Obama’s Speech…One Small Step 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.

Copying and Pasting Excel Graphs

When you copy a graph from Excel, don’t just paste it into the slide using Control-V. This will paste it as a graph still linked to the original data. If you change or delete the original data, even accidentally, the graph will also change. And if you email the PowerPoint to someone else you’ll also need to email them the Excel file with the data.

The best way to paste it is as a Windows Enhanced Metafile. This preserves the sharp edges of the image and it looks very professional. To paste, press Control-Alt-V and a window will open. Scroll through to find Windows Enhanced Metafile. This will save it with a border around the graph. I actually don’t like the border and use the cropping tool to remove it, but that’s more a personal taste.

The only problem with Windows Enhanced Metafile is you can’t change the colors of the bars, the text, or anything else. It’s just a picture. 

If you want to be able to manipulate the chart after you paste it, then paste it in a “vector” format (basically means in an editable format). Press Control-V and then select the little drop-down menu that appears in the lower right corner and select “Excel chart (entire workbook)”. In addition to being editable, the image also has no border around it and the background is transparent. Perfect for placing on top of slides with colored backgrounds.


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.

Changing Excel Chart Defaults

Here’s a neat trick that will save you time and frustration when creating charts – save your charts as templates and re-use the settings again in the future.

On the left is an example of a chart using Excel’s defaults. But this chart has too many problems: the bars are too far apart, they are all the same color (where do you want me to focus?), the x-axis has an unecessary maximum of 1,200 with frequent division by 200, there’s unnecessary title, legend and vertical lines.

I want to adjust all this, so I manually correct this to the chart on the right. Note the gray bars are intentionally neutral. I will later highlight the important bars by adding color.

defaults1Excel default  defaults2Manually updated 

You could update the chart each time by manually changing the fill color, deleting the extra elements and so on. But in PowerPoint 2007 there’s a better way: save the second chart as a template so you can re-use it again and again. Here’s how.

To save it as a template

  1. Click on the chart you want to save as a template
  2. Go to the Design tab, and click on Save as Template
  3. Make sure the Charts folder is selected, name your chart template and click on Save

To apply that template to a new chart

  1. Select the data and go to the Insert tab
  2. Click on ANY of the chart types and click on All Chart Types at the bottom of the drop-down list
  3. Click on the My Templates folder in the top of the left navigation box
  4. Select the template you want to apply. If you don’t see the chart names, hover over the icons and the names will appear

Now I have a neutral canvas on which to paint my picture. Maybe my message is look at sales in Toronto! I add some color and bold text and my message is clear – and in half the time.


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.

Slide Makeover: Pie Chart into Persuasion

We often produce slides with graphs but fail to communicate clearly because we focus on the data and not on the message. The data is not your message; it’s your proof. Here’s a slide makeover that turns a pie chart into a persuasive message.

This graphic was produced by SAP to promote a conference for BusinessObjects users. It has many issues,  which was discussed on Stephen Few’s blog. This is not a PowerPoint slide, but it’s similar to what we often see in business slides so I want to use this as an opportunity to demonstrate proper PowerPoint technique by doing a slide makeover.


There is a lot wrong with this graphic

  • Pie charts are poor in general for envisioning information. It’s difficult to compare slices and accurately detect small size differences. Instead, you need to read the labels, which takes longer
  • These pie slices are organized randomly. Actually, they are organized alphabetically, which is a fact that is hidden by the fact that 10 of the 12 slices start with the name BusinessObjects
  • This pie chart doesn’t even add up to 100%, the principle advantage of using pie charts

How do we fix this? If you normally create slides like this, here are the principles of visual literacy that will turn this pie chart into a message your customers will understand and find persuasive.

1. Clarify your message

First, the title. This is the most important part of your slide. You need to get crystal clear on what you’re trying to say and put that in the slide title as a full sentence. We shouldn’t choose the title lightly because it really emphasizes the message for the reader, and helps us focus our slide content.

Apparently, this was part of some material promoting a conference, showing what the previous year’s conference attendees used. Why are they trying to make this point? Because they want the reader of this piece to immediately recognize themselves and say Oh! I use that product too. That means I’ll probably learn something useful there, and will be able to network with others who have the same challenges as me. This is a good message.

We’ll create a title that emphasizes the key point: Last years’ attendees used these BusinessObjects products. In fact, we’ll even bold the phrase Last years’ attendees to focus the reader on our main message. Experiment with a few different titles: You’ll be able to network with other attendees who used these product or Speakers will cover many of the products used by last years’ attendees. Spend some time challenging yourself; always ask is THIS what I’m trying to say on this slide?

2. Select your visuals

So what visual will send the message: Last years’ attendees used these BusinessObjects products? You have lots of choices, but if you want the reader to immediately recognize the technologies they use, you want to rank them using a horizontal bar chart.

Horizontal bar charts are not used enough in business slides. They have several advantages over pie charts and even over vertical bar charts

  • You can easily visualize even small size differences between horizontal bars
  • There is ample room to write labels to the left of the bars
  • It signals high-to-low orientation quickly

BO2-rank random

The pie chart had ranked the products in alphabetical order. Using the same order results in this horizontal bar chart that appears to be sorted randomly. This is no good. You want the most-used technologies to be listed high on the slide so people recognize themselves quickly. So you want to re-order this bar chart in a logical order, highest to lowest in this case.

BO3-rank sorted

Ranking the 12 products is better. But there are still some problems with this slide. First, the graph and text is all black and white. This lack of color is fatiguing for the eye. Second, each item begins with the name BusinessObjects, which makes it hard to scan this list and find the technology you use.

3. Use color to direct attention

For legal reasons, SAP probably needs to keep the name BusinessObjects in each product name. We’ll reduce the name BusinessObjects to a light gray, making it recede into the background. Then we’ll bold the list of product names and introduce the color blue. This makes it easy for the eye to quickly scan the list and the blue adds visual interest which increases the reader’s attention.

BO3.5-rank sorted color

Great! We’ve used color to first subdue the word BusinessObjects, keeping it on the slide to satisfy our legal team, but making it easy for the eye to ignore. We’ve also used colors to both make it easy to scan and to increase the visual interest in this slide.

4. Your message should emphasize attendees

But one final change is needed. This is just a slide with data. Look at the slide title. What is our message? Our message is they’ll find other conference attendees who also use these technologies.

Whenever you talk about people, try to include a picture of people. It may seem cheesy, but it does have an impact on the reader and their ability to quickly understand your message.


This small change actually makes a big difference. The eye looks at pictures before words, so by placing this picture prominently in the upper-left quadrant of the slide, where the eye goes first, we have emphasized our main message without requiring any reading. This is powerful.

Here’s the before and after. Which one is clearer, more professional and more persuasive? Which one would you want to show customers?



BO1-pie BO4.5-attendees

One significant challenge creating compelling slides today is our poor access to photography and clip art. Some people say you shouldn’t use clip art, but I disagree. Clip art can be used as long as it increases the reader’s ability to quickly understand the message. Photography is difficult because we don’t have easy access to photography. Images on the internet are typically protected by copyright. You can buy stock photography, but this can start to get expensive for day-to-day reports and planning documents.

The image used on this slide is from the PowerPoint clip art collection. Clip art is not always exactly what we want, but until a company figures out how to give us more image options, business professionals simply need to work with what they have.


  1. Write a clear slide title that emphasizes your slide’s key message. Write it out as a full sentence and don’t use a category title like Products used last year that leaves the reader confused about your message. Spend time at this step crafting a clear message and try several titles until you’re satisfied you’ve captured your message accurately.
  2. Use the correct graph to display data. Pie charts are generally poor because viewers cannot quickly understand relative sizes of pie slices. Horizontal bar charts, sorted from high to low, communicate more clearly and are easier for the reader to quickly scan.
  3. Use color to direct attention and add visual interest to your slides.
  4. Use pictures of people when talking about persons as the main message. Use clip art if necessary.

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.