Mar 282014

The Function of Powerpoint Slides

When I give workshops on using slides in presentations, I bring two famous children’s books as examples of two kinds of illustration: literal and explanatory.

presentation slide

Literal illustration

First, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, by Eric Carle. As you might imagine, it’s a book about food. The beautiful pictures are all very direct: when the text mentions cheese, there’s a picture of cheese, for example. The pictures are engaging, and it is a great book for teaching children about caterpillars, food and the days of the week. This style of illustration is how many people approach their presentation slides.

presentation slide

Explanatory illustration

On the other hand, Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak, takes a different approach. Sendak doesn’t just illustrate the words in his story. His pictures show us things that the words aren’t saying. For example, when the text says, “Max made mischief of one kind and another,” the picture shows us what kinds of naughty things Max did. There is no need for explanatory text like, “Max took the hammer, poked a hole in the wall, then jumped off the stairs and scared the dog…”

You can use each style of pictures, the literal and the explanatory, in your presentation slideshow. Just be clear what you are doing.

When to use which kind of slide

If you are talking about things, like the caterpillar book, show things. Use literal illustration. Show tools, cakes, your product, your design. Show them on a PowerPoint slide, draw a picture on a flipchart, or, even better, bring a sample, a prototype, or 3-D print.

On the other hand, if you are talking about concepts like teamwork, partnership, or productivity, you need to be creative with your visuals.

Then you need to use the explanatory kind of image. You have the opportunity to show things that you don’t have time to say.

How to show teamwork

Take an idea like teamwork, for example.

Instead of automatically taking a photo of the latest world champion team off the Internet, (that would be literal,) try asking the following questions:

  • What aspects of teamwork are important for this presentation?
  • What are the benefits of teamwork that you could show your audience?
  • What elements of teamwork are they currently missing?
  • Do you want to show teams that build or teams that play?
  • Should you use images of animals or of sports or something else, like TV news reporters?
  • Do you need a timeless image or one from today’s news?
  • What kind of picture speaks to your audience?
  • Do you need a photo? a drawing? an organizational chart?
  • How are you going to show it? How does it support your text?

Most importantly:

  • What image will explain your point so powerfully that you don’t even need to say anything?

If a picture is worth 1000 words…

Finally, if the image isn’t great, if it doesn’t say exactly what you need it to say, don’t use it. Push B or W on your keyboard. Blank out the screen. Tell us about it instead.

You don’t have to have a picture for everything. If a picture is worth a thousand words, and you show unnecessary pictures, then you’ve just spread a thousand words of wasted time.


If you want some further presentation advice, please send me an email:

Jonathan Talbott founded TIP (Talbott International Presentations) in 2012 with the ambition to make the world more interesting, one presentation at a time. He is internationally recognized for helping his clients create and deliver presentations that go straight to the point and achieve results. He has helped hundreds of people and companies improve their pitches (small presentations), which has led to a direct increase in their bottom line. For longer presentations, his clients have included both small and multinational companies, non-profits, start-ups and political parties. TIP is based in The Hague in the Netherlands.

Copyright © 2014, Jonathan Talbott

  2 Responses to “Presentation Slideshows Part 1”

  1. A clear-cut, useful message. “Use visuals but use them functionally” is very important. There is a tendency to clutter your presentation with visuals but obviously that does not always bring home the bacon.

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