What to do with text on your slides; Issue #335 April 14, 2015

Recently, presentation designer Johanna Rehnvall wrote an article about ten ways you can avoid death by bullet points (full article here). She shows ten ways you can apply design to a bullet list of text to make it more visually appealing. I know and respect Johanna and the good work she does designing presentations. I always like to see what designers do to increase the visual appeal of presentations.

I think her ten treatments for the example text she shows are a good reference for those of us who don’t have design skills. I want to share some additional comments on some of the ideas in her article. Read it first, then continue so you have context for my comments.

I like how her first idea is to emphasize the few words or phrases that are the most important. Sometimes you are forced to have a paragraph of text on a slide, especially if you are quoting a document or regulation. Techniques to highlight the important words or phrases help focus the audience. My favorite is the highlighter technique. Johanna’s example shows a designer’s approach where the yellow highlight is not a perfect rectangle. This video on my site shows a simple way to use different emphasis techniques, including a rectangle highlight.

A number of her ideas include breaking up the text by putting it into shapes. This is another great approach. Look at how she uses colored backgrounds of text boxes to separate the text without an outline around the box. This is a subtle technique that works well. In idea 6 she shows a nice way to pull out a header word into a different colored box to emphasize it (shown below).


When you are separating text into shapes, I would have you keep two cautions in mind. First, be careful about using numbers instead of bullets to separate the points, even if the numbers are in a graphic treatment. A numbered list indicates a sequential relationship between the points, which may not be your message. Second, organizing the points into a table may suggest a comparison relationship, with a set of criteria on the left or top of the table. Again, this may not be the message you wanted to communicate.

Take note of two cautions Johanna gives for making text more visual. She suggests being careful when using SmartArt to transform your bullet lists and I wrote about the problem with SmartArt in this article. Microsoft invented SmartArt as a way to automatically convert text into graphics, but the different graphics indicate relationships that may not be present in your text, so be careful. While Johanna suggests adding icons as a possibility, she warns not to do so unless it adds to the meaning of the message. I agree totally. Don’t add icons or other visuals as decoration.

One of the suggestions she makes throughout the article is to consider if the text really belongs in a document distributed before or after the presentation. You do not need everything you are going to say displayed on the slide. As my surveys have shown repeatedly, reading your slides is the most annoying thing a presenter can do. Look at how she suggests putting a lot of the text into a document or into the Slide Notes if your organization uses that feature. Slides should enhance what you say, not substitute for the presenter.

One of the reasons I enjoy seeing the work of presentation designers is that those of us who are not designers can learn techniques and methods of enhancing our presentations. Use Johanna’s ideas to help make the text in your presentation more visually appealing.

By Dave Paradi

Dave Paradi has over twenty-two years of experience delivering customized training workshops to help business professionals improve their presentations. He has written ten books and over 600 articles on the topic of effective presentations and his ideas have appeared in publications around the world. His focus is on helping corporate professionals visually communicate the messages in their data so they don't overwhelm and confuse executives. Dave is one of fewer than ten people in North America recognized by Microsoft with the Most Valuable Professional Award for his contributions to the Excel, PowerPoint, and Teams communities. His articles and videos on virtual presenting have been viewed over 4.8 million times and liked over 17,000 times on YouTube.