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A joke isn’t funny if you have to explain why – and what this means for your slides!

June 16, 2010

A general rule of thumb with a good joke is that you don’t need to explain why it is funny afterward…

You know how it goes, while at the pub one of your friends tells a rather unfunny joke and then upon receiving approximately zero laughs promptly launches into a 2 minute explanation of why it was funny and why you should have been in stitches laughing.

I think the same rule can be applied to our presentations, specifically the visuals in our presentations. Because if you have to explain why your visual aids do indeed aide your points… well then they aren’t very good visual aids!

Your slide/joke should be able to do their job without in-depth explanation.

In my experience this occurs most frequently with the visualisation of data. You know the drill: a slide with an incomprehensible or ineffective chart or graph is shown to the audience and then the next 5 minutes is given to explaining what the chart is showing… For the most part – perhaps with the exception of hardcore PhD level physics data or something – your chart should be able to communicate its message by itself, at any rate this should be your goal when creating the slide in question.

So I had a think about it and came up with a few tips to achieving this:

  • Keep it simple
    NO 3d effects… ever… just say no! Choose the clarity of a 2d chart over the “jazziness” of its deformed 3d cousin.
  • Highlight… but sparingly
    If one piece of data is more important to your case than others why not highlight it by using a different colour? Help the chart/graph direct attention to its most relevant features. However if you are going to highlight objects in your chart make sure you do so sparingly, highlight more than one or two points and then your audience will have no idea what to look at/give their attention to.
  • Make it big and in their face
    Make your chart or graph BIG, don’t hide it in the corner around paragraphs of text, use the whole slide, make it like a road sign, big, clear and unmistakable. Also try to make the text on axes, charts etc large and viewable from every seat in the house, this can go a long way to making your point easier to understand at a glance.
  • Incremental disclosure
    Sometimes a chart or graph can make a great deal more sense when various aspects of it are brought in bit by bit. Lumping a very complex graph up on the screen in one go might be a bit too much for your audience to take. Use animations (subtle ones) to bring in the data bit by bit as you talk the audience through what they are looking at.
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