At Chronicle Graphics, we’re often looking for ways to help our user base become more comprehensive and effective Gantt Artists. One way to do that is to begin to research and discuss more broadly the art and science behind visual or graphic design, how we perceive visuals, and why a clear picture can be so important…in a practical context.
This post is the first in the beginning of a series that we plan to publish in order to facilitate the recognition of data visualization in business communication as an important skillset, and one in which Gantt Art falls. Within, we’ll be taking what we think are the main and most valuable points of the 2010 guide: Speaking PowerPoint, by Bruce R. Gabrielle, and adding our thoughts or additional references where appropriate. Our input comes from a combined 50+ years of experience in business and eight years as a company with a focus on data visualization. The author obviously covers a lot and has some great examples that give more perspective so we encourage our readers to check out the full text if they can.
We’ve all had the feeling; our direct manager assigns us the task of preparing a “slide deck” or “presentation” in order to present an idea, plan, or report. UGH! The expectation is that it will be produced in PowerPoint. Double UGH!
Your dismay is founded by a lack of time and the fear of not being able to produce a level of visual quality that will meet expectations and gets your data or ideas across in the best way possible. This fear isn’t brought on by your lack of understanding of what PowerPoint does in so much as your lack of time, inherent ability to visualize the end result, and mastery of space, shapes, fonts, and colors. And by the way…WHO HAS THAT ABILITY? Generally, the people that do are employed as graphic artists.
As a result, PowerPoint can, and in many cases, has developed a bad reputation amongst the audience and users. In Speaking PowerPoint, Bruce Gabrielle cites four specific categories of criticisms of PowerPoint:
- “Unclear messages, especially an over-reliance on half-formed thoughts delivered as bullet points, or unclear slide organization without a central message.”
- “Incoherent slides jammed with information that overwhelms the reader.”
- “Amateurish slides that elevate form over content, often caused by over-enthusiastic use of clip art, colors, effects and animations that buries the message in ornamentation.”
- “Inappropriate use of slides during presentations, such as reading bulleted lists to the audience.”
Gabrielle suggests that if these criticisms can be overcome and the application is used appropriately, PowerPoint can be an essential tool to communicating effectively in business.
So why aren’t there classes that show you how to make great presentations in PowerPoint? There are a slew of courses that will show you the capabilities of PowerPoint, but very little is offered to help you take the ideas and/or data that you have and turn it into a consumable, easily understandable picture. The reason for this is that clear, organized, and meaningful visualization of data is more of an art than something you for which you can follow a pre-defined formula. Nobody has a comprehensive recipe to create an amazing visual in every situation.
However, Gabrielle attempts to provide a process we all can follow as we begin to plan for and execute the translation of data into a series of readable slides in PowerPoint, which he calls the “Mindworks Method,” which we think has merit.
The information provided by the author to solve for the criticisms are framed up around the criticisms themselves. We’re not going to repeat the book, obviously, but rather take away the key points that will help with visual communications and add any comments or suggestions relevant to timelines and project illustrations specifically. Part 1 of this series will only go into the initial portion of the book, and subsequent parts will cover the remainder.
First, there are some very good points made prior to being introduced to the method, which are noted below:
1. Know your audience.
Questions to help you understand what level of information you might need in a single visual, or within the materials as a whole:
- Is the content inherently something that my audience will be compelled to pay attention to?
- Is the audience motivated to pay attention to my content?
- What is my audience’s key concern in their role?
- What is my audience’s key concern about this idea or initiative?
- How will my audience be physically viewing the information I am creating?
- Do the materials need to stand alone because they will be shared?
- Will the materials be discussed or purely presented?
- Is your argument week or strong?
Gabrielle goes into various details about the psychology behind the answers to these questions and how they might motivate you to amend your content. We encourage you to seek that detail by reading the book, and won’t provide it here. However, I’m sure you can see how the answers might help determine how you begin to architect your presentation and visuals, even if you’re just superficially absorbing the information.
If we were to apply this to visuals of projects, programs, or portfolios, you can also intuitively see how the answers to some of these questions would direct our project views.
For example, if I know my audience is generally preoccupied during discussions, I can assume that dressing up my Gantt chart with color will help grab their attention. Additionally, if I also know that I’m going to be presenting my visual on a computer screen via a web-meeting, I can test to make sure I’ve got optimum readability on the average screen size, without zooming and panning.
2. Set boundaries
At Chronicle Graphics, we often say that our application allows you to include as much or as little data from your source document as you want, based on what you think your audience can consume, or put a different way, what you think you’ll need to have handy as the conversation or presentation progresses.
If your volume of content is unrestricted, you will undoubtedly begin to drift on your message and not keep it as concise as you would have if you didn’t have boundaries in place. PowerPoint, by its nature, provides you those boundaries, and so does OnePager.
We’ve seen too many visuals where the creator is literally trying to cram hundreds of tasks and milestones onto a single image that would be output onto a single piece of paper. This is often what their leadership has told them they wanted, but our experience tells us that the best way to succeed in creating a picture is to meet the goals with as little information as possible present.
The author cites the STOP format as a great example of a self-imposed business boundary, developed at Hughes Aircraft Company in order to make proposals more concise, which you can read in great detail about within the linked article…you can even read the STOP manual itself.
Key Points from the author’s method – Part 1
1. In an executive setting, provide the point of your material up front
The author gives some fantastic advice about ways that you can be sure that you’re actually achieving the point or “answers” to the questions that your audience really wants out of the material. The most obvious of which is to list out the questions and answers in a simple table and then go over what you have. This should help you have, at the very least, what you think are the main points covered in your presentation.
When creating views of your plans, you may even have different types of audience members present who have different needs in terms of the answers they want within your content. In this instance, it may make sense to have more than one visual, depending on how much “cross talk” you’ll be introducing for your various readers, as you do not want to muddy the specific messages.
2. After you state the point, problem to solve, or question, summarize how you plan to answer it within your presentation.
3. Set the stage or story for the content in situations where the audience may not understand what led to the problem, or why it needs to be solved at the moment.
In Part 2 of this series, we’ll explore the second portion of the book. The author has quite a few more suggestions, ideas and examples relative to creating a great presentation overall.