We all recognise that text-based slides aren’t the best way to get across a message. There are even a few of us out there who know that effective visuals are the answer. But where do you begin? How do you transform a paragraph of text into moving objects and images that tell a story? How do you create effective visual slides? Well luckily for you that’s exactly what I’m going to talk about today.

First – some context. What happens when audiences see text-heavy slides? They don’t read them, or worse – they read the slides and don’t pay attention to the presenter. Either way, the slides and the presenter are working against each other; the audience is lost or frustrated. Instead, we should opt for an approach that splits out the message – using visual slides to represent the point and presenter narration to explain it. This approach requires the audience to engage with both streams of information, which means they are more likely to understand the message, and more likely to remember it. If you’re looking for some quick tips to slash your word count, check out our guide on how to reduce slide text.

Great stuff. Now let’s make some of these effective visual slides.

Find the story

Firstly, work out what you actually want the slide to say. If the message is confused, the visuals will be too. Hone in on the specific point of the slide, or choose the most important if there are many. You need to have a single line of argument for each slide, and you need to structure the material so the audience is guided along this line of argument. Examples of a good, clear story for a slide would be:

  • ‘Your process currently looks like this. By making this change and this change, you can save this.’
  • ‘Changes in the economic climate have affected different socio-economic groups differently. Group A have found X, Group B have found Y, and Group C have found Z.’
  • ‘Product X is the first of its kind that tackles your problems from four different angles. It does A, B, C and D, without affecting performance.’

Slides should not be lists. It is easiest to visualise slides that have a story or a process of some kind and, though it may not be immediately apparent, you will find – with practise – that most slides do. A list of dates is a story:  a story about how the company has developed over the years. A picture of a machine is a story: the journey of raw materials moving along the production line. We need to tease out these stories – they will form the basis of our visualisation. (“What is visualisation?” I hear you cry. Learn the basics here.)

Assemble the cast

Once you’ve worked out what you need to say, you can pull out the characters in your message: the elements, objects or things that your message features. This could be people – clients, prospects, stakeholders – items – a test sample, an electron, an investment portfolio – or far more abstract – information, attention, consumer confidence. These are the elements you will use to tell your story, and use to guide the audience through your message.

The elements you’ve identified need to be represented on the slide. In the case of a customer or an employee, this is fairly straightforward – using a photograph, silhouette or icon works well. When choosing images or objects to represent your characters it is important that they are both clear and consistent.

A silhouette of a doctor will work well, if they are clearly holding a stethoscope. If the image is not clear, consider adding a text label to avoid any confusion.  Similarly, it is important that your characters are consistent every time they appear in your slide. If your doctor appears as a blue silhouette first time round, they should appear exactly the same the next time. The same is true with photographs. It is much more effective to use the same photograph whenever the doctor appears, rather than changing the image for one that more accurately reflects the task they are supposed to be doing. Remember, the image is representing a doctor, not explaining what they are doing (this is what the presenter should be doing).

Representing ‘consumer confidence’ is not as easy. In these situations, using icons or text boxes is the way to go. The choice of icon should be obvious enough that the audience aren’t distracted from your message by guessing what it represents. Things like arrows, crosshairs, circles work well. Textboxes may not be as flashy as icons and images, but they won’t leave the audience guessing.

Below are five different ways of representing a doctor. You need to choose an approach and make it consistent throughout your slides.

visual slides 12

Set the scene

As important as the ‘characters’ of your message is the setting or backdrop to it. This does not necessarily mean a physical location, but the scene in which your message plays out. It may also help to think of this as a ‘slide type’.

Typical settings for many slides would be timelines, graphs, process diagrams, org charts, maps, floorplans, cross-sections, schematic diagrams, icon maps, etc. These all make great visual slides. The important thing is to relate your objects (or characters) to something, to show how they affect it, are affected by it, or relate to it in some way.

If we are talking about coverage of community nurses in the local area, we want to see the areas that these nurses cover on a map. If we are seeing the possible routes an inbound call can take through an automated answering system, we want to see a diagram of the possible routes, and follow the call through it. If we are discussing how consumer confidence has been hit by specific retailers collapsing, we want to see the trend over a timeline that shows when these things occurred.

Below are a few examples of settings for visual slides. These provide the arena in which you can make your point.


visual slides 22

visual slides 32visual slides 42

Bring it to life

Once you have your message, objects to represent the elements of it, and a backdrop for the message to play out on, the final step is to work out how to show the message you want to tell. Here, we need to look for dynamic content; we need to tease out the action – the essence of what is happening in the story – and bring it to life with animations. In many instances, the action in the story will be movement. For example:

  • Moving through a process
  • Shipping to multiple destinations
  • Moving along a timeline

In these instances, we can just show our backdrop (a set of chevrons for a process, a map, a timeline) and move our objects across them using the appropriate animations. We should break up the movement into stages, each on a mouse click, and talk through what is happening at each stage along the way. The audience will easily follow the stages of the journey and the message being told.

Bringing the slides to life will be more difficult where the ‘action’ is more obscure or more subtle than simple movement. If movement is not apparent in the story, look for some of the following:

  • Growth
  • Addition/subtraction
  • Re-organisation
  • Highlighting
  • Substituting
  • Rotating
  • Promoting

All these actions can be classed as dynamic content – they provide something to physically show on the slide itself, something that can be animated to give a sense of change occurring.

More obscure forms of dynamic content are more difficult to animate than simple movement, and you’ll need to spend some time thinking of the best way to demonstrate what is going on. Think back to what it is you are trying to explain – the key message you’ve chosen to represent. How can you make this stand out on the slide?

This is not the time for subtle nuance; think literally about what you want to show. If something has grown, show it physically expanding. If it has increased, showing it moving upwards. If one result stands out from the group, highlight it. If something has been substituted, make it disappear and its replacement appear. If something has been given more prominence, move the other things from around it.

A good way to start is to think about how the scene would look before the action has taken place and how it would look once it has occurred. In this way, you’ll be able to assess what has changed and how it could be shown.

If you are not confident with PowerPoint’s animation tools, or feel like picking up some new tricks, we have loads of great resources online: become an animation ninja in just seven simple steps, learn some more advanced tricks here, or check out our free resource which covers PowerPoint’s animation effects, the animation pane, the animation timeline and more so that you can start creating animated, visual slides in no time!

Below are a few examples of how you can bring your content to life with visual slides to illustrate your message and control the flow of information.

To learn more about arranging visual slides, read this blog post on hierarchy and order. 

Contrast and compare

When you’re coming up with ideas, bear in mind the power of comparison – particularly as a tool for persuasion. If you’re describing a product that will transform your prospects’ sales figures, showing them how their revenue will rise will work well. Showing them how their revenue will rise compared to what it would be will work even better. Don’t make your audience fill in the gaps in your visualisation – do it for them.

A final word on visual slides

Have a go, and don’t be afraid to try different things. The important thing is that your visual slides work in harmony with your message (not separate from it, and not against it). Test out your visuals on colleagues and see if the choices you’ve made work objectively. Ideally, your visuals should walk the line between obscure and obvious: they shouldn’t be so obscure that people don’t understand them, but at the same time, they shouldn’t tell the whole story without any need for your narration.

I hope I’ve given you some pointers on where to begin with making visual slides. It’s not easy, but with practise anyone can do it. If you’ve been inspired but need some PowerPoint training, check out BrightCarbon’s event pages  for details on our PowerPoint training classes. I’ll see you there!

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Written by

Kieran Chadha

Principal consultant

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