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Presentation Zen: Using Images to Tell Stories

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Storytelling is a shared experience between speaker and listener. Images can help make that experience more powerful because they help us connect better with our audience. Garr Reynolds explains how to use images effectively to tell your story.
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When I was 17, I created my first multimedia presentation. It consisted of slides for a big project for my high school biology class. The presentation was on issues related to the effects of pollution on the environment. The slide show was a visual affirmation of all the natural beauty around us juxtaposed with the needless manmade destruction to showcase the hypocrisy of human actions.

I created this presentation before the dawn of the digital age, when personal computers were not yet used in schools. So, when I say slides I mean real slides: 35mm transparencies that loaded into a round slide projector called a carousel. The presentation used two carousels working in sync to achieve the effect of a smooth cross-dissolve transition between slides. I added a prerecorded sound track and synchronized the music and images with the transitions on a single screen. It was simple, beautifully visual, and highly effective. The resolution of the photographic images was fantastic. It looked nearly as good as anything created today—but it was a ton of work and the presentation could not really be shared unless I lugged around a bunch of equipment with my teacher’s help.

This was about eight years before Microsoft released PowerPoint, so I had no examples of how to create and deliver a multimedia presentation. Instead, I tried to glean visual storytelling and reporting techniques from network news programs and documentary films. The idea of using bullet points and long lines of text never occurred to me. The slides, after all, were to be a visual complement to the narrative. The slides were meant to illustrate, show evidence, and evoke emotions. I told the story.

Instead of titles and bullet points, my instructor talked about research, evidence, structure, and story—about having a point that moves people from point A to point B. The photographic slides produced by my 35mm camera were the only visuals I was allowed to use for the assignment.

Because film was expensive—and I had to wait two weeks for the slides to return from the lab—I thought carefully about the story I wanted to tell and the types of images I needed to support my argument, make my case, and tell my story. Only after I did my research and completed the plan on paper, did I set out with my camera to find evidence of the problem, taking pictures of what society had to lose (the beauty) and evidence of the threats to it (the pollution).

Long before I ever heard of concepts such as the cognitive load theory or the dual channels of cognition, like most students, I knew intuitively and through experience that quality images plus narration was better than narration plus a lot of text onscreen, even though I was years away from experiencing “death by PowerPoint.”

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These slides are from an updated version of that first multimedia presentation I did back in high school. I used the lyrics from a Tower of Power song called “Can’t Stand to See the Slaughter” to introduce the theme of the talk. (Images in slides from iStockphoto.com.)

The Visual Matters

Traditional literacy is important, of course, but today multimedia literacy—text, audio, and images, including video—is just as important for learning, teaching, and communicating both complex and simple ideas. Some might consider it even more important. Multimedia is immediate and rich, and it enables us to amplify and clarify the meaning of content in ways text or narration alone cannot. The language of the 21st century includes images like never before. The legendary Will Eisner writes in his book Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative (W.W. Norton & Co., 2008): “The proliferation of the use of images as a communicant was propelled by the growth of technology that required less in text-reading skills...visual literacy has entered the panoply of skills required for communication in this century.”

High-quality images make it possible for us to become true digital storytellers. The late Dana Atchley, the father of the digital storytelling movement, coined the term digital storytelling and according to him, “...digital storytelling combines the best of two worlds: the ‘new world’ of digitized video, photography, and art, and the ‘old world’ of telling stories. This means the ‘old world’ of PowerPoint slides filled with bullet point statements will be replaced by a new world of examples via stories, accompanied by evocative images and sounds.”

Atchley was right. While there are still too many uninspiring presentations that use a strict bulleted format or are overly cluttered, more and more people are getting the message about the need to become better storytellers. They are starting to understand the profound power the effective use of multimedia has for helping us tell better stories.

Storytelling is a shared experience between speaker and listener. Images can help make that experience more powerful because they help us connect better with our audience. In the book Going Visual (Wiley, 2005), authors Alexis Gerard and Bob Goldstein have this to say about using images:

  • ...images have a unique power not just to convey information, but also to build unity and consensus around that information to promote action and decision making.... Because images are complete and detailed and deliver an information experience that has greater impact than words, a common base of visual information proves to be the most efficient form of shared experience from which to make decisions.

Gerard and Goldstein explain that the evolution of visual communication technology consists of three main elements:

  • Skill level—technology has made visual communication easier to produce.
  • Time requirements—creating and using images takes less time today.
  • Audience reach—technology now allows us to communicate with more people visually.

In one of my past presentations I showed the evolution of visual communication as explained in Going Visual. To do this, I created these simple slides that were very effective at instantly showing that we have indeed come a long way in the evolution of visual communication.

des adapted from Going Visual by Gerard and Goldstein. (Images in slides from iStockphoto.com.)

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