We live in a visual world. Billboards on the highway, TV commercials, and social media newsfeeds are constantly trying to sell us messages. But these visuals aren’t built merely to be colorful or pretty. Clever visuals are designed for a more strategic purpose – to get us to notice and respond to ideas.
This same logic directly applies to business communications: relevant visuals help our insights and recommendations be more easily understood, remembered, and acted on. Here’s a quick and easy guide to understanding how to make clear, powerful visuals in your presentation:
Why do visuals help us remember things?
In one word: neuroscience. Neuroscientists have discovered that an idea expressed in visual form is processed 60,000 times faster than the same information either printed or spoken.
But visuals do more than just help us remember something – they spur action. Visuals trigger our right brain where we process emotion and feelings. And it’s emotion (even more than pure logic) that motivates us into action.
Why are visuals important in presentations?
To understand why getting visuals right is so important, ask yourself this one question: what is the purpose of any presentation? Or email? Or proposal? Isn’t it to help decisions get made? Or move business conversations forward? Clear, simple visuals help our ideas be quickly interpreted and decisions get made faster because they humanize your ideas and infuse emotion (rather than relying on pure logic.) Conversely, distracting visuals slow decision-making down. Slower decisions mean slower business.
What are common mistakes for presentation visuals?
Visuals often go wrong when we lack either time or an overarching visual slide strategy (or both!). Business presenters are—understandably—always looking to save time, reuse, and repurpose existing slides. As a quick fix, we throw together slides from past decks, or borrow slides from a co-worker without giving thought to the intent of the message we are trying to communicate for the specific purpose (we call these "Frankendecks.")
Let's face it: it's easy to fall prey to bad visuals. Business presentations are essentially known for including too much text and data, while often using off-brand colors, fonts, and imagery (and let's not forget about cheesy stock photography.)
On the other hand, even slides that are “pretty” aren’t always designed with a clear, easy-to-digest message, ultimately causing confusion rather than advancing the story we need to tell.
What are the visual elements that make a strong presentation?
There are five main ways to display information in presentations: photos, diagrams, data, text, and video.
Photos are powerful. They’ll humanize your message help you connect your ideas to your audience on an emotional level. Photos can also build a mood or theme for your presentation.
Diagrams help breakdown and ‘cluster’ information into digestible concepts. We often suggesting using shapes or icons to call-out key messages. An example of a diagram would be a timeline or an organizational chart.
Data is most often presented in charts and tables. But sometimes, like in the case of the image below, only key data – that advances the story – is displayed. Also notice how the use of contrasting colors is used to draw the eye to the data point, and gray is used to subdue data that is simply there for context.
Text is the most common – and overused – visual we see in business presentations (hello bullets!). Text used sparingly with contrasting color and size, however, creates an easy-to-digest message.
Video is an excellent to way to change the pace, the voice, and the medium of a presentation. It’s usually a good idea to keep it brief and embedded straight into the slide deck. To ensure good flow to your visuals, it’s important that any change of medium – such as video – is seamlessly integrated.
Now that we’ve established how critical strong visuals are to business presentations...
Let’s get into some simple tips that will help jumpstart visual thinking the next time you open PowerPoint:
TIP 1: Callouts are Visual Eye-Candy
Callouts are one of the easiest and most potent data visualization techniques. By calling out key information with a contrasting color, size, or shape, you can easily highlight key points. This is a gift to your audience because with a simple visual ‘gesture’ you are helping them digest your message in one glance. This is one of the fastest ways to move your ideas forward.
TIP 2: Slide headlines refer to key visuals and help tell a story
Hands down, the best place to summarize the key message of your slide is in the headline (particularly if you are offering a lot of facts or data). Summing up your “big idea” in the slide title offers your audience the gift of clarity.
What’s more, slide headlines – like chapter headings – offer a logical outline to the overall story you are telling in your presentation. No data or facts are thrown in just because you have them. Everything should fit together logically.
TIP 3: Create a Landing Page for Easy Navigation
Not every presentation needs to be delivered in a linear format. As you can see from this slide, grouping your presentation into sections on a landing page gives an instant visual picture of everywhere you can go in this presentation.
Even better, each of the tabs on this landing page are portals to dive deeper into those sections, offering not only a visual orientation of your deck from start to finish but a way to jump around depending on your audience’s needs. This non-linear approach is particularly helpful for decks that are presented by someone else or being emailed.
Here are some additional questions we often get about creating memorable, authentic visuals for presentations...
Does Color Matter in Presentations?
So much has been written on the psychology of color and using it in presentations to incite emotion and convey ideas. So yes, red incites passion. And yellow conveys happiness. White is calm and neutral. Always consider color when planning your presentation. However, first and foremost, always select colors from your corporate palette to keep your visuals coordinated and brand-consistent.
How Do I Create Great Visuals Without Being a Graphic Designer?
Our best advice? Keep it simple. Clean, easy-to-interpret visuals are not only efficient to create, but keep the spotlight on your key message, rather than distract from it. Even a common list can be improved with basic icons or shapes. There are many easy, visual tactics that let you prioritize your ideas and offer an easy way to connect with and motivate your audience.
Looking for meaningful, authentic ways to visually express your ideas? We have loads of tips and resources for you. Stock photos don’t have to be cheesy – try adding search terms like “authentic,” “candid,” “context,” or “interactive” after the main search term to find real looking photos that aren’t posed or cliché. And while there’s no harm in trying free stock photo sites first, we’ve found that you often get what you pay for. Our favorite paid stock photos sites are iStock, Getty Images, Adobe Stock, and Shutterstock.
Alternatively, ditch photography altogether and try using icons to represent ideas. The Noun Project has millions of curated, editable icons created by people around the globe. And the best part? They’re all royalty free with attribution, or less than $40 per year for a subscription. Interested in learning best practices for transforming text- and data-heavy presentation slides into visuals that are easy to scan and highlight your key points? Our Influencing with Visuals workshop teaches teams how to organize ideas into visual messages that are clear, memorable, and (you guessed it) authentic.