Friday, July 24th, 2009 4 comments


slide:ology by Nancy Duarte

Among the largest and priciest books on the ‘Business Presentations’ bookshelf, and written by one of the USA’s leading authorities on presentations, slide:ology promises a great deal.  With its coffee-table-chic format, high-profile case studies and on-the-nose interjections from trendies like Garr Reynolds and Seth Godin, it cries out to presenters who are looking for something more aesthetically inspirational than the abundant boardroom manuals.

In this area slide:ology certainly does not disappoint. Complimenting Nancy’s earnest and passionate belief, the pages make pleasing use of imagery, typefacing, colour, imagery and all the other graphical niceties that the author knows and loves to teach. Unfortunately, the inviting use of white space and friendly ‘one idea per spread’ format that makes this book so accessible also makes it feel suspiciously lightweight. Insightful as most of the key ideas are, the breeziness with which they are dealt and the lack of scientific insight into why they work mean it is the graphic design sections of this book that have the most credibility.

Nancy’s Manifesto: The Five Theses of the Power of a Presentation is, puzzlingly, delivered right at the end of the book:

  • Treat Your Audience as King
  • Spread Ideas and Move People
  • Help Them See What You’re Saying
  • Practice Design, Not Decoration
  • Cultivate Healthy Relationships

These principles are huge, and it is disappointing to find them right at the end of the book instead of seeing the content of slide:ology arranged around them. Readers will have to flip back through the book to look again for the ‘how?’ behind these ideas, while they might have had more impact by being introduced at the start, proven with hard evidence, and then demonstrated with the rest of the content.

The Art of Presenting, Without the Science

In her introduction Nancy says “This book covers how to create ideas, translate them into pictures, display them well, and then deliver them in your own natural way.” For the most part, this promise is admirably delivered upon. But in the same paragraph she then says “This book will teach you “why””, but it is this part of the picture that is sadly under-represented here.

Yes, pretty much anyone with exposure to presentations and an eye on the media knows that a global evolution from text-based to visual-based slides is gathering momentum. Nancy assumes her reader understands this, makes a strong case for presentations (and a decent case against ‘career suislide’ – the unhappy consequence of sticking with cue card-style presentations), and then launches into the creative starting-point; knowing who your audience is and figuring out what kind of engagement you need to have with them. This reader can’t help but feel that going into more depth about exactly why the tired old methods don’t work (and are actually counter-productive) would have provided enough intellectual ballast to keep everyone afloat all the way up until Chapter 11 – Interacting with Slides, when some of the cognitive rationale behind a visual approach actually starts to emerge.

The justification behind the central theses of the book comes too little and too late. Readers who are reluctant to start learning about design might need some clear facts about what makes bullet-points so harmful, and why audiences find it easier to assimilate visual information, to give them the motivation to keep reading through the dense central chapters on design. Alternatively, they may quite understandably be inspired to rethink their approach and subsequently convinced that Duarte can do it for them. As Nancy says after whetting our appetites for visual techniques in Chapter 2 – Creating Ideas, Not Slides: “Be prepared to enlist the help of a professional designer (you did plan far enough ahead to make sure you’ve got one available, right?)” Excellent advice, but it slightly undermines the tutorial styling of the design chapters to come.

That said, readers who already know that Al Gore’s ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ Keynote presentation is Duarte’s work will probably be quite happy to take Nancy’s word for all this, skip past the chapter on finding inspiration and sketching out our thoughts on Post-Its (because most of you already know our subject) and dive into chapters 3 and 4 on Creating diagrams and Presenting data. Gore did, after all, win hearts and minds all over the world by clearly and dramatically presenting the right data in the right way.  And in this area, slide:ology is a resounding success.

Killer Visualisation

All too often, presentation gurus claiming ambassadorship of the visual slide paradigm fail to address the critical skill of transforming a complex idea into a simple visual, instead falling into the ‘zen’ paradigm of full-bleed, eye-candy photographs and two or three-word shock headings. By contrast, the insightful creative process Nancy sets out along with pages of example diagrams and schematics is a hugely valuable resource…all the more so given that PowerPoint 2007 already provides many of the example diagrams in its SmartArt feature ready for non-designers to start inserting. The only caveat to these chapters is that sometimes Nancy’s sketching gets a little too enthusiastic….there are diagrams of a complexity that can completely baffle audiences unless considerable thought and work is put into how they are animated and explained.

On that subject, we have to wait until much later in Chapter 9 – Creating movement for some guidance into how to use animation effectively. That’s rather late in the day to mention such an essential and underused component of presentation software. Nancy does provide some great high-level insight into how to use effects to support different types of message (motion paths to show connections, advanced emphasis effects to show takeover or surpassing etc), but she does ask quite a lot of the inexperienced user by looking at animation more from a movie-director’s point of view than a PowerPoint or Keynote designer’s. The most useful tips here are delivered across twoparticular idea-spreads, Designing Time-Based Scenes and Planning Animations, which could easily have been fleshed out into an entire chapter at the expense of the cinematography-inspired theory that follows.

Bringing it All Together

In addition, much of the valuable insight from the earlier chapters on diagrams and visual sequences could have been combined with the animation advice to really inspire a dynamic approach to building and animating visuals that keep audiences engaged, but sadly this never happens. We get a whole Chapter 6 – Arranging Elements demonstrating how to lay out visual elements in sympathy with the eye’s natural flow of direction (at least, the natural Western eye’s direction), and different types of layout that encourage audiences to easily perceive hierarchy, progression and relationships. I can’t help thinking that this would be so much simpler to achieve by building the elements of the slide in the right order with the right effects. There are several very perceptive ideas in all of these chapters, but frustratingly they never quite combine to show how some truly dynamic explanations could be achieved relatively easily.

Design for All?

As much as Nancy tries to make the design-based chapters - Thinking Like a Designer, Arranging Visual Elements and Using Visual Elements – accessible to everyone, readers without some background and/or a keen interest in graphic design will likely find them difficult to embrace and apply. The case studies are certainly demonstrative of the various elements of theory that are expounded, but the slides shown are so disparate that it is difficult to see the principles being consistently applied. In addition, one of the most startling things about the selected slide examples is that they do not fully represent the depth of Nancy’s visual thinking. Too many of the slides still show text of a very small size and in full sentences, which is disqualified by some of the guidelines she sets out in Chapter 11 – Interacting with Slides.

Although there is strong encouragement for presenters to move away from basing slides on text, this appears as more of an afterthought in the final chapters. It might have made more sense first to set up arguments why this is a bad idea and then to build the alternative techniques around them. By presenting ideas about ‘Constraining the Text’, ‘Constraining the Length’ and ‘How Many Slides?’ at the end of the book, one feels Nancy has foregone an opportunity to make a strong case for a dynamic visual style in favour of her passionate expertise for creating attractive graphics. In addition, many of the examples jar with current psycho-perceptual theory with application to presentations; there is an abundance of large, full-face human photographs, which are shown to consume excessive cognitive load in audiences and make it difficult for them to concentrate on anything else. While this would not be an issue in traditional graphic design, there are different rules for presentations when cognitive processing is at a premium.

slide:ology could easily have been two books: one very capable and detailed guide to producing graphics that work well in presentations, and one explaining why bullet-points fail and visuals work. The latter thesis however, would need significant fleshing out to make a convincing case. Conspicuously absent from slide:ology is any attempt to delve deep into cognitive aspects of presenting and how to structure information to make long-term influences on audiences.  There are several brainstorming workshops offered in the book, from psychoanalytic ‘know thyself’ wordgames to exercises for generating and structuring ideas, and while the therapy-style presentation of these may not be to everyone’s taste, they are useful. This book is not focused on business or sales presentations, and readers seeking guidance on creating competitive value propositions and sales messaging will find these exercises lacking in substance.


With all that in mind, slide:ology is one of the best books available on creating visual presentations, even if its reach outweighs its grasp. A lack of psychological insight and a breezy style, that does not do justice to the many profound ideas littered throughout, may leave serious readers unsatisfied. Yet the chapters on presenting data and visualising information are almost worth the price alone, as long as readers have already bought into the approach before picking up the book. Highly recommended, but not quite the bible of effective presenting that it could have been.

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4 Comments to slide:ology

  1. #1

    Presentation Fan

    3:29 pm, July 24th, 2009

    Not sure that the book suffered by missing out large sections on cognitive theory.

    A flaky understanding of this means that too many people spout cod psychology rather than going back to the basics of structure and design.

    I like the clear colorful approach of the book. It provides a useful touchstone for powerful presentations.

  2. #2

    John Bevan

    10:06 am, July 26th, 2009

    Yes, a grounding in (graphical) structure and design is important, but this is a book about presentations, not just graphic design.

    Effective presenting is not just about displaying the information in a clear and attractive way, but making sure audiences cannot ignore it, find it easy to assimilate, and become influenced by it in the long-term. To achieve this we need some understanding of how people process and store information, and how to apply the design principles in that context. Otherwise we might have beautiful slides without a memorable message.

    As I said, this is one of the best books on presentations I’ve read, but that’s what I felt was missing, not necessarily large tracts of theory.

  3. #3

    Presentation Fan

    11:44 am, July 27th, 2009

    Sure, but I think you run the risk of over complicating what can be a simple and natural process.

    For me to enjoy a good book, I need the author to have created a compelling story that retains my attention. A quality storyteller does this through carefully structuring and developing the content. They don’t do it by taking night classes in psychology and trying to figure out how the reader processes each word, line or chapter.

    Apologies if I’m questioning your approach but I’m yet to be convinced that this over analysis is helpful. Cynically, I’d question if it’s more about your sales message rather than really helping the presenter.

  4. #4

    John Bevan

    2:14 pm, July 27th, 2009

    No apology needed for a lively debate! But I’d suggest that your analogy is a little skewed towards the creative process rather than the objective. A work of fiction has a very different purpose to a presentation, whose aim is to sell, educate or persuade, rather than to entertain someone who has already made a purchase.

    Crucially as well as a more immediate objective, the presenter has the opportunity to control the audience’s focus and pace their exposure to the information. Getting this right takes some understanding of how we pay attention and process information, and can mean clearly articulating the message and influencing behaviour. Getting it wrong makes the presentation a waste of time, even more so if hours have gone into the design.

    It’s far more important to help the audience understand and remember the key messages than to help the presenter get through the ordeal of delivering them. That’s why we need to know how to manipulate attention and memory before we even consider how to execute the design.

    Without cynicism, an understanding of audiences’ cognitive processes is absolutely central to the sales presentation methodology we follow and recommend. We believe that knowing how to get through to your audience and make sure they can retain your message for longer is a clear advantage. So we make sure every presentation we produce achieves those things, and that’s how we improve sales for our clients.