Spaghetti Slide Makeover

The NY Times has stirred up the PowerPoint haters again, with this article repeating the oft-heard complaint that PowerPoint dumbs down ideas. And to illustrate that, the journalists show this complex PowerPoint slide. It has become known as the “spaghetti slide” because it looks like long strands of pasta.


Complex slides like this are powerful and useful in boardroom-style presentations. Business issues are complex so it’s important to learn how to love these kinds of slides. Here’s my take on it.

First, it’s great that the Pentagon is using visuals to drive decisions. Research shows that when visuals are used, decisions are more likely to be reached through discussion and consensus, and not by conflict and domineering personalities. Visuals externalize ideas, make assumptions explicit and allow for shared meaning to be negotiated.  The “spaghetti slide”, although very complex, at least externalizes all the assumptions where they can be explored together, understood and acted upon. Nice work.

Second, this is a complex diagram about a complex issue. It would be complex in PowerPoint, Adobe Illustrator or scrawled on a whiteboard. PowerPoint just happens to be the container this time.

Third, the problem is not PowerPoint but people’s lack of education about how to work in PowerPoint. Look. I don’t know how to ride a unicycle. It’s not the same as riding a bicycle, even though it has a tire, pedals and a seat. And I can look pretty silly on a unicycle if I don’t get some lessons. So whose fault is it if I keep falling on my axle? The unicycle’s fault? Or mine?

PowerPoint is a unicycle. Just because you can type, insert clip art and create animated transitions doesn’t mean you know how to use PowerPoint. Let me show you a few PowerPoint rules that will turn this spaghetti slide into a gourmet meal.

Knowledge maps and mapshock

This type of diagram is called a “knowledge map” (or K-map). They are used frequently in strategic decks and are useful for driving decisions, so it’s worthwhile to know how to use them correctly.

K-maps are overwhelmingly complex for inexpert readers. They experience something called mapshock – a feeling of overwhelming confusion where they do not even know where to start reading or how to organize the information, much less understand it.

Research says a few things about K-maps:

  • K-maps are most effective for brainstorming and problem-solving, and less effective for communicating ideas
  • K-maps are as effective, or more effective, than text for people with high topic knowledge (ie. experts)
  • Text is more effective than K-maps for people with low topic knowledge

Now, K-maps have two kinds of knowledge: structural knowledge and functional knowledge. If there are three steps to ride a unicycle – get on the seat, pedal forward, turn – those are structural knowledge. Structural knowledge shows how your information is organized into big buckets, and the cause-effect relationships.

Functional knowledge is the details inside each of those structural units. For the first step – “get on the seat” – there are a lot of details. Stand the unicycle up, use a wall or railing for balance, keep your hips back, and so on.

Knowledge is built up from functional knowledge to structural knowledge. It’s easy to learn structural knowledge from a K-map. The difficulty is in learning the functional knowledge. People who have a lot of expertise have already learned the functional knowledge, so the K-map simply summarizes and externalizes what they already know. But those without a lot of expertise need to learn the functional knowledge first, through text.

K-maps are useful in boardroom-style presentations, to help drive decisions among executives. And with a little education, you can use K-maps in your PowerPoint decks. You just have to go about it in the right way.

  1. First, break this diagram into its structural units, which the diagram creator has already smartly done using color. Introduce each structural unit on its own slide. Use plenty of text to describe each functional unit. Subject novices learn more from text than they do from a K-map. Make the text gray, not pure black, so the reader is not overwhelmed by lots of black text on the slide.
  2. Assign a symbol to each structural unit. We are going to pull all these structural units together later, and the reader will need a simple way to compact all this functional information into a simple container they can hold in their mind. Symbols also act as “signposts” so the eye knows where to look, and overcomes the confusion of mapshock.
  3. After describing each structural unit, re-assemble it all into a final K-map. For the final spaghetti slide, keep each structural unit a visually distinct unit using whitespace, color and borders. The brain can only process four things at a time, so loading a slide with more than four structural units is challenging for the reader.
  4. Add a full-sentence title to each slide. Do not make the reader waste their time reading and trying to find the meaning in the slide. You are the communicator; that’s your job.

The final slides would look like this.

Visuals are important in decision-making meetings, so I salute the Pentagon for using this best practice. And, assuming the reader is intimately familiar with the functional knowledge, this K-map is probably very readable to them and a useful aid in decision-making.
As a standalone slide, and especially for a novice reader, it fails. But don’t blame PowerPoint. Just like learning to ride a unicycle, it takes time to learn new skills and make them second nature. The best time to start is now.

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.