Eliminating Question Marks

Your job as presentation designer is to create an interactive document that 1) supports the ideas, concepts, or arguments you need to put forth, and 2) keys the audience to what you’re going to talk about just before you fulfill your role in the process, which is to deliver the presentation.  And that’s the rub: the presentation is not what’s on the screen.  And neither is the presentation what comes out of the presenter’s mouth. The presentation is actually only what takes place in the mind of the listener. And it takes place there because you are firing up their imaginations, memories and emotions.  It takes a human to do that, and that is why they have come to your presentation — to be spoon fed and inspired by an expert.

The temptation with PowerPoint is to let the software and the hardware do all the work, allowing you to be just a casual moderator of the whole event. Yet when you think that you can simply put everything you want them to know on the screen and let the audience read it themselves, you insult them with bad, lazy design. 

When a slide hits the screen, people have a need to be the first to know — so immediately question marks spring up. Your job is to eliminate as many question marks as possible — which you can with proper design.

We’ve written at length about the need to limit the amount of information that arrives on the screen at any one time, but it’s important to also limit the complexity of that information. To keep them in your fold you must look really hard at every slide with an eye to eliminating the question marks that light up over their heads as each new visual appears:

Where am I? 

Where do I Begin? 

What’s Most Important? 

These are the questions that most slides provoke, and the more question marks your slides raise, the more wave lengths you have to deal with, and the less cohesion you have in your audience.  In fact, the problem with introducing question marks at all is that they breed rather rapidly. 

When an audience member is provoked into asking a question in his own mind by a confusing element in your slide, it often sets in motion a cascade of questions that quickly overtake the amount of RAM available for uptake of your actual message. When you send an audience member off on a search for understanding, you never know where their mind will take them – except to know that it’s probably not to your desired destination.

Self-Evident v. Self-Explanatory

Of course it’s not possible or even desirable that everything that appears is immediately clear to the entire audience. You do need a few surprises once in a while to shake them up and keep them guessing. And, as the audience is there to learn something new from you, the expert, you wouldn’t be giving a very memorable presentation if everybody already knew and understood everything you were there to talk to them about.

What you bring up on the screen needs to prepare them for what you’re going to explain, and not attempt to be the explanation itself. Once again, it’s not about the screen!!! What you really want to strive for in your design is for items to be self-evident. The visual should, in the literal sense, speak for itself.  It should not raise questions that start audience members off on their own voyages of self-discovery.

If you can’t make your visual self-evident, try for the next best, self-explanatory.  A self-explanatory visual at least contains the explanation within the slide, so that if at first question mark flags are flown, they are quickly lowered. A good example of self-explanatory would be a graph with a legend that is large, clear and tied directly into the design of the graph, rather than in a hard-to-read adjacent table. A self-evident graph would not need a legend at all. (There’s more to come on graphs in their own subsequent chapter.)

To review, your presentation should be as simple as possible, but with respect for the intelligence of your audience, no simpler. Because a well-designed presentation takes place in the minds of the audience, it’s not what’s up on the screen that determines how good your presentation is, it’s how passionately you transfer that information to your listeners. And you can’t do that really well unless you keep the focus on you and not the screen. To keep the focus on you, you have to limit the amount of information on the screen, and Keep It Simple, Sweetheart.