How PowerPoint is wrecking your thought leadership

May 8, 2017

There I was, up on the soapbox recently about the misuse of data in thought-leadership content. Hey, I’m still up here, and this time I’m all about the misuse of charts. I’m not talking about papers and reports that use custom-designed or carefully curated figures and graphics – I’m referring specifically to those that default to imported PowerPoint slides.

You’ve seen them: papers that start out with a tantalizing headline and opening text that really grabs you in anticipation of learning something great. And then you get to the first chart [sound of screeching tires].

Who took a walk in the reader’s shoes? Not those authors.

That chart – that slide – stops you in your tracks. What’s it meant to be saying? OK, it’s something to do with the topic of the paper. You try to decipher the lines and bars and keys.  You squint at the tiny letters that label the X and Y axes. You refer back to the text. Nothing seems to add up. Frustrated? You probably are. You and everyone else who reads this paper.

So here comes my Handy-Dandy Guide to Turning Static Slides into Compelling Graphics – a print-it-out-and-pin-it-up list of do’s and don’ts:

First Impressions

  • Don’t just drop in a few slides, unchanged, from the PowerPoint deck that supports your piece of thought leadership. Sure, the slides probably were part of a presentation to clients or investors. They did the trick for a talented, lively presenter, her laser pointer flicking from this important column to that significant step-change. But the same slides just don’t work the same way when they’re laid out, inert and inanimate, on the two-dimensional page.
  • Do think outside-in, envisioning how readers will perceive the published paper.Think about the first-glance impression it will convey, exhibits and all. Is it attractive to dive into? Or off-putting? Do readers see lots of text and a bunch of ugly, intimidating charts and graphs? Then see my next point about putting lipstick on those slides – or replacing them altogether.

Fit for Purpose

  • Don’t view slides as ready-made content, to be inserted unedited. Often, the content is just too dense or the exhibit is trying to convey multiple messages in a single page view. It becomes a dizzying, headache-inducing “eye chart.”
  • Do think in terms of clear, simple messages. Take the time to comb through that slide deck to find powerful, single messages. Excerpt them when you see them inside complex, busy slides. Or start with a clean sheet, creating new exhibits after thinking through what you really want them to say. Enlist the talent of someone who thinks in pictures, not words.

Visual Punctuation

  • Don’t reflexively use an exhibit to duplicate what the adjacent text says. That’s a mistake we see in lots of research reports. That’s the two-dimensional equivalent of reading text slides out loud to your audience, line by line. Unless the slide is a stunningly lovely exhibit all by itself, using it to echo what’s in the text is a format fail – a blatant waste of space and time, not to mention an abuse of the reader’s time and intelligence.
  • Do use exhibits to underscore the idea you expressed in text. Ideally, the slide should communicate its idea faster, more emotively, and in less space than it would take to explain it in text. At a minimum, it should amplify what the text says, or vice-versa. Or it might make an interesting tangential point – a kind of visual sidebar.

Ease of Access

  • Don’t use PPT slides just for the sake of illustration – to alleviate gray slabs of text.
  • Do think of exhibits as on-ramps into the article or paper – attractive and carefully selected ancillaries to the headline itself. Use them as hooks to pull in readers skimming through the publication.


  • Don’t drop in slides without tying them to adjacent text. It’s a cardinal sin to allow a chart to float unmoored in a sea of copy.
  • Do ensure that there’s an in-text reference to the slide, ideally as close as possible to the visual itself. The reader has to be able to navigate around the page!

Enough with the “don’ts”! One final “do”: Do keep thinking of charts and graphs as great additions to any piece of strategic content. They can be – should be – used to reinforce some of the paper’s big ideas in interesting visual ways.

OK, I’m putting away the soapbox now…or am I…?