What Business Cards Can Teach Us About Evaluation Reports

After 5+ years, which started as Michael Scriven’s assistant, I’m departing from The Evaluation Center at Western Michigan University on August 31 to accommodate the major increase in my consulting around data visualization and evaluation reporting. I began the tedious effort of cleaning out my drawers and came up the ubiquitous stack of business cards I’ve accumulated over the years (why do we do that?). I saved a few because they reminded me of great graphic design principles that we should all be applying to our evaluation reporting.

Alignment
The best business cards (and evaluation reports or slides) look organized. Notice how well the Lansing Community College one is aligned:

business card from Lansing Community College

Mary’s name and everything underneath it are all in line. You’d think this could be common but it’s actually pretty rare. Doesn’t it just look and feel professional and organized? (Admittedly, though, I do want to nudge up the LCC logo so it is top-aligned with her address.)

In this one, from MATEC, note how Lara’s name and info align under MATEC, even though the company name is stylized as part of their logo:

Business card for MATEC

Strong alignment between text, headers, and graphics communicates professional competency. Work it!

Hierarchy
The most important thing on a business card is the name of the employee. Yet on most business cards, the employee’s name is small, put in the corner, and camouflaged by less important location information (let’s psychoanalyze what that means about employer-employee relationships). Great business cards showcase the employee’s name.  Think about how this supports user cognition: If you’re anything like me, you’ve forgotten someone’s name within 10 seconds of introduction. We inevitably trade business cards before departing. I want to call this person by her name when we say goodbye, so I sneak a glance at the card. In the best case, the name leaps out and saves my day. Good design supports the needs of the end user.

Here is the nice emphasis carried out by Indiana State University:

Business card from Indiana State University

See how Gerald’s name has been visually made the most important part of the card by it’s large size, color, and italics? In the hierarchy of importance on the card, Gerald’s name is at the top and the information of lesser importance is deemphasized. Mary’s card, way above, also achieves in establishing a hierarchy by making Mary’s name darker than the rest of the text and placed at the top of the card.

Our evaluation reports and slides should strive for the same communicative power. That which is most important should be set off in some ways, through color or placement or size or what have you.

Orientation
Orientation is actually one of those aforementioned emphasis techniques that can help establish a hierarchy on certain bits of text, but layout orientation of an entire business card is also a really powerful way to communicate unique, fresh, youthful, everything you are. Check out how New Latino Visions used orientation:

Business card from New Latino VisionsThe difference is eye-catching and eyeballs-on-cards is an important step leading to the goals of fingers-on-keyboard and name-in-memory.

Now, changing the traditional orientation of a report page or a slide would actually be fairly disruptive in that it would both distract and impair legibility. But the same idea can be applied to a picture or short bits of text like a heading to grab attention.

Our evaluation reporting tools are our business cards. Represent yourself well.

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Why I’m Not In Love with Prezi

It’s time to write this post. This may be the most frequently asked question in my workshops on evaluation reporting, data visualization, and graphic design.  What do I think about Prezi?

Most people’s first reaction to being in the audience of a Prezi presentation is “Wow, that is so cool. This is going to change my whole life.”

But that’s not what we want people thinking when they are in our audiences.

We want them listening to us. Digesting our words. Relating our message to their own experiences. Getting activated to go make changes in the world. We don’t want them distracted by our dizzying presentation software. This, sorry folks, is probably the same reaction audiences had to the introduction of those clever fly-in animation tools in PowerPoint.

I understand Prezi is working to provide more control over the quick zooming in and out, after early reports that some audience members were getting motion sickness. That’s a good development and a smart response to user feedback.

Even still, I find Prezi vastly too limiting. While all manners of media can be embedded in the show, the predetermined font choices are insufficient in that they’d threaten an organization’s existing identity and branding system.

Prezi also crashed around May 9. A desktop version is available, but for those who had relied on the online version of Prezi so they only had to be concerned about an internet connection, there may be a bit of a false sense of security in the platform. Prezi crashes seem rare and the company offered free 1 year trials of their Pro version for all who were affected. Nice handling of a tricky situation. But I’m not in love.

Slow Reveal

Most of the time I advocate for replacing words with images when presenting slideshows. But sometimes the slide just needs to have a lot of words, like this:

But when we have a lot of words on a slide and we’re truly trying to get people’s minds oriented toward our presentation content, overwhelming their field of vision with so much at once can cause them to just mentally check out (or check their email).

Here’s a strategy for presenting those word-filled slides that can better support audience comprehension – the slow reveal.

Basically, just reveal one point at a time. You start by constructing the full slide, as I’ve shown above. That slide has 3 objectives plus 1 title, so I’ll duplicate it such that I end up with four slides that look the same. Then, just delete one item from each slide, working backward:

This way, when I start at the beginning and work through the slide deck, I’m presenting just one point at a time. This lets my audience focus on what I’m saying (instead of reading ahead and not fully paying attention). The slow reveal also better helps the audience build the mental concept I’m trying to convey.

So ultimately, I end up with four times the number of slides. But don’t let that scare you. It’s the exact same amount of content, same number of minutes talking.

Hot tip: Make each element on the slide a separate text box. So the final slide shown above has four text boxes (and a star). Using separate text boxes makes it a million times easier to delete individual items so the slideshow can build. I’ve seen people try to keep all the objectives in one text box, while attempting the same type of slow reveal. But keeping them in the same text box often introduces the chance for spacing errors. If just one space is different during the slide build, it’ll totally get noticed (in a bad way). Just use separate text boxes.

Related hot tip: Don’t try to compile it all into one slide and use animation to reveal each element. Animation distracts when you want the audience to focus. Animation is also often slower than anticipated, and sometimes doesn’t work at all in certain webinar platforms. Just use separate text boxes.

Atomic Slide Development

Seth Godin recently published a blog post on the atomic method of creating slides. He put into words what many of us have felt about the overuse of bullet points. But more than talk about it, he detailed a method for actually moving from a typically bullet-pointed slidedeck to one that better supports audience attention and comprehension.

I demonstrated this process at a recent conference, like this:

So, one starts with the typical slide, full of typical bullet points, looking something like the one below

Then, in the next step, one would separate the bullets such that there is only one per slide. It’s a simple copy and paste – no extra content, just more slides. Below, we’ve got just the first bullet point.

I deviate from Godin’s method here and suggest that one reviews the slide to see how many words can be taken out while still holding on to the meaning. There’s a redundancy above we could remove. Also, one might choose to highlight what one finds to be the most important part of the message. See below.

We can probably still remove some text from the example above. And add a few elements that will help drive the message home, like this:

Since the original idea of the first slide was to compare definitions of evaluation as given by different scholars, it is probably pretty important to link those definitions with the authors in a visual way. Hence the need for Michael’s photo, which I borrowed from the Genuine Evaluation blog.

And depending on what one wanted to explore in this fake talk on evaluation, one could probably break this slide down into its atomical parts even more. An example is shown below:

This way one could better explore what Michael means by merit, worth, and significance – and help the audience better retain the information along the way.

So atomic development is one idea per slide. We break a slideshow down to its most basic particles by removing the nonessential text and simplifying the slide content to what will make the biggest impact on memory.

Eval + Comm

It had perhaps less than six words per slide. It had high quality graphics. It had a systematic and consistent placement of elements. But something about the presentation today still bugged the kernel of a graphic designer inside me.

The presenter had clearly read some basic literature on slideshow presentations (Presentation Zen is my fave) or heard me rant about this topic in the hallways. Like many of us who are clued in to the need for better communication of evaluation topics, he totally thought he knew what he was doing. Two major issues still need to be addressed for those of us who have Graphic Design for Evaluators 101 under our belts.

1. Pick a metaphor or theme and stick with it. The presentation in focus was on nonequivalent dependent variables. Sheesh, right? Normally, I’d suggest thinking of an awesome and relatable metaphor for your topic that can be consistently carried throughout the presentation. I will give $5 to whoever can come up with a good metaphor for nonequivalent dependent variables. In lieu of a metaphor, pick some theme – but just one. Today’s talk featured targets. You know, bull’s eyes. It related to internal validity, I get it. And the target icons were repeated throughout the presentation. This is good. But then odd elements were also chosen, like writing slide text on graphic images of post-it notes. The post-it note communicates draft quality, office work, perhaps even organization. But it didn’t relate to bull’s eyes at all. The post-it note, while cute, was conflicting with the main message. It may have also been…

2. Graphic overload. Adding more graphic elements to the presentation decreases its communication ability. If it isn’t necessary, eliminate it from the slide. Don’t put a border around it and call more attention to it. Likewise, the presentation had extraneous arrows and excessive animation. Like “chartjunk,” these elements distracted from the message. Slidejunk! I’m watching the alien genderless being wave around a dartboard, not listening to your message, my friend. When a client thinks back to your evaluation debriefing, surely it is not the silver alien you want them to be remembering. The presentation should support the speaker.

While we’re probably still patting ourselves on the back for discovering the power of stock photo sites, let’s move ever upward.