The application of visual thinking to presentations

I’ve just finished reading Dan Roam’s book. I highly recommend it if you’re wanting to delve more deeply into visual thinking. I’ve also been doing other reading and web-surfing on visual thinking.

Here’s my thoughts so far on the application of visual thinking to presentations.

First, if we can express something visually as well as verbally – the audience will be likely to understand it and recall it better. From John Medina’s book BrainRules come the following figures:

Second, how can we combine words and pictures – we’ve adopted the system developed by Professor Michael Alley – the assertion-evidence slide format. The slide above is an example of that format. At the top of the slide is the assertion – a simple sentence which expresses the message of the slide. The rest of the slide is the evidence to support that assertion – expressed in a visual way.

Third how can we visually represent evidence. – this is where Dan Roam’s book comes into it’s own. He identifies six different types of picture:

1. Who/what? Photos or sketches

A lot of presenters use photos and they’re great for impact and evoking emotion (check out this post from Presentation Zen for where to find great photos). But to really help people understand we need more than photos…

2. Where? Maps and spatial diagrams

Only a few presentations will need a map to show where things are, but spatial diagrams take the idea a step further. When you create a spatial diagram you decide on the coordinates (the equivalent of North, South, East, West) and then place things in the “space” you’ve created. Spatial diagrams make abstract concepts more concrete as in this matrix diagram:

There’s also a lovely example of a matrix diagram on Dan Roam’s blog.

3. How much? Charts and graphs

Nothing new here – presenters are used to using these. My recommendation is not to import these directly from Excel into PowerPoint. Create your chart in PowerPoint and only include the numbers which are required to make your point. And then explain the meaning of the data.

It’s very tempting when you’ve got a whole lot of data to include all of it, but this only obscures the point you’re making (and if there’s no point to it – don’t include it). Check out this excellent post from Seth Godin for an example of this.

4. When? Timelines

Timelines can be a useful way of showing what needs to happen next and the order in which things need to happen. However, I would caution against using timelines of the past unless you’re a historian. There’s a tendency for presenters to talk too much about ‘background’ and using a timeline would only encourage people to dwell on it still more.

5. How? Flowcharts

We could use flowcharts a lot more in presentations. Whenever you’re describing a process you could use a flowchart to illustrate it. For instance to show how using words on the screen leads to overload in the verbal channel of the brain you could show the following slide (adapted from Richard Mayer):

6. Why? Multi-variable plot

This is both the most complex and the most powerful of the six types of pictures described in Dan Roam’s book. I’ll cover this in a later post.

To conclude, when you’ve planned the verbal content of your presentation, start exploring which parts of the verbal content could be supported by a visual explanation. And if you’re already adept at including photos and charts, challenge yourself by introducing spatial diagrams to make concepts clearer and flowcharts to make processes clearer.

Other resources

Extreme Presentation blog, especially this post.

PowerFrameworks This is a subscription site ($249 a year) but allows allows registered visitors to browse their collection of 3,594 “templates” for creating graphics in PowerPoint. You can browse the collection to get ideas for your presentation and then recreate the framework yourself. Some of the frameworks are also available as free samples or you can buy a series for a few dollars.

Data Visualization post from Smashing Magazine. Lots of different ideas here about how to visualize data. Many of them are too complex to put into a presentation, but it might spark an idea for you.

The Periodic Table of Visualization Methods This is an amazing piece of work. The author has arranged many, many different types of visualization and arranged them in the form of a periodic table. A must-visit site if you’re looking for ideas.

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