On making presentations
Harvard Management Communication Letter, August, 2002
Graphic designer Nigel Holmes has been one of the gurus of the “thinking visually” movement, using charts, graphs, and pictures to make complex data more accessible. Along with writing three industry primers on the topic, Holmes has worked at a number of publications, including 16 years as the graphics director for Time magazine. He now directs in own design firm, Explanation Graphics, and he lectured on graphic design at the Stanford Professional Publishing Course for 26 years. Contributing Editor Kirsten D. Sandberg caught up with him in his Westport, Connecticut, offices.
Q. Your peers have credited you with pioneering a whole new design genre called “explanation graphics.” What does that mean?
A. It’s literal: graphics (drawings or animations that are generally flat and two-dimensional) that explain information quickly and clearly. I use the term “explanation graphics” because I believe that “information graphics”(or the horrible contraction “infographics”) is an overused, as well as inadequate and imprecise, name for what I do. Today, many graphics explain nothing. They just present data, and the reader is expected to work out their meanings. Charts that don’t explain themselves are worse than no charts. “Information must inform” has become a cliché, but it’s right.
Q. So what exactly are “explanation graphics” compared to other forms of design? Any examples?
A. They are a mixture of words and pictures, wedded together, so that one cannot be “understood” without the other. They make statistics visible. Consider the label of a commercial food product like soup: the part of it facing you on the supermarket shelf relates closely to advertising design. It attracts your eye, it sells you on the product. But only the white “Nutrition Facts” design, created by Greenfield-Belser Inc., really explains the contents. So, the nutrition label on the back is an explanation graphic. The front of the can isn’t.
Q. How do you go about creating an “explanation graphic”?
A. I start by thinking how can I keep the result simple. However, “simple” is a difficult word, because there is a fine balance between “simplifying” and “dumbing down.” Nevertheless, I remind myself that most graphics appear in situations where the reader, viewer, or audience can take only so much at one time, especially during live presentations.
Remember that we move around in a full-color world with images passing by us all the time. But charts are not pictures of the real world; they depict abstract ideas, numbers, and concepts. We don’t change the color of the type to blue when we describe the sky. It’s the idea that counts.
And so I often start by imagining that I can use only black and white. I introduce color only when the information requires it to clarify a point or to focus the reader’s eye on the point. Charts distinguish themselves best when they don’t imitate the rush of images around them. They should be simpler than their surroundings.
Q. What rules do you keep in mind, whether you’re creating charts for an annual report or for an annual shareholders meeting?
A. I’m generally not in favor of rules because, gradually, people can’t get away from them. The PowerPoint rule, “no more than seven points on one slide,” has led everyone to make seven points on every slide whether they needed to or not. But they think that they’re giving a good presentation. It’s silly. Better to think hard about who the audience or reader is, what they’ve heard or read on the subject, what you can best present live in person, and what you can leave behind for them to read.
That said, people tend to overdo charts, showing off or dazzling the audience with the latest bells and whistles available. Computer software offers an array of special effects, backgrounds, typestyles, and icons that often make charts harder to decipher. And so I tend to stick to some basic principles.
Q. Speaking of PowerPoint, how can we use graphics software programs more effectively?
A. PowerPoint is a good program, but people misuse it every day. Words shouldn’t rush in from the side and screech to a halt just because a clever programmer wrote some code to make that possible. Besides, people start critiquing the form and not seeing the content. “Did you see what he did with the latest version of PowerPoint? It’s got these cool effects!”
So try making your presentation not look like PowerPoint. Don’t rely on the program’s defaults—formulas always end up looking like formulas. Start with a blank slide every time, and paste—if you must—the vital parts that are common to all your slides. Spend much less time with the animation, those fades and wipes from one slide to another, and concentrate on your key points.
Q. Are charts culturally universal, or must we translate them in some way?
Most of us are the same, whether in Africa, Japan, India, or new York. We can concentrate for a while, then the mind wanders, especially after lunch. Simple messages, straightforwardly presented, without jargon, and with some humor are better than earnest, data-stuffed boxes with tiny graphics that look important but in fact glaze your eyes over.
Q. What should we remember when using graphics in live presentations versus in print?
A. The human voice is more powerful than the written word. Don’t tax audiences with the job of listening and looking at the same words (which are never in sync with each other). It’s a lazy way to shape a presentation. Words and pictures should complement rather than duplicate each other, delivering information through both the ear and the eye. What you’re saying shouldn’t appear on the screen while you’re saying it. I mix methods, sometimes just talking, at other times just words on the screen and silence. Sometimes pictures and spoken words, sometimes audience participation.
Q. If you have to prepare a series of graphics for someone else to use in a report or presentation, then how do you make sure that you’re creating the right illustrations—before you get started?
A. Making slides for presentations is considered one of those necessary but thankless tasks. I’m sorry that too few people find charts and diagrams worth doing. That’s why PowerPoint resides on the computers of administrative assistants and not on those of the people actually delivering the material.
So, to make the process as painless as possible, start with a pencil, paper, and the guidelines for using the right type of chart. A little impromptu sketching—and you needn’t be able to “draw”—in front of the person will quickly nail down the best way to show the information. If you can’t overcome the “I have no time to discuss it” attitude, then make rough pencil sketches of what the person requested, as well as sketches of alternatives, and show these first before you ever touch the computer. You’ll be amazed by how much time this method saves in the end, and how many questions it raises about design and content that were invisible in the raw data.
Q. How can we test our charts for effectiveness?
A. Rehearse them. Run through the charts many times over in front of a receptive audience, even of one. Ask, “did you get the point? Did you get enough information? Did I rush to the next point too quickly? Did I make too many points?” Show the graphic to others and see whether they can ‘read’ it properly and understand its point.
Managers should allow themselves and others more time to prepare; and the presenters should always participate in making every part of the presentation, deciding which parts to speak and which to project onto a screen. For printed publications, the designer must work with editorial to decide which part of a graphic is written, and which is drawn.
Q. How can we use graphics for emotional impact?
A. By being human, above all. But also by knowing thoroughly what your subject is, and by making it accessible (not talking down, of course) to other humans just like you. By allowing people to laugh. By involving their imaginations. By referring to things outside the direct subject being discussed. By drawing comparisons. By enjoying what you do. It shows.
Fever charts (or line charts) track the progress of a quantity, like price or inventory, over a period of time. They show trends—what happened in the past and what might happen in the future. As a general rule, dates appear along the bottom and quantities go up the side. A thick line represents the movement of the quantity, traveling across a grid of fine lines (like graph paper) from left to right over time and up or down according to the scale, such as dollars or units.
Bar charts show the relationships among different items at one time. Vertical or horizontal bars, or objects of differing lengths according to the quantities represented, are arranged in rows. Unlike fever chartw, bars work best when no time element is involved, as in a comparison of the current prices of eight computers from different manufacturers.
Pie charts, essentially circles sliced into pieces, divide an item into its component parts or percentages. The relative size of each slice corresponds to its percentage. The numbers must always add up to 100%. If they don’t, then insert a note about it on the chart because some readers delight in pointing out “mistakes.”
Tables, basically grids with columns of data, show the actual numbers, arranged in an orderly form that clarifies their relationships. Unlike the others, a table doesn’t plot data graphically. It isn’t a visualization of numbers. It is the numbers. Tables work especially well when numbers differ by orders of magnitude so that no scale suffices in plotting them. Consider this set of numbers: 20; 400; 160,000; and 25,600,000,000. A chart will lose the detail of low figures if it tries to reach the high ones without breaking the scale. If you must break the scale, then just use a table, because a chart with a broken scale is no longer a true picture of the numbers.
Word pictures help when numbers are so big that we must put them in a human context before our audience can really grasp their size. Think of the million-man march, or a billion hamburgers served, or a trillion dollars of national debt. How much bigger is a trillion than a billion? Three zeros or one thousand times. To help readers see the difference, we can create word pictures using more tangible or recognizable numbers. Consider this: it’s the year 0 ad, the beginning of the first millennium. You have a trillion dollars to spend at the rate of a million dollars a day. By the year 3 ad, you’ve spent a billion. By the year 2013, you’d still have 725 years to go, spending a million every day, before you reached the end of your trillion-dollar pile. We can picture that in our minds because we know the lengths of a day, a year, and a millennium, and we can imagine spending a million dollars.
A few dont’s
• don’t use the third dimension or animation for animation’s sake. A chart shouldn’t move around or jump off the page or screen—it should stay there and let the audience read it. Work in two dimensions.
• don’t use a busy background to signify the subject of the chart. No cloud formations to suggest “sky.” Most photographic or brightly colored backdrops interfere with visibility. Plain backgrounds allow the reader to read the information easily. Use white, black, or a pale color .
• don’t use lots of color to tie-dye a chart. Too many hues confuse the meaning. Think of color as information itself, never as decoration to a finished chart. Start with black and white. Add color only when you need it to clarify something, like distinguishing two thick lines in a fever chart. If someone else has created PowerPoint slides for you, then use the computer to remove all unnecessary colors.
• don’t use ornate, flowery fonts. Use one simple sans serifs font in a variety of weights and sizes. Keep the final size of the chart in mind when choosing type size. You might enlarge it to go into a store window, on a banner, or on an auditorium wall. You might reduce it to appear in a printed report, where space is at a premium. The final size matters, not what you see on your desktop.
• be careful with clip art. You probably don’t need it at all. Some images, like the tiny phones on business cards and ads, have passed into the lexicon and are more like letters of the alphabet. Since we read them as a visual part of the language, they can say more in less space.