Obama’s speech…one small steps for slides

In a previous post I blogged about President Obama’s State of the Union speech, where he actually used SLIDES! On one hand, I think it improved his presentation. The promises he was making were clear for the world to see. On the other hand, it did make it harder to get emotionally swept away. It’s an interesting balance.

Many of the slides were good. Some can be improved. As an educational exercise, I offer the following critique and suggested improvements.

This slide, which appears at 21:45 of his speech looks like this. President Obama was setting a goal of reducing American dependence on oil and moving toward clean energy alternatives like nuclear power and wind power.

Now, pie charts are fine. But to really engage and motivate an audience, you have to give them something concrete to imagine, by using pictures or picture words.

This is called the picture-superiority effect; whenever you want people to have a vision for the future, don’t speak in abstract terms and don’t use abstract images. Use picture words that people can imagine and use images that paint a picture of the future. In this case, what does a future look like where 80% of American’s electricity comes from clean energy sources? It is dominated by wind-powered plants. So show that to us.

On the other side of the house, the Republicans attacked the Democrats, using this graph showing how unemployment has EXPLODED under Obama’s government.

There is a ton that can be improved about this graph

  • Too much clutter, what I call mumblers and what Edward Tufte calls chartjunk. These mumblers are like the dense foliage in a jungle; you need to hack away at them with effort to work your way further into the jungle. Mumblers in this chart include horizontal lines, unnecessarily large numbers on the x- and y-axes, unnecessary detailed text
  • Large gaps between the columns. The rule of thumb is the bars should be TWICE as large as the gap
  • Sideways numbers above the bars, which are unnecessarily hard to read. In fact, you don’t need the y-axis at all if the bar values are lincluded
  • Angry red for the Bush bars. Dark red is an alarming colors and sends the wrong message. A softer red can reinforce the Republican party color without appearing alarming.
  • Legend off to the right. Legends need to be integrated close to the data, so the reader can see the legend BEFORE they see the data and minimize unnecessary eye sweeps.
  • No pictures. Whenever possible, try to convert your graphs into concrete pictures. Adding a pictures of Bush and Obama can replace the legend.

I can improve this graph with the below slide.

None of this is meant to be a criticism of our political leaders. On the contrary, I salute the politicians who use visuals to enhance their spoken presentations. There is room for improvement – for all of us – but let’s allow room for experimentation and errors as we try to get our arms around the 21st century requirement to learn how to use visuals to be better communicators.

We’ve come a long way since Ross Perot bobbled his presidential candidacy with silly graph-punctuated speeches like this. I’m glad to see our leaders using the clarifying power of visuals to highlight major points, help us visualize a better future, and be role models of clear communication using spoken text and visuals together.

About the author: Bruce Gabrielle is author of Speaking PowerPoint: the new language of business, showing a 12-step method for creating clearer and more persuasive PowerPoint slides for boardroom presentations. Subscribe to this blog or join my LinkedIn group to get new posts sent to your inbox.

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2 Responses to Obama’s speech…one small steps for slides

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