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6 Tips for using images in presentations

December 10, 2011

Images can be an extremely effective way to communicate. The good news is that a lot of people seem to have gotten that message and are incorporating photos into their presentations. The bad news is that it’s easy to do it poorly and that can end up hurting you instead of helping. This post is my attempt to help keep you from joining the “You’re doing it wrong” crowd on this.

A case study

Powerpoint slide with just a lot of text.

Here’s the setup: we’re doing a presentation where one of the points you want to make is that US national interests require that we have free access to space. You’ve got several key points to make and you want the audience to feel the importance of the issue “in the gut” –an emotional reaction. You’ve read the books, too, so you know that an effective way to get an emotional reaction is to combine a story, a picture and some reinforcing text.

But first, there’s the slide you have started with; the bullets are the points you want to make and maybe even the story you want to use.

Regular readers will know this is BAD and maybe how to fix it.

Powerpoint slide just title and a picture of a spiral galaxy

So, you wisely stripped the text off the slide and put it on the notes page or a Word document for speaker’s notes. The empty space cries out for a nice picture, so you go dig up something to put there, something “spacey.” So, here’s a picture plus a little text version:

This one doesn’t work because the image is a little small, not placed well and mainly because it has nothing to do with the point you’re making. Sure it’s “spacey” but it’s irrelevant to the point and therefore and has no power to help you make an impact.

First tip:
Tip #1: images must be big and relevant to have an impact.

Powerpoint slide with title and image of shuttle launch

So, let’s get a more relevant image and make it big.

So now we’ve got:

Better, but not good.  Placement is good, it’s relevant and big. But this image started quite small and making it big makes it look fuzzy because of the heavy JPEG artifacts (enlarge it to see what I mean). We need one that’s big enough to look good-you don’t have to go full bleed (cover the slide) but it needs to be big to make a real impact.

Tip #2: use images that look good when they’re big.

Don’t settle for a low-res image you grabbed from somewhere and then make it big.  Ugly things do get a reaction but not the one you want.  And for heaven’s sake don’t grab a low-res sample image from a stock photo site and use it, complete with the watermark to advertise the copyright violation.  (Yes, I’ve seen it done <sigh>).

Tip #3: Place the image properly and without distortion.

The last example’s image is poor, but it’s at least it’s placed pretty well and wasn’t distorted by being stretched to fit the slide.  Placing the image and text is more art than science, but it may help to relook at Robin Williams’ CRAP guidelines and the post about “the rule of thirds.”  The really key point to remember is that the placement must be deliberate and not look accidental.

Tip #4: Make sure the text has enough contrast to be read.

In the above examples, keeping the text off to the side ensures it will stand out.  While using a full bleed image can work really well, it means the text now goes on top of the image.

Powerpoint slide with view of earth from low earth orbit.We need good contrast for the text and you may have to do some extra work to be sure the text can easily be read.

In this example, the image works because it naturally has a plain, dark background in the right spot.

Every image won’t be so convenient. You might be able to crop it to create a place for text, use text with a contrasting color, or do an opaque (or partially transparent fill) in the text box to create an area that gives the text enough contrast to be seen.

But sometimes you’re stuck.  The best image, or the one you want to use, isn’t proportioned right, won’t fit or is too small to work full bleed.  In that case, you should consider whether several smaller images will give you the right story point impact.

Tip #5: Consider using multiple images in place of one big one.

Powerpoint slide with title and three space launch pictures.The danger is creating a busy, distracting slide, but done carefully, it can work just at least as well as one big one. At right is an example that I think works pretty well.

The stair stepped, overlapped images individually look good and thanks to the similarity in both theme and colors, I think they work well as a group.  Now the size of each image is much less of an issue and there’s no need to stretch them.

In addition, this one could work well by conveying another point of the overall story by showing more than one space access method.

Tip #6: Go for an image with hits the emotions.

A good image is a lot more likely to be remembered than anything you say and any text you put on the screen. Use it to hit their emotions and the probability they remember you and your point approaches 100%.

Powerpoint slide with title and picture of space shuttle from ISS.

The multiple image example is good, and it might well be the one we’d choose to use.  But for me, the version of the slide I like best is this one:

The image has good resolution, it’s relevant and has a perfect spot for the text.

I’m not sure why, but this one has more emotional impact for me and it’s the one I’d use.

Clip art?
One last point on images.  Clip art is not an image.  Most clip art, especially the library that comes with PowerPoint, is lame and over used.  It is possible to use it effectively, but it’s not easy and most presentations are much better off avoiding it.

To summarize:

Tip #1: Images must be big and relevant to have an impact.

Tip #2: Use images that look good when they’re big.

Tip #3: Place the image properly and without distortion.

Tip #4: Make sure the text has enough contrast to be read.

Tip #5: Consider using multiple images in place of one big one.

Tip #6: Go for an image that hits the emotions.

For more on this general topic, I recommend Garr Reynolds’ books, and Nancy Duarte’s book.  There’s also a good post, “11 ways to use images poorly in slides” on Garr’s (www.presentationzen. com) blog that I used as a major inspiration for this post.

All photography courtesy of NASA.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. December 10, 2011 15:31

    Bravo, great post.

  2. December 11, 2011 18:49


  3. December 26, 2011 09:38

    Nice post

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