Skip to content

What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.

January 2, 2012

Movie poster Cool Hand LukeThe title of this post is one of the best known movie quotes of all time.  It is, of course, a line from the 1967 film Cool Hand Luke. It’s spoken at different points in the movie, the first time by Paul Newman.

I was reminded of that line while reading this post on the Harvard Business Review blog:  I Don’t Understand What Anyone Is Saying Anymore by Dan Palotta.

Dan talks about an ‘epidemic’ of communications failures, identifying five types or causes.  While I recommend the entire post, I was especially struck by one item.  That one was “Abstractionitis” — failing to make the language specific and concrete makes you come across as vague.  Being vague is a recipe for failing to get your message across, a failure to make an impact.

So if abstract is bad, what’s good?  Here are some things I think you should consider:

Tell stories.
A story is concrete and the audience can relate to it.  The power of story is real.

Use number-driven examples.
Find a relevant, easily-displayed example and show it.  Even better, if your point can be made with a numeric data slide do so, just remember the purpose of the slide isn’t just to show  the numbers, it’s about the meaning of the numbers.

Use concrete, not abstract language.
Listen carefully to the language you use in your presentation.  Watch the pronouns:  “they” who?!  Watch for the overused and vague descriptors: just how is it ‘innovative’?!  “Most people” is vague, “70% of our sample” is not.

If you want your audience to understand and remember your presentation–if you want to have an impact–you need to be clear and simple, concrete language is a way to get there. Let’s change the quote to:

What we have here is a really successful communication!


The confusing and mystical world of aspect ratios.

December 23, 2011

Aspect ratio is conceptually very simple-just take the two dimensions and express as a ratio. Old tube TV sets were, for instance, approximately 4:3 and current rectangles showing different aspect ratioswidescreen TVs are usually said to be 16:9.

Movies are a confusing mess with aspect ratios all over the place—I’ll ignore that for this post.

Common aspect ratios found “in the wild”

Aspect ratios are simple in principle, but in practice things are a bit more messy and it affects what images look like when printed or viewed on a screen.

Here are two tables of various aspect ratios that you’ll run across in various contexts:

Paper dimensions (inches)             Aspect ratio





PowerPoint’s default printable or useable (1,2)




Normal US paper size, common European sizes are 1.41

Photographic and television ratios





35mm film, 4×6 prints, digital camera option





Tube TV approximates this, default for many digital cameras (3)




5×7 print size




8×10 print size





“no crop” large print size





widescreen TV, digital camera option





many widescreen TVs are really this, some digital cameras (3)

1. paper printing maintains this on 8.5 x 11 paper
2. displayed, aspect ratio is maintained, fill the height, black bar the width
3. sensors in digital cameras vary in dimensions, many approximate 4:3

PowerPoint Slides
This whole post started when I got curious about PowerPoint slide dimensions. As shown above, PowerPoint will, by default, give you a slide that’s intended to be 7.5″x10″ when printed, a normal 8.5″x1 1″ page with a .5″ margin. On a screen, the margin doesn’t show, so that’s exactly a 4:3 ratio, a perfect match for older monitors and TVs. On a widescreen monitor, black bars fill the gaps on the sides so everything on the slide stays proportioned.

Pictures and cameras
Notice what that means for our discussion about using images on slides:  to fit the PowerPoint slide proportions without cropping, the image will need to be 4:3, but many images aren’t.  From 35mm film they’ll be 3:2 and from a digital camera they are commonly 4:3, 3:2 or 16:9. (Most digital cameras allow you to select one of those with 4:3 as a common default.)  This is one reason that an image might not work full frame on the slide-fixing an aspect ratio mismatch by stretching the image out to fill out the frame will introduce distortion and that’s a definite ‘no no’.

Image with a pair of digital camerasDigital camera sidebar. The sensor in your camera has its own physical and pixel dimensions: its own aspect ratio. Of those I know about, they generally approximate a 4:3 ratio, a few are 3:2, but it’s rarely exact in any case. Interestingly, that ‘xx’ megapixel camera you’ve got probably isn’t creating images that size, especially if you select an aspect ratio other than the one that was used to rate the camera with. For instance, my current camera, a Fuji HS20EXR, is rated at 16M pixels.  The max pixels stored is actually 15.9M if the 4:3 ratio is used.  Set to 3:2 it stores ~14M, and at 16:9 it stores ~13M pixels.  The reason is simply that the camera adapts to the chosen aspect ratio by ignoring part of the sensor to get the ratio right.  If you care at all, I suggest you ignore the “wasted” pixels–if you’re going to use the images in 16:9, shooting them that way in the first place will help prevent images that can’t fill a widescreen monitor or T V.  On the other hand, a 3:2 choice will give images that are proportioned right for those 4 x 6 prints and it’s also the choice that requires the least cropping to get to either of the other two ratios. I generally use 3:2, but just pick something and don’t worry about it much, just realize that no one choice is going to universally right.

Trivia note: the ‘golden ratio’

Greek letter phi

Symbolized as Phi

Since ancient times artists, architects and philosophers have been using a particular proportion ratio believing it to have special appeal, even mystical significance.  Known as the golden ratio, it’s approximately 1.618 which is pretty close to 16:10.  Interestingly, if you check carefully, a fair number of widescreen TVs aren’t actually 16:9, they’re 16: 10.  And the pixel dimensions for the native mode for the monitor I’m using right now is 1680×1050, exactly 16:10. See?  mystical significance! 😉

Monitors and digital projectors

picture of an LCD monitor.What we create in the form of slides or pictures is only one half of the puzzle.  No matter what it looked like natively, the other factor is what happens in the viewing process.  There’s an aspect ratio there, too, and mismatches can have ‘interesting’ results.

Common screen dimensions (pixels)                                                               Aspect ratio













720 HD TV













1080 HD TV

Back in the not-so-long-ago days of tube-type monitors, the first two entries above were common resolution modes and, not surprisingly, they’re both 4:3 aspect ratios. Now we can set our monitors to a huge array of resolutions and resulting aspect ratios. Exactly how this affects what a slide or image looks like is complicated because there are several layers of software and hardware that can influence things. It gets even worse if you’ve viewing images on a TV, yet more hardware & firmware that can ‘help’ you with how things look.

Bottom line

You don’t need to know much about all this to do a good presentation (or take great pictures). But it won’t hurt either and it just might be the clue you need to understand why that slide or the picture is either perfect, or close-but-no-cigar.

What Guy Kawasaki learned from Steve Jobs

December 17, 2011

Guy is is a venture capitalist whose “10-20-30” rule for presentations is one I’ve mentioned before–10 minutes, 20 slides, 30-point font. That was his rule if you wanted to make a funding pitch to him.  He has an interesting blog where he posted an article, What I learned from Steve Jobs.

Photo of guy kawasaki

Guy Kawasaki

His post is worth reading and he made two points that are relevant here and I liked them both:

5. Design counts.

Steve drove people nuts with his design demands—some shades of black weren’t black enough. Mere mortals think that black is black, and that a trash can is a trash can. Steve was such a perfectionist—a perfectionist Beyond: Thunderdome—and lo and behold he was right: some people care about design and many people at least sense it. Maybe not everyone, but the important ones.

6. You can’t go wrong with big graphics and big fonts.

Take a look at Steve’s slides. The font is sixty points. There’s usually one big screenshot or graphic. Look at other tech speaker’s slides—even the ones who have seen Steve in action. The font is eight points, and there are no graphics. So many people say that Steve was the world’s greatest product introduction guy… don’t you wonder why more people don’t copy his style?

Guy Kawasaki, How to change the world

The power of design

image of tablet input with computerOn the first point, I think Guy may be underestimating the power of design a little. I think everyone feels it when the design is right and when it’s seriously wrong. Most of us may not be able to articulate just why, but I think we sense the mediocre middle, too–“it’s okay, but it didn’t grab me”–is one phrase I’ve used, and heard from others, that I think reflects that. And presentations are no different:  like everything they shouldn’t just happen by accident, they should be put together thoughtfully and with a purpose in mind, in other words, they should be designed.

The power of pictures

His second point is both reiterates and reinforces the point in my last post about using pictures in a presentation. Make them big and make them grab the audience. But while that was Steve’s style and it worked for him, that’s not a reason to copy it.  Although Steve didn’t invent that style,  he used it exceptionally well. But the reason to adopt it is simply because it works!  And he knew it.

Anyway, thanks to Guy for an excellent post.

Related posts here:

6 tips for using images in presentations

To succeed as a presenter you must think like a designer

Presentation content checkup: why text is bad

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.

Is a picture really worth a 1000 words?

December 5, 2011

Picture of marigold and butterflyOne of the things that’s consistently recommended by presentation guru’s like Nancy Duarte and Garr Reynolds is the use of images, instead of lots of text.

I’ve used it and I’m a sincere believer in its effectiveness.  However, for presentations in my ‘day job’ environment, rarely have I found an opportunity to embrace the PresentationZen-style with visuals containing few words and lots of pictures.

The reasons are probably are familiar to you and I see them falling into three groups:

  • I’m rarely in full control of the presentation style and there’s an insistence that the slides be slideuments, i.e., all the content is on them, so that means tons of text.
  • The PZ-style is so far out of the expectation that I simply can’t get there.
  • I may not have a decent library of good, topic-appropriate images available, at least not for free.

Despite those obstacles, I keep up the “good fight” and focus on what I can do to improve things and not worry about what I can’t do. Even little changes help.

In the next couple posts I’m going say a bit about using images in our presentations: a little on options for finding them, a bit about what makes a picture a good one for presentation use, and some tips for effectively using them  in your presentation.

And the answer is that the research says a good picture is actually worth a lot more than 1000 words, mostly because picture+text is a lot more effective than any amount of text alone.

Related post:
Visual Composition: the “rule of thirds”

Looking for the posts about scanners and scanning?

November 27, 2011

Pieces of a puzzle.

I’ve rearranged the posts on this and my other blog. The goal is to refocus each of them and reinvigorate both.

This blog will refocus on stuff related to presentations. The other one, What I think about that, will continue to include my philosophical ramblings, and other stuff that interests me but pick up the material from here on scanning and photography.

I’ve moved the photography and imaging posts over there because they’re a better fit there and I’m expanding on that material over there.

There will be a series of new posts here in the coming weeks on presentations and stuff closely related to that.

Thanks for the patience!

We’re running late, you need to cut it to…

May 5, 2011

What to do when your time is cut short?

In another part of the Toastmasters interview (see prior post) with Scott Berkun. they asked him if he encountered the situation where he showed up for, say, a 60-min presentation and the organizers asked him to cut it to 30 or even 15 minutes and, if so, how he handled it.

blue clock face pictureHearing that I immediately thought, “whoa, that’s just like what happens when my time with some senior person suddenly gets cut in half, or worse.”

Scott’s plan
His answer was interesting, not too surprising, but good advice.  He said it happened sometimes and he’d learned to plan for it and not let it get him upset.  To summarize and paraphrase, his response was:

  • You have to plan for it so it doesn’t destroy your ability to be effective.
  • Lay out ‘N’ points that you want to make. N is 3-5 and allocate whatever time you started out with based on the priority of the points. If you’re cut short, reallocate the time on-the-fly.
  • If there isn’t enough to even minimally address all ‘N’ points, allocate whatever you have to the top point or two, and list the others.
  • You also need to have the 30-sec or 1 minute “elevator speech” version, get the bottom line in, offer follow-up, and quit.

That’s great advice and it got me to thinking about applying it to what happens to me or, probably, to you.  So, here’s my thoughts on that to add to Scott’s advice.

Assume you won’t get the scheduled time
Personally, whenever I’m going in to brief a senior person, I start with the assumption the appointment will be half of what I’m told. If I get the full time that’s great—more discussion time or I can make them happy by giving them back a few minutes of their day. I’ve even found that when I can pull it off, just being the presenter who finished under the time is often enough to get a kudo–and get remembered!

Remember the ‘elevator speech
Like Scott, I’ve also learned that I’d better have the less-than-a-minute version to go with the “just leave the slides and I’ll look at it” event. That also works for the case where you only get that brief moment to talk as the person walks out on the way to whatever just preempted your time.

“Just leave the slides
When the “just leave the slides” thing happens, what they get is my leave-behind paper, with or without the slides. Done correctly, the slides aren’t useful without the presenter, and I really don’t want to leave them. But often there’s no choice–it’s what they expect so I’ll leave them, but only with the summary sheet laying on top (which is what they really need). The more senior the person and/or the more important the brief, the more effort I’ll spend on the leave-behind package which will be a 1 -2 page summary sheet and, maybe, slides under it.

Have a plan!

However we handle it, planning for how we deal with getting cut short is crucial. It is going to happen.

Be prepared so it doesn’t destroy your ability to make an impact!