A picture can become more than a picture when you add a new layer of meaning.
That’s what struck me when I reviewed Stewart’s first draft of slides after he tried out a new bullet-free approach. When we’re free of many of our self-imposed communication obstacles, we’ll find that some of the most powerful solutions are the simplest. (Stewart actually used Apple Keynote here, but the issues are the same — they have to do with our thinking, not about the software tools we use.)
Take Stewart’s slide here. At first glance it may not be striking, unless you hold it next to a typical slide with a blue Photoshop background and a bulleted list of yellow text. Then it’s blindingly obvious how powerful a picture can be.
The intent of Stewart’s presentation was to introduce the "critical chain method" of project management. That may sound like a very dry topic, but Stewart managed to bring it to life with a very visual approach.
At this particular point in the presentation, Stewart had just explained that typical project management has many shortcomings. He was building up the urgency of the need to do something, because business as usual was not working. Something had to change. Then he shows this slide, with a picture of a group of gentlemen sitting and relaxing on a sidewalk. This image of leisure and relaxation is a jarring conflict with Stewart’s words about the need for change. Many people who see it would chuckle at the photograph, because it’s surprising to see it in this context. Then the text box comes in, which reads "Nothing changes until someone takes an action".
The image already had meaning on its own with the contrast against his words, but then he added a new layer of meaning over the photograph. The words over the picture actually pivoted the meaning to make his point, focus it on the very real issues at hand, and drive his story forward.
Stewart has never been to graphic design school, but he was able to design a powerful experience nonetheless. We all have the potential to use simple techniques like this, to sophisticated effect. We simply need to drop the idea that we can’t, and start adding our own layers of meaning to our communications.
Tip: Take a look at one of your existing slides — what is the main idea you’re trying to convey? Go to this site where Stewart found his images, or to Microsoft’s image gallery, or to any of the image galleries on the web — many of them are either free, or have inexpensive licensing options for presentation use. Fill your screen completely with an image. (When you resize an image, make sure you keep its proportions the same by holding down the Shift key while you drag a corner. If the image hangs over the edge of the slide area, you can use the crop tool to trim it. For more detailed instructions, use PowerPoint’s Help feature to look up "resize" or "crop" a picture. In every case, make sure the image you use is clear, crisp, and has correct proportions — otherwise find another one.) After you have a full-screen image, insert a Text Box, and write something that pivots the meaning of the picture to support your point, and engage your audience. Make sure your text is readable, both in size and by its contrast with its background. If your picture and text box are clear, this technique can help your meaning be clear as well.