The Seen and the Unseen

We usually judge PowerPoint by what we see on the surface of the slides, but we would be better off judging it by what we can’t see.

In our honest attempt to communicate with people as completely as possible, we fill up the surface area of our slides with as much information as we can possibly squeeze onto them. Although our intent is good, the results are bad — the mind’s cognitive processing ability simply can’t handle it.

So our intent — to provide meaning — has run up against a big problem — cognitive overload. It’s not an option to respond to the situation by complaining that we’re powerless victims and there’s nothing we can do — there’s too much at stake in our strategic communications. Giving up would also send ourselves the wrong message — after all, we’re not helpless or incapable of solving any problem that presents itself.

It turns out the answer is actually not that hard, anyway. All we have to do is re-orient our views of PowerPoint in a specific way that presents a fairer and more balanced view between surface and substance, the seen and the unseen.

The seen
slideWhen we open PowerPoint we normally see the "Normal" view of a slide — the area shaded red is where we commonly place a headline, and the area shaded blue is where we put our bullet points. When we choose to dive into PowerPoint first with this view, these are the only two areas we see where we can place information. We present ourselves with a false dichotomy — either put all the information here, or don’t put it anywhere at all. So our natural response is to break up information into bullet point sticks and line them up in the blue area, and/or we shrink and stuff additional pictures and graphs into the same space. Either way you go, you don’t have much room to go.

The unseen
Instead, when we choose to begin looking at PowerPoint first from the Notes Page view, as shown here, there is suddenly twice the amount of space to place information. Ironically, at the same time that we’ve been choosing to think our options are limited, we’ve had it within our power to choose to see things in a much different way. When we tap into this uncharted and unchosen territory, it’s just a matter of using this valuable real estate in the most lucrative way possible, which will take a little re-ordering of our priorities.decisionA

Notes Page view presents us with 3 areas that form a natural visual hierarchy from top to bottom:

Hierarchy Level 1: Your headline area at the top (indicated in red) should summarize the main idea of your slide. If someone were to look at your slide, or your Notes Page, no one should mistake what you intend to communicate here.

Hierarchy Level 2: Your visual area in the middle (indicated in blue) should illustrate the main idea that you’ve indicated in your headline — nothing more, nothing less.

Hierarchy Level 3: The narrative area below (indicated in yellow) should capture in complete sentences what you will say verbally during your presentation. This is the valuable "unseen" area of your PowerPoint document. It captures what you say in person when you show the slide, relieving your audience of the burden of cognitive overload. It also communicates the same information when you’re not there, because when you print out your document in Notes Page format, this area is now "seen" as supporting the slide area above.

Writing out your narration in this area frees up the visual area to actually be visual, it increases your speaking confidence because you fully think through what you’re going to say, and it transforms the whole PowerPoint document into a very useful printed handout you wouldn’t otherwise have. Not bad value for the free investment of simply shifting your viewpoint.

When you start judging PowerPoint from this more valuable view, you can add more meaning to the seen, by linking it to the unseen beneath.

Tip: Open an existing PowerPoint slide and choose View –> Notes Page. Can you make better use of the informational real estate below? Choose View –> Normal, select your text, cut it, return to Notes Page and paste it in the Notes area. Now return to your slide and consider what visuals can help you communicate the main idea of your headline. When you make better use of your unseen resources, what you see can definitely improve what you get.

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6 Responses to “The Seen and the Unseen”

  1. From Beyond Bullets: Mystery Media

    What kind of medium is PowerPoint? And where does it fit in the range of other media including film, TV, photography, comics, websites, and paper? Scott McCloud is one of the smartest people I know when it comes to understanding media, and when I asked…

  2. Steve Hards says:

    I’m amazed there aren’t any appreciative comments against this article – it fundamentally changed my view of PowerPoint when I first read last year, and I recommend it to everyone I can!

  3. Andrew says:

    Let me add an appreciative comment. This was one of the best Powerpoint articles I have ever read. It clarifies exactly what we should be trying to achieve when we use Powerpoint – relieving us from the “death by bullet point” approach we generally use.

  4. Cliff says:

    Thanks for the kind words!

  5. Roger says:

    This is my first, very timely (interview presentation in a couple of weeks), foray into Beyond_Bullets. And to think, I was looking for some interesting *.pot downloads. After pouring through probably 50% of the “free” resources I am sitting here asking what was I thinking with my previous approach to presentations. I already understood less was more, but this is like moving from 2nd to 3rd dimension. So now I need to get the book because you have me hooked. Excellent!!

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