Visual aids not only provide spark, they also can help impart substance. If I were using presentation software right now, I'd cook up a few eye-popping charts to show that visual aids increase by 43 percent the chances that your audience will be persuaded to accept your position, according to a University of Minnesota study, and they improve retention by up to 38 percent, according to studies at Harvard University and Columbia University.
If you have one of the popular office software suites, you've got the basics covered. Microsoft PowerPoint is included in the standard and professional versions of Microsoft Office 97 (though not in the small business version), Corel Presentations is in Corel WordPerfect Suite 8, and Freelance Graphics is in Lotus SmartSuite 97.
But you don't have to stop there. Programs such as Astound (www.astoundinc.com) go the extra yard in providing splashy multimedia effects, and ActivePresenter (www.spco.com) makes it child's play to put a presentation on the Internet or your company's intranet. You can use either program by itself or in conjunction with market leader PowerPoint.
You can leverage the Internet not only for publishing your presentations, but also for help in creating them. Microsoft's Web site (www.microsoft.com/office), for instance, provides a host of starter documents, or templates, including those for finance, planning, human resources, sales and marketing, time management and training. They're free for registered users.
Using templates—all the major presentation programs have them—goes a long way to helping you look your best up there in front of everybody. But you still can benefit from having a grounding in the principles of good presentation design. Here are some points to keep in mind:
• Don't overuse multimedia effects. Too much sound, animation or video can look cutesy and unprofessional. Use animation to highlight key points or to illustrate change. Use video to show how a product or process works.
• Choose the right chart. Use bar charts to compare things you can quantify, line charts to represent changes over time and pie charts to show parts of a whole.
• Use a table, instead of a chart, to illustrate timetables, schedules, lists or other highly detailed information.
• Format charts to maximize legibility. In bar charts, use different colors, shades or hatch patterns to distinguish bars. Don't use more than 10 slices per pie chart or four lines per line chart.
• Format text to maximize readability. Use no more than two different typefaces. Left-align—don't center—lists and bullet points. Keep bullet points short—no more than six words per item. Use no more than six bullet points per slide. Don't use all upper case letters.
• Be conscious of the viewing environment. In a darkened room when using projection, choose a light colored type on a dark background. White or yellow on dark blue works well. In a lighted room with overheads, use dark text on a light background. Keep the same colored background throughout the presentation as a unifying theme.
• Emphasize key points. Use contrasting colors to make key textual items stand out and vivid colors for key items in charts or tables.
You can get bleary-eyed not only from sitting through a boring presentation, but also from working long hours in front of a computer monitor. Here's a little trick I recently learned that has reduced eyestrain for me considerably: change the color scheme.
Microsoft Word 97, for instance, makes it easy to change from the default scheme of black type on a white background to white type on a dark blue background. Pull down the Tools menu, select Options, click on the General tab, then place a checkmark in the box before "Blue background, white text."
Doing this decreases the overall luminosity—less light is shining into your eyes. Another way to achieve a similar effect is to reduce the brightness of your monitor, though this can decrease legibility.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at email@example.com or http://members.home.net/reidgold.
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