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Content-Style Killers and How to Avoid Them

In order to have content-style killers, there needs to be a content style. Companies frequently spend considerable time and money designing presentation title and content pages – the template backgrounds. A lot of thought is put into the look, feel, and branding aspects of the backgrounds; and the results are many times very pleasing and effective. This is only the first step at setting a presentation style. Roughly the same amount time that was spent designing the background needs to be spent developing style preferences for the content. The content should blend with and compliment template backgrounds. For example, if the background is free flowing and organic, the contents should work with that style – limited sharp edges, semitransparent elements so that the flow is visible through the objects, etc. If the background is geometric or architectural, the contents should complement that style … and so on. Making content-style choices that allow for this type of blending will produce a higher-quality presentation. A plan!

Content style plan

What are the considerations and decisions that need to be made in order to develop a content style? A starting-point list of content-style choices include:

  • A color scheme. It is surprising how frequently companies' templates do not have a set color scheme other than the standard Microsoft PowerPoint default scheme. Thoughtless use of color is the no. 1 content style killer.
  • An established preference about how the colors are applied. For example, the arrows used in a presentation that take the audience from one part of the slide to another should all be consistently formatted. Tables should all be formatted the same, using the same heading colors, divider line colors, etc. Data-driven charts should pull their colors from the color palette in a prescribed manner: maybe you want to designate a color in the palette to always represent a certain product or activity, etc.
  • 3D or no 3D in data-driven charts and elsewhere in the document. If you use 3D, is it the 3D box-like 3D in pre-PowerPoint 2007 or is it the PowerPoint 2007 element design presets and options that give volume to objects and lift them off the slide through the use of drop shadows? Use whatever blends best with template background and then use them consistently. Note: by the way, PowerFrameworks does not advocate the use of 3D in data-driven charts.

Graphics choices – clipart vs. photographs and conceptual graphics styles. Decisions need to be made regarding the types of visual support that are used in a presentation. Are photographs preferred? Is clipart preferred? Are chevrons preferred over arrows in conceptual flows? Within those preferences are still more choices. What styles of clipart are allowed? Is it okay to mix the styles? These issues need decisions.

The number of preferences that should be established in these four starting-point areas can be few or many, depending on how many people in your organization create presentations. Large companies tend to set more style preferences so that all presentations appear to come from "the company" instead of individuals within the company. Smaller companies tend to let the presentation developers/presenters set the style. This is not always a good tactic.

Content-style killers

Presentation-development practices can sometimes kill the style of a presentation. The following situations frequently occur as presentations are being developed.

  • Embedded color schemes are not in sync with the template background. Create a color scheme for your template. Color schemes should include a mix of bold and light colors. They should, of course, match or blend with your template's background. If you don't know how to develop a color scheme, get some help. Graphic designers can easily develop a palette of colors for you, especially if you used the designer to create the backgrounds. It shouldn't cost very much. If you choose to do this yourself without the help of a designer, there are a few tools you can use to make the job easier.

    If you are using pre-PowerPoint 2007, you can use ColorPicker by pptXtreme, http://www.pptxtreme.com/colorpicker.asp. This add-in will help you match colors in your background perfectly. You can also visit the Adobe Kuler site, http://kuler.adobe.com/. This site contains a lot of very nice color schemes that can be used, but also has the capability of helping you design a custom scheme.

    If you are using PowerPoint 2007, there is a design feature that may be all you need. You still may want to use Adobe Kuler, however, if you want something that is not "canned." We recommend a totally custom color scheme if at all possible.

Content imported from other presentations or sources. Not only does this content have a different color scheme, but it almost always contains different formatting and style choices than your content. Do not use screen shots of charts, tables, or other graphic representations. Recreate the material within your template using your style choices. Do not cut corners or save time by using content like this in its original form. Also, be sure to source this type of content, giving credit where credit is due. The only time it is permissible to use a screenshot is when you are showing a website page, proprietary software pages, or objects that cannot be recreated.

Excel charts imported into the presentation. Excel worksheets and charts are tremendous tools for modeling, developing supporting data, and manipulating and parsing data to deliver precise messages. Pre-PowerPoint 2007 versions do not have the luxury of working with Excel as a native program within PowerPoint. It is, therefore, difficult to format Excel charts to match the other data-driven charts that were developed in Microsoft Graph. Everyone knows that there are a lot of reasons to import an Excel chart: number changes, data is trackable back to the worksheet at later dates, etc. There is one very large reason not to use imported Excel charts in presentations, however: they kill the style. Your audience does not make allowances for the good reasons you have imported the Excel chart, they only see that the presentation is disjointed and out of sync. Either recreate the chart in Microsoft Graph so that it blends with the other presentation content or (and this is not the best choice) copy the imported Excel chart and place it out of sight off the slide (in the gray area). Then ungroup the Excel chart and format the fields so that they match the rest of your content. Your presentation style is preserved.

You'll be happy to know that PowerPoint 2007 uses Excel as the charting program – no more Microsoft Graph. Excel used in PowerPoint 2007 has access to all of the formatting options and color choices within your presentation template. Formatting data-driven charts is much faster and easier. This alone is a good reason to upgrade.

Graphics that are either poor choices or that are formatted badly. Everyone agrees that a highly visual presentation is more engaging and encourages message retention. But using graphics poorly or inconsistently is almost worse than not using them at all.

  • The biggest transgression is using poor-quality clipart and mixing clipart styles. Don't do this. If you use clip art (for icons, as illustrations of concepts, etc.), make sure that the style of the clipart matches the style of your template. Don't use screen beans in your otherwise very formal and tailored template. The two styles will not blend. Be discriminating when selecting clipart.
  • Photographs can have styles as well. Be sure you select similarly shot photographs and format photographs consistently. For example, are you using frames, grayscale or color tinting, or other photograph formatting treatments? Use them consistently.
  • Conceptual graphics have styles, particularly flows. Do you use arrows or chevrons in your flow graphics? Choose one and try to use that style consistently. Do you use gradient fills, outline colors, patterns? Use them consistently.

These observations and suggestions should give you a starting point for developing your presentation style. They are not an exhaustive list of what needs to be done, but they will hopefully raise your sensitivities to the issues that need to be addressed. The time spent working out the style preferences will pay off over the long term. Don't cut corners here.