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The Perils of Postage Stamps
by Rick Altman

I have encountered a new and disturbing phenomenon among current slide deck design. I call it the Postage Stamp Disorder. It is created by the convergence of two common tendencies:

1. The compulsion to place untold amounts of text on screen.
2. The belief that adding photos to a slide makes the slide better.

The first tendency is a well-documented and all-too-familiar cause of Death by PowerPoint in today's culture. Well-intentioned presenters place complete sentences and fully-formed thoughts onto their slides and then get derailed by the challenge of not reciting the text on the slide.

The second practice certainly has merit—photos are more evocative than text. However, after all of that text has been dumped on the screen, there is rarely enough space for anything more than the smallest of photos—the postage stamp. At this point, a photo cannot contribute positively to the slide; it just becomes more visual clutter. And as you can see in the picture above, there is no real opportunity for the photo to figure in a nice slide design, instead being relegated to being dumped into open space. To be honest, it would have been better to have left the photo off a slide with this much text.

And that's too bad, because this is actually a pretty good photo representing an industry not known for its photogenic nature. In fact, one of my clients, the Port of Long Beach, hires professional photographers for all of its newsmaking and community events, and has many dramatic and powerful photos of the port in action, similar to this one that I found in the Photos.com collection.

But the potential appeal of this photo is lost in its usage—doomed to becoming a postage stamp amid all of this verbosity. Watch what happens when you make the photo more prominent, as shown here. Two important phenomena occur when you enlarge the photo to cover the entire slide:

1. It becomes much more powerful and invites the audience to study its details.
2. It makes it practically impossible to even consider the volume of text that you might otherwise be tempted to include.

This is a wonderful development! There is enough open space along the bottom to include just the basic ideas of the slide and that is welcome news to both the audience and the presenter. The audience won't become zombies when having complete sentences inflicted upon them and the presenter will be in a much better position to share real ideas about these points, instead of just reciting projected text like a drone. Everyone wins when you make your photos bigger.


Rick Altman is the host of the PowerPoint Live User Conference. It covers the whole of the presentation community—message, slide design, software technique, and delivery—and limits enrollment to 250. Complete details are available at PowerPointLive.com.
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