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Conceptual Presentations
by Juan C. Dürsteler [message nº 119]

Presentations are becoming increasingly visual and less textual. Converting every concept into an image is the challenge and, at the same time, the solution.

Presentations with visual support, typically running under PowerPoint, have become ubiquitous. All of us have been at some time in need of making one of them and they are, increasingly, a part of our daily work. 

Did I said with visual support? Surprisingly a good deal of the presentations we have to suffer are basically long strings of sentences and phrases that the presenter just recites, maybe with some collateral explanation. The use of graphics, although increasing, is rather scarce. (see also issue number 73 on Information Graphics)

Why use graphics? If you have already seen some boring presentations where all the slides are textual, you already know: among other things, there’s no way to differentiate one from another in our minds.

Visual elements:

  • are much more easily remembered than text, since a frame full of text looks visually the same no matter what the contents say

  • they allow you to differentiate one slide from another.

  • they allow you to differentiate one presentation from another.

Once upon a time we had to show the ideas for the future of the R+D dept. We made a slide with a sky-blue background with white clouds floating, each one with an idea. For a long time after many people still remembered the “ideas in the sky”.

PresText.gif (10603 bytes) PresGraf.gif (19466 bytes)
Text slides all have the same look  Visual elements remain in memory
Pieces of two different presentations (in Spanish)

Basically there are two types of graphic material to consider

  • Conceptual: tries to illustrate the ideas and abstract concepts that animate our projects or that show our discoveries and conclusions.

  •  Quantitative, like the typical bar and pie charts, etc. that show, graphically, the quantities that demonstrate how our projects are performing or, simply, they show measurements of our interest.

The most unknown is maybe the first one, since there are very few software programs that give graphical support to ideas. The second one has become much more popular, since every spreadsheet provides ways to present graphically quantitative data.

I’ve been actively searching for information about the best way to represent ideas and concepts graphically with discouraging results. There is very little literature on the topic.

Nevertheless it’s possibly the most powerful way of expression in a presentation. Gene Zelazny, in his book “Say it with charts”* divides these visual elements into two groups:

  • Abstract geometric figures, like arrows, triangles circles and the like, that can be used to compose concepts. Arrows, one of the most expressive and ubiquitous symbols give, for example, idea of movement, implication, connection and direction. Circles can express, among others, ideas like cycle, closure, group or periodicity.

  • Visual metaphors, familiar figures that transmit an idea. For example a fish biting the hook, two people playing tug of war, a chain with a weak link. 

Zelazny gathers almost 50 pages of symbols and figures that express ideas, but they aren’t that much different from what you can find in the Clip Art that comes with PowerPoint or the images you can find in Google.

The important (and difficult) thing is how to convert ideas into drawings, diagrams or visual metaphors showing the concept. For this there aren’t many established rules.

What I propose to you is an exercise. 

  • Let’s take a completely textual presentation

  • For every slide try and distillate the key concept and find one or more images representing it. 

  • Then rebuild the presentation with the images as the only element, putting the original text in notes for the presenter.
PyramidProdText.gif (62028 bytes) PyramidProdGraf.gif (59127 bytes)
An imaginary textual slide that classifies products. On screen appears basically the same that the presenter recites. There's no visual reference to the structure (a pyramid).
Click on the image to enlarge it
The same slide with much more visual contents. Some minimal texts are respected. The visual impact of the triangle and the metaphor of the pyramid appear well reflected. The text of the previous slide can be used as notes for the presenter.
Click on the image to enlarge it

I think you will probably find that: 

  • The presentation improves in expressivity and communicates much better

  • If the concepts are well defined the presenter does not recite any more, but he/she explains and widens the scope of information 

  • Concepts remain much better in the memory of the auditory

Switching to visual presentations requires considerable effort, specially when the graphics have to been mastered by ourselves. Nevertheless the impact and improvement in the transmission of ideas is really noticeable and can make the difference between delivering the message or showering the audience with difficult to assimilate words.


* Gene Zelazny, “Say it with charts” fourth edition ISBN 0-07-136997-X McGraw Hill

Links of this issue:

http://www.infovis.net/printMag.php?num=73&lang=2   Article num 73 on Information Graphics
http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/007136997X/infovisnet/   Say it with Charts, by Gene Zelazny at Amazon.com
http://www.google.com/imghp?hl=en&tab=wi&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8&q=   Google image search
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