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Are You Sending Unintentional Messages in Your Presentations?

It's hard enough to develop and deliver strong and concise intentional messages in a presentation, so it's important that we don't allow any unintentional messages to infiltrate our presentations– messages that either undermine what we are trying to say or that confuse the concepts being delivered. Unintentional messages frequently occur in the choice or layout of the graphics on a slide. Let's take a look.

Unintentional Messages Resulting from
Choosing Incorrect Graphics

A good example of a poorly chosen graphic is the often-used (overly used) horizontal flow – the most commonly used conceptual graphic in presentations. Horizontal flows are very elegant when used correctly, but extremely inelegant when misused. The following are a few examples of horizontal flow misuses and alternatives.

Illustrating steps

It is a force of habit to use the horizontal flow for illustrating anything and everything that has a sequence,and habits are difficult to break. It would be worthwhile to break this habit, however. While the horizontal flow is not incorrect,it is not as articulate as some other options.As you can see, the flow chart below can sequence the steps …

… but the step chart that follows does more than sequence. It illustrates the elevation in the level of activities as the goal gets closer.

Illustrating driving forces

The horizontal flow is commonly used to convey a driving-force concept, but it is not the best choice. There is a big difference between one activity flowing into the next and one activity driving the next. Below is the flow at work.

The cogs are a better choice to illustrate a driving force, and they can be interestingly animated for added impact.

Illustrating data

Presenting data in an incorrect format has the same effect. For example,a column chart can present trend data, but a line chart is much more effective. The audience focuses on the characteristics of the trend line in a line chart, but focuses on the volume of the columns in a column chart. This may seem like a small matter, but delivering a high-quality message depends on paying attention to all aspects of the presentation, including degrees of"correctness."

Correctly formatted column charts should have the values above the columns, because it's too difficult for your audience to track back and forth from a left-hand Y axis to value each column.

With the values above the columns, your audience is focusing on volume values – not trend.
Trend charts, when correctly formatted, do not have the values of each year above or below the line, but rely on a Y axis to establish the values. Therefore, the audience tracks the line trend without attempting to identify a value for every year. If you're talking about trend, this is what you want them to do.

Another concern is not necessarily that of sending an incorrect message, but not sending a strong enough message. The most common example of a missed opportunity to send a strong, impactful message is using an unembellished bulleted list when using a conceptual framework or using photographs to set tone are better choices.

The slide below has the same content as the list above, but it is much more engaging. It also establishes a tone for the slide that the unadorned bullets can't.

The string of applicants implies the commitment of time and effort screening and selecting applicants. The happy woman with the briefcase implies an employee with high morale. There is still likely to be a hiring process by promoting from within, but the photograph focused the audience on the positive, happy employee. The group of women who will receive pieces of the eliminated position are neither happy nor sad, which could imply that they are not thrilled but it is not going to be a problem to pick up new responsibilities.Photos can convey as much as conceptual graphics and frameworks if done carefully.

Unintentional Messages Resulting from
Developing Incorrect Layouts

The most common difficulties with layouts and unintentional messages occur with organization charts. Organization charts convey the strata of an organization. When the boxes are not perfectly aligned and distributed or the boxes on the same level are not the same size, the audience looks for a reason.Is there a hierarchy within that level?Is one position within that level more important than another, either strategically, possessing more subordinates, or so on?

Organization charts are usually more highly sensitive than other types of charts because of their political implications. The org chart below is perfectly aligned, spaced (distributed), and sized. No inference can be made about the importance or significant of any part of the chart other than what is intended.

The chart below is poorly laid out and aligned. Do Jill and Sylvia need more direction from the person or entity represented by the blue customer service box? Is Sylvia less senior or less important than James or Jill? Are Sylvia's areas of responsibility smaller than James's and Jill's? Is Jill or technical support more valuable than the sales and after-sales customer service? Many unintentional and unnecessary questions can be asked as a result of a poorly laid out org chart.

Issue trees or process flows have the same types of issues as org charts, although they do not tend to be as politically charged. Alignments on slides are important for aesthetic reasons:the lack of attention to detail in one area (sloppiness in layout)indicates a possible lack of attention to detail in other areas (more important matters). Alignments can, as you have seen, signal your audience to start looking for unspoken meanings and interpretations. It's best to keep your audience from being distracted by things like this, which you can completely control.

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We've just reviewed two ways that unintentional messages can be conveyed to your audiences. Be mindful of both as you write, layout, and proof your presentations.