Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Wisdom of Yoda?

You might think that the quotation given in the slide to the right was made by Yoda, but it was actually a statement by an author of a book called Presentation Zen--Garth Reynolds.  This book is a resource I highly recommend.  It goes into much greater detail about many of the concepts I've been talking about in this blog series on designing presentations.

Anyway, the point being made in this quote is that people tend to be afraid of blank space on a slide and need to fill it up with something.  Or, as scientists with only fifteen minutes to convey our research to an audience, we are tempted to cram as much information as possible onto a single slide.  This approach leads to a lot of clutter, which reduces audience comprehension and retention of the information.

Blank space, however, can be used very effectively to focus attention on a key point.  Below is an example.

In this example, the focus is on a single number: 65% reduction in fish size in commercial landings.  I've made up a striking visual image that drives home the message.  The blank space on the slide helps to dramatize the single number.  And of course, the image is aesthetically pleasing because I used the Rule of Thirds to compose it.

You can probably imagine the typical way such information would be presented--in a dense table or figure--and that the audience would have to struggle to sort out the key piece of information.  By focusing in on that single important datapoint and extracting it from the background data noise helps the audience and at the same time makes the point in a much more memorable way.

Another skill to develop is how to create good illustrations. There will be many instances in which a photograph just doesn't work, and you need a diagrammatic rendering of something. You don't need a fancy graphics program, however.  I made the drawing of a cell shown at right entirely in Powerpoint using just two of the drawing functions.  Once you learn the basics, you can create some very sophisticated illustrations that are not only useful in presentations, but are also sufficiently good for publications.  You can find a number of tutorials on the Web that show how to create similar illustrations in Powerpoint.  It's worth the time and effort to learn them--and it's not as hard as you might think.

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