Finding Your Perfect PowerPoint Image

From prehistoric cave drawings to modern-day emojis, images have long been employed by humans to convey ideas and information. This visual language is well-known to effective presenters, who see the perfect PowerPoint image as an enormously valuable tool.

A well-placed, compelling image sticks with an audience and can do more to enhance an audience’s understanding of a key point than words could ever do alone. You want your message to go deep. Imagine a mind as a home and your messages are welcome houseguests. They have an open invitation to stay whenever or however long they want – no rent needed.

What follows is an evolution of a single idea (the very theme of this post itself) over four slides – a process we teach in our public speaking classes. As you go through the stages, you will learn how to identify the right images and use them in the right way for your next presentation.

The ‘Power’ in PowerPoint

A list of words on a screen imparts knowledge – sometimes – but well-curated graphics and visuals help our brains to retain those words. Our brains are primed to better remember when multiple senses are stimulated.

John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist and author of “Brain Rules,” explains the phenomenon in his Rule No. 9, “Stimulate more of the senses at the same time.”

He notes:

“The more elaborately we encode information at the moment of learning, the stronger the memory … Sensory processes are wired to work together.”

Further, a recent study discovered that people tend to forget what they hear quicker than what they see or touch. Other studies revealed that visuals offer the concrete cues that better help us to retrieve and remember information. Words are more abstract. As keys to unlock memories, words are easy to misplace.

As a result, PowerPoint slides cluttered with dozens of words that breed numerous bullets and sub-bullets will not have the impact one compelling visual, teamed with your key point, will. Words alone can’t do it. Here’s a good rule of thumb, even if we are taking 32 words to do it:

Ask yourself whether a visual representation of a key idea would do more to enhance your audience’s understanding of it. If it would, then use that slide. If it doesn’t, ditch it.

Image No. 1 – Text and Bullets

This is the most common type of text slide and not all that effective. It merely doubles as notes for the speaker. Who truly wants to look at the speaker’s notes during a presentation? Most audiences likely will forget your points before you have a chance to finish your talk.

Image No. 2 – Text and Image

Some speakers break up those sentences and bullets with an image. Yes, images are good. However, the words are still leading this conversation.

Image No. 3 – Too Literal

When we work with clients, they often focus on a key point, pull out a key word, and then center the visual around the word. That’s good. They are thinking more visually, but still too literally. The image remains less than ideal because the words are, you guessed it, still running the show.

Here are some examples:

Say you are a nurse and you are talking to a group of people about incorporating more vegetables into their diet. You might focus on “vegetables” and project an image of a garden of delicious and healthy vegetables.

Say you are a salesperson who is looking to help your team drum up new leads. So, you think of “drum” and put an image of a person playing a drum.

In both cases, the images were indeed visual, but they were still too literal. They were not all that far removed from another bullet on the list.

Here’s our attempt at an “almost-there” image:

Perfect PowerPoint image

Image No. 4 – Conceptual (and Just Right)

When you think conceptually, you increase your chances that your message will become deeply embedded into the minds of your audience. Remember the houseguests with carte blanche access?

The trick to finding a slide that can serve as an enduring conceptual metaphor actually begins with your words. When we work with clients, we encourage them to stop thinking about their slides and to put aside their notes. We want to hear what it is they want people to know about each of their key ideas.

Here’s an exercise for choosing images:

  1. Talk about the points you want to make about a specific topic. Don’t overthink it. Rather, let the words and phrases flow.
  2. Pay careful attention to any words or phrases you like, which could become the slide’s central image. This is a far easier step if someone else is listening. As you speak, they listen and capture interesting and compelling words and phrases.
  3. Take the list and start thinking of images that could provide a conceptual metaphor.

We offer some examples:

The nurse’s overall message is that people need to eat lots of vegetables, as they reduce the risk of certain diseases and conditions, and offer anti-aging benefits. Perhaps, he uses an image of a giant tortoise. He tells the audience that giant tortoises are the longest living land animal – the oldest recorded lived to be 152. Next, he reveals they are herbivores and asks the question: “Guess what herbivores eat?” The answer: “Plants.” As he continues, he suggests that the audience, “Be the tortoise,” which not only reinforces his message, but also provides a catchy mantra. In the future, when audience members reach for less-than-ideal food choices, they can remind themselves to “be the tortoise.”

The salesperson wants the sales team to know that company growth only happens with new leads and opportunities – and that complacency is the fast track to failure. What if she finds an image of a rusty old water pump in an abandoned field? She could team it with: “This pump was gushing with fresh water just six months ago. “

In this post, we focused on the best way to visualize your key ideas so that they stick. Our message was this:

A well-placed, compelling image can do more to enhance an audience’s understanding of a key point than words could ever do alone. The perfect PowerPoint image helps your messages to stick, which means they remain with the audience long after your final word is said.

There are a few concepts we could cover. You’ve already seen our attempt that was too literal. We also could think of other “sticky” things. We might consider a long road that doesn’t seem to end.

Instead, we decided to go with a metaphor to which the speaker could return throughout the talk. The presenter might say that the goal of any great idea is to make it stick. Or, they could say a great idea lives “rent-free,” forever, inside the head of each audience member. That latter idea, paired with the accompanying visual, might just stick.

An illustration of a man's silhouette and a man and lightbulb in his head