apps are very good, so I find using Basecamp supremely frustrating. The sluggish performance alone makes this one of my least favorite tools.

Sharepoint...well, I keep hearing about these mythical Sharepoint installations that work flawlessly, but I have yet to observe such a system in the wild or speak to a truthful person I can trust who has observed one. In my experience Sharepoint is a piece of rubbish that only works in small Windows monocultures and are in no way suited to the current reality of multi-device work patterns. This is an old technology of a bygone era.

Dropbox works for sharing "immutable" files such as documentation, books etc, but has very limited usefulness for "live" documents or collections of interrelated documents.  That being said it is an indispensable complement for maintaining a collection of files across a large number of different devices.  I use Dropbox a lot.

Evernote works nicely for making personal notes, but the editor itself is a very weak baseline editor, which makes it impractical for actually editing text.  It also does not provide adequate collaboration features.  I paid for a premium account, but I tend to use Evernote less and less.  Mostly because of the limited editor, the flakey synchronization and its inability to cope with realistic amounts of information.

2 comments:

  1. Hmm, so if we merge Dropbox and Apache, we have "the tool"?

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  2. Sune:

    One might think so, but in practice it didn't work for us.

    We added WebDAV support to Apache which kind of, sort of almost offers the same functionality. Granted it doesn't provide sync, merely a shared remote filesystem (if you are using Linux or OSX -- Windows is a different matter).

    A wiki was better for editing hyperlinked notes (as opposed to HTML on Dropbox or a WebDAV server).

    Dropbox seems to work best for "immutable" files -- ie. files that aren't versioned or edited. Just end-products. That being said, Dropbox does that beautifully because it does JUST that and not a gazillion other things. And, of course, it just works on all my devices.

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