Slide Makeover – John Boehner’s Debt Ceiling Deck

The U.S. voted to increase the debt ceiling and now John Boehner’s PowerPoint deck, explaining the plan, is already drawing traffic tickets from the PowerPoint vigilantes online. Infractions so far: use of bullet points, use of a blue background and no pictures.

Actually, the deck has a lot going for it. There’s nothing wrong with bullet points or a blue background. The problem is how the information is organized and displayed. As an educational exercise, I show you a slide makeover.

The first step is the slide title. The main message of every slide should be summarized crisply in the slide title. In this case, Boehner’s message is: Cuts that exceed the debt hike. Huh? The title says what the slide is about, but not the message. So the reader has to roll up his sleeves and start plodding through the text to figure out the slide’s point.

Instead, summarize that point in the title. Boehner’s point is that his plan combines spending cuts that offset the debt ceiling increase. So say that: Spending cuts will exceed debt hike.

Many SourPointers may shriek that this slide uses (gasp!) bullet points. But that’s not the problem. The problem is how difficult it is to present the bullet points to an audience.

A better way to show text is to use selective reading blocks, which uses a text summary in the left column and the full text in the right column. This aids “selective reading”; the ability to quickly skim a document to understand the main points and “select” which points to read more about. The left column uses larger font and bolder colors, to draw the eye.

Selective reading blocks also aids presenting. The speaker can refer to the first talking point and say “First of all, my plan is the same as those that have already been approved by the House” and then elaborate on that point. The audience can quickly locate the keywords “same” and “House” and know which point is being covered. The original bulleted list obscures those keywords in the lengthy sentence.

We have the same text on this slide as the original, but it’s now organized using visual communication principles so the message is clearer and it’s easier to skim and to present the main talking points.

This slide is not appropriate for a large-audience presentation where the audience may be 20 feet or more away from the screen (Ballroom-style presentation) but is completely appropriate for presenting to small interested audiences who want to see the speaker’s full text or may want to refer to this document later (Boardroom-style presentation). So the text is appropriate in this case.

The graphic design is also a bit plain. Nothing wrong with that, but attractive slides are easier to agree with and there are many ways to create a professional-looking boardroom-style template. For instance, we could add an American flag to the title bar (Photo: (c) *Micky), with a sliver of the picture at the bottom to bracket the slide. I’ll also adjust the blue so it matches the blue in the flag, using Color Cop to find an exact color match.

What about swapping the text for pictures? You could do that by looking at the slide title for the keywords. In this case, the keywords are “cut” and “exceed”. “Exceed” suggests a bar chart comparing two values. “Cut” suggests an action of cutting one of those bars in half. Something like this could work:

But you can see this slide is not self-explanatory. Sure, Boehner can speak to this slide, maybe even use animation to show the scissors snipping spending in half and then building up the debt ceiling. But the audience is looking for details of the plan so they can discuss and debate, not over-simplified visuals. You are obliged to give them the text.

Some might argue you can put the text in the notes section. That’s fine, but most people do not actually read the notes section. And if they do, their attention is now split between the text and the pictures. In fact, it’s unnecessary to hide the text in the notes section; you can add it easily to the slide.

The text is on the left because the eye looks there first. The headings are bold and large because the eye can quickly skim the main talking points and ignore the lengthier text unless the reader wants to drill in deeper. The picture reinforces the main ideas of “cut” and “exceed”.

Some might argue, why not just use a text document. The answer is, you CAN just use a text document if you want to. But a text document is harder to present, harder to discuss and doesn’t support visuals as well. Is this any clearer because it’s a text document?

A text document is no guarantee of greater clarity or brevity. Text documents can be poorly written and rambling too. No, PowerPoint is a great way to briefly present ideas for discussion, as long as it’s presented using research-based visual communication principles.

Which slide do you think communicates Boehner’s ideas more clearly? More instantly? More memorably? Which slide would be easier to present and discuss? Easier to read?

Before: Wall of Text After: Easy to Present

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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5 Responses to Slide Makeover – John Boehner’s Debt Ceiling Deck

  1. Fantastic post…both us us did similar posts with Mitt Romneys slides.

    Frankly, I was so depressed by the whole debt ceiling proces that I took a pass on this one. Plus, the black bakgound just added to the malaise.

    • Thanks for visiting the blog Irwin!

      The main question people need to ask when they’re approaching these slides is: are they meant to be presented to a large audience in a dimly-lit auditorium (Ballroom-style) or a small group of interested decision makers who want to discuss and debate (Boardroom-style).

      Ballroom-style requires more visuals, less text and more colorful graphic design. Boardroom-style requires more text/less visuals, clean but subtle graphic design. The problems with Mitt Romney’s slide, and John Boehner’s slide also, is trying to create some combination Ballroom/Boardroom-stye presentation and doing neither one well.

  2. Design professor says:

    Ya, I see what you were going for here, but I have to say, I find Boehner’s original slide more professional, if nothing else. Add a little space between the bullet points, or better yet, break this one slide out into four slides (title + one for each point) and you’d have a winner for minimal simplicity.

    That said, there’s some pretty serious issues with your redesign:

    1. Check out “Presentation Zen” for tips on typography. It’s got loads of great information. Right now, the body copy way, way, way too small, the typeface selection is difficult to read because of the cramped kerning and tall x-height:

    2. Scissors clip art? I mean, I know this is just a comp and all, but this is the US government, the most powerful nation on earth…

    3. White text on dark background is difficult to read, as you noticed in the original deck. Why reproduce that? Also, the faded dark picture is too difficult to make out, without adding anything meaningful to the information — see Tufte’s “data-ink”:

    4. The whole approach is a bit pedestrian — there’s something to be said for not insulting your audience. The fact is, Boehner’s audience are made of Washington’s powerful and elite, including the president… I don’t think these people need it “dumbed down and dressed up”. This crisis is serious. Anyone getting “bored” by Boehner’s slides should not be in the room.

    I like the thought process behind your approach. Of all the variations, I thought this was the most successful: — the contrast is right, just lose the dark background graphic and go with the same solid blue for consistency. I find the light blue a bit too girly for government, but that’s me — I would go with just straight white + dark blue.

    • Thanks for visiting the blog and for your thoughtful comments. I agree with some of your points. My responses:

      1 – I agree Arial Narrow is wrong for body copy. The font size is large enough because the headings are readable and the body copy is easy to ignore unless you want to read it.

      2 – Like you, I actually prefer the slide without the scissors. The scissors do make the slide message clear in an instant, unlike the original. But they are bit unnecessary.

      3 – White knockout text is not hard to read when it’s short, only when it’s extensive. Steve Jobs uses white knockout text for short phrases. Tufte’s data-ink ratio is fine when used in moderation. Taken literally, you would produce a white slide with gray text. Visually fatiguing and hard to sustain interest.

      4 – These slides use the same text as the original, but presented using principles of good visual communication. The issue is not boring the audience, but failing to communicate with them. While Boehner’s original slides look sturdier and more authoratative, they are much more challenging to read and understand. Perhaps that’s why he used them.

  3. Pingback: John Boehner’s PowerPoint Presentation Critiqued – 24Point0 PowerPoint Tips

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