Most of the examples I focus on when it comes to creating slides are cases where some sort of data needs to be communicated. But when might our message be better served by an image? If you’ve ever presented from a stage, it’s likely you’ve contemplated and perhaps used pictures in your presentations. What about in our normal day-to-day meetings with slides: when and how can we effectively use images there? In this short post, I’ll share my thoughts on this question.
Too often, I see images used ineffectively. A stretched photo where the sole purpose is to fill empty space on the page, or the stock image of hands shaking that we’ve all seen a thousand times on a slide about partnerships, or a clip art image that’s only tangentially related to the topic and distracts or annoys rather than play any role of utility. I know what the conversations sound like that leads to these: “we have some extra space there—let’s add a picture” or “let’s spice this slide up with an image.” This is both the wrong reason to use images and the wrong way in which to use them.
Images used well can be extremely powerful. I read a stat recently that recall 3 days later is more than six times better when an effective picture is combined with words compared to words alone (John Medina, Brain Rules). The key word here is effective.
Following you’ll find a few points of advice based on my experience when it comes to using images, illustrated by examples from my work. Specifically, I’ll share thoughts related to three tips: (1) commit to the image, (2) make sure it’s on topic, and (3) avoid clip art. This is definitely not a comprehensive list, but rather a few thoughts to prompt you to think about how you’ve historically used images in your work, and consider how you might do so going forward. Let’s look at each of these in a little more detail.
Commit to the image.
Don’t let it seem like an afterthought, rather let the picture take center stage. This generally means having the image take up the entire slide/screen.
I was working with an electric company at one point and we discussed a slide similar to the following:
Note the picture at the top. This is not my area of expertise, so I didn’t know exactly what the picture was showing, but it was clear that everyone in the room did and that it was something bad, helping to highlight the need for insurance. It seemed the image was evoking the desired emotion, but there was opportunity to improve its effectiveness by making it the focus of the slide:
The text in the original would become speaking points in a live setting (and could be put in the speaker notes section of the presentation for context for those consuming on their own).
Below is another case where the pictures were used on a slide in a way that felt more like an afterthought:
An alternative option could be to focus on just one of these, making it take up the whole slide, with just a bit of text to help get the main point across:
Make sure the picture is on topic.
You can have a great picture, but is it great for reinforcing your idea or message? Does it help the audience to “see” something in your head or visualize something you are saying? For the ideal picture-message combo, when the audience later recalls the picture, they are reminded of what you were talking about when you showed that picture.
I use a number of images on slides during my workshops. When we are discussing focusing attention, I introduce the “where are your eyes drawn?” test for determining whether attention is being focused effectively. As part of this illustration, I show a number of pictures and have participants shout out where their eyes are drawn first. I do this for an image of multi-colored balloons to make the point that colorful is not a great goal when it comes to focusing attention. To contrast, I then show the following image, to illustrate how attention-grabbing sparing use of color can be.
After that, if my audience recalls the picture of the red balloon, they will remember the point on contrast. That is an example of an image used effectively.
Avoid clip art.
Clip art and comics can undermine your credibility and the seriousness of what you are presenting. Also avoid anything trite: the aforementioned hands shaking, pictures of money when you talk about sales, a picture of the globe or earth to discuss your global presence: it’s been done before and is not likely to be memorable.
On a related note, I was doing some work with a prominent technology company last year and came across a slide that had been used at a team offsite. This was a highly technical team and this particular slide was meant to be motivational, around the topic of not getting discouraged if initial result for a test or study isn’t what is expected. There were some stats about A/B testing and odds of success improving the more you test. The slide included some text, a couple of graphs, and this image:
Now, I like that this highly technical team was trying to have a bit of fun with their slides. But if a Google image search for “frustrated kid meme” quickly leads me to this (it did), I’m not sure this is the best use of an image for a business deck.* Maybe I’m wrong. Perhaps the goal was to lighten the mood and maybe this accomplished that. But this is probably a risky move in any other context.
*I've since been informed that this particular pic is more commonly known as "success kid meme" (thanks, Neil!).
Beyond the above guidance, I have a few additional tips. Do not stretch. Our eyes are crazy good at picking this up and stretched images look rookie. This may mean cropping to make the proportions work. It also means having a high enough resolution image that you can size it to be what you need without it looking fuzzy or grainy.
I also recommend using images sparingly. Image after image after image can be a lot to process and lead to fatigue (note the same is true for graph after graph after graph, or words after words after words!). Restrict your use of images to where you have the perfect one that’s going to get your audience’s attention, reinforce your point, and help make it memorable.
A few places to read more:
- Better Presentations by Jon Schwabish (chapter 6)
- Slide:ology by Nancy Duarte (chapter 8)
- Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds (chapter 6)
Do you have other tips when it comes to using images effectively, examples of images used well, or additional resources? If so, please leave a comment with details!