This month is my first solid month off from 16 hours of active classroom teaching time each week in three years. I have put this small break (I still sit in on class, though my monkey dance time has decreased significantly) off for a while, partly because I am a complete control freak, and partly because if I am perfectly honest, interaction with my students is the closest I get to a meaningful exchange of ideas outside of chatting up my friends on the weekends. I live in a slightly more rural area than I am comfortable with right now (there are roosters in my backyard), and teaching is also my excuse to leave the farms of Apopka and venture into the big city. On top of all that, I also just really love teaching, and the thought of spending the month away from discussions on the subjects I love most is just not that appealing. However, I’ve seen the difference a bit of a break has made in fellow superteacher Alex Rister’s personal and professional endeavors, so I figured I owed myself the chance to work on projects of my own choosing.
This bit of time has given me a chance to explore the place of slides and slide decks in 21st century presentation rhetoric. I had a small “aha moment” when I realized that one way I can punch through that decades-old wall that prevents many teachers, professionals, and individuals from making their way into the realm of simple, clean, design-driven visual aids is to emphasize that whether we realize it or not, a slide deck’s ubiquitousness makes it a powerful, yet often misused tool of rhetoric and persuasion.
Not sure how Aristotle would feel about slides. He might think them a lazy man’s approach to public speech. Then again, show him what they can do in the right hands and he’d be sold.
Image: Brett Jordan
For Aristotle, rhetoric is the ability to find the best available means for persuading an audience in a given situation. This best available means often comes in the form of the three affective rhetorical appeals, ethos or credibility, pathos or emotion, and logos or logic. Like it or not, our slides have become one of the most powerfully effective means of developing these three appeals. But, with such great power and possibility comes responsibility. As presenters, whether we are trained designers or not, we have a responsibility to good slide stewardship. Disregarding the rhetorical power of your slides to be conveyors of your ethos, pathos, and logos is poor stewardship and can damage your audience’s perception of you, your message, and their connection to your topic. So, what exactly is the role of your slides in developing a strong persuasive message?
The Ethos of Your Slides
Ethos is a blend of trustworthiness, empathy, and authority (I mesh reputation in here with authority and trustworthiness). Most important to me is empathy, and here, I can only point presenters to one idea, The Golden Rule: Never give a presentation you wouldn’t want to sit through yourself. Great slides are a breath of fresh air in the forest of slideuments because they illustrate a concern for the audience and the audience’s experience.
How long would you pay attention to a speaker whose presentation featured 10 slides just like this? 20? 30? What does this say about this speaker's command of subject? Whether the view or judgment is accurate, how would you as an audience member view the presenter?
Your slides are a powerful conveyor of ethos, but they can also be an ethos killer. A well designed set of slides contains information that is accurate and displayed in a clean and understandable way. A poorly design set of slides illustrates that you either don’t know your subject or don’t care about engaging your audience. This is especially important in terms of information and data display. Nancy Duarte establishes a very useful set of guidelines for data slides. A great data slide follows these five rules; a great slide also follows these basic principles:
1. Tell the truth
If you have to skew your information to get your audience to believe in your message, then your message is not very strong to begin with. Good ethos is illustrated by command of subject.
2. Get to the point
Why is your slide on the screen? If you can't answer that in one sentence, neither can your audience.
3. Use the right tool for the job
Most people assume I place slides first in the presentation landscape because I devote so much time to them, but designing slides has also taught me to use them only when I need them.
4. Highlight what’s important
Contrast and hierarchy are not just fancy design words--they are principles to live by. Show your audience you see things from their perspective by following the glance media rule--information should be processed quickly and easily.
5. Keep it simple
Great design may be simple and straightforward, but that doesn't make it easy. Reduce your text, reduce your attachment to slides, and reduce the chances your audience will view your credibility in a poor light.
Image: mr • p
As designers, we can use this as a guide for the ethos of our slide deck. These rules help reinforce the importance of trustworthiness and transparency; they can also help establish authority. Authority is a subtle element in slides, and one that many individuals and organizations fail to maximize. Good design lends a presenter authority. Good design indicates confidence (if you don’t rely on bullets, that also means you know your stuff) as well as proof of knowledge and support for the speaker’s ideas, not repetition of the speaker’s ideas. A well executed presentation also shows your audience you bothered to practice and rehearse. Your presentation and your idea matters to you, so it will matter to them.
Look for two more installments in this series–the pathos and logos of presentation design.