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Can you think of the last time you went to the cinema to see a long movie? Whether a drama, a comedy or an action-packed thriller, if you had some pop-corn with soda, at some point you probably felt the need to relieve yourself. As the images flash back in front of your eyes in a cool and futuristic warping white light, can you recall what were you looking for? Did you expect to see a “Restrooms” sign, or were you looking for this?
From traffic signs to your smartphone, you rely on icons (officially known as pictograms) for quick visual orientation and identification. When used right, they overcome language barriers and offer a quick and easy decryption.
Let’s start off with the bad…
It’s an easy one – presentations filled with verbose content. Yes, a PowerPoint file can certainly be used as a document for self-consumption, in which case I would actually encourage verbose explanations. However, more often than not, we all experience a full blown verbose document being used as a “visual aid” in a presentation. Let’s face it, most of us have suffered through one, and most of us have also made others suffer through one.
We don’t always have the time to translate our verbal ideas and points into visuals that will enhance the understanding of our audience as we present. The downside, at best, is that some members of the audience might think: “well, if it’s all there on the slide, where does this presenter add value? Can he just give me a copy and be gone?” At worst, some in the audience will be outright confused by the verbal attack – both written and spoken.
There are plenty occasions where the presentation is important enough, especially as part of our personal brand, for us to invest the time and make it look good. Making it look good does not mean prettying it up with decorations and color. It means designing it in a way that caters to the audience’s needs and amplifies the message. It makes the audience realize we care about both the audience and the subject, and we have invested the time in putting something that is of interest to them and easily digestible. In that sense, it makes us look good because the audience realizes we get it – we get the subject and we get the audience’s needs.
PowerPoint can help achieve that by offering some visual tools to make us look good. I am, of course, operating here under the assumption that we use them moderately, in balance and where appropriate. These tools are icons, images, videos, diagrams (e.g., SmartArt) and charts. When supporting your story and timed right, these visuals cannot be replaced with words, or at least not in a reasonable time frame.
This blog post focuses on icons as visuals. Let’s briefly review their benefits:
Naturally, it’s not all just goodness. There are downsides to using icons. For example, if you require details or are interested in a more emotional reaction from your audience, then high quality images or videos are a better fit. In addition, while some are universally known, others are culture dependent and may get blank stares. Furthermore, icons can be easily overused, as any other visual element. If your entire presentation is just icons on top of icons, you might end up having a distracted audience because they are trying to decipher the meaning of the icons rather than listening to your message.
With icons, like anything else in life, timing and balance are key.
There are two main tools I use to create icons. The first should already be known to PowerPoint users from previous versions, and that’s the ability to edit the points of a shape. The novelty in PowerPoint 2010 is that you can right-click any shape now (not only free-form) and edit its points. The second tool I use is completely new to PowerPoint 2010 – combine shapes. You can learn about it from the videos in this blog, but to learn about all the possibilities of this tool, please check our previous blog post.
The best way to show how easy it is to create icons is to walk you through the process. Below you will find three videos. The first shows how to customize the ribbon to make sure you have the tools you need available:
The second shows how to create an icon of a light bulb – this is a simple image that can represent an idea, brainstorming or a concept:
The third video shows how to create an icon that is based on a real world object, primarily in order to maintain real-world proportions:
Here are some examples of other icons I created myself, just to show you what you can accomplish by simply playing around with these tools:
If you are not sure which image can serve as an icon for your needs, run a short brainstorming exercise with yourself. Start with the concept you want to represent in the middle, and then write words associated with it, and words associated with the words you wrote. After a minute or two, you should have a list of ideas for images you can use to present most of the concepts.
Have fun visualizing your message, and happy presenting!
-Tal Krzypow Product Planner, PowerPoint
Love this but note that these shapes don't always save back to PPT 2003 as fillable shapes.