Non-text explanations in presentations

Presentation - man at board

I went to the PLAIN conference to give a talk on how lawyers (and others) can use non-text explanations (text tables, text boxes, and flowcharts) to explain legal topics. And I wanted to find out more about the plain language movement – an international version of plain English.

By the way, they’d prefer it if you didn’t say ‘movement’, even thought it is a movement. In the best sense of the word.

Non-text explanations summarise complexity and draw readers into the text

Getting lawyers to use non-text explanations

My talk covered my experience of getting lawyers to use non-text explanations in client updates and newsletters. The talk included real-world examples: from simple non-text explanations (the humble text box) to the more exotic (now-to-then text tables; flowcharts). And all of the examples can be put together in MS Word.

Here’s the blurb from the conference document:

‘Most readers find non-text explanations (ie text tables and flowcharts) really useful, particularly in long text documents. Non-text explanations can summarise a complex concept quickly: once you understand the bigger picture it’s much easier to absorb the detailed text.

I’ve found that lawyers value non-text explanations when they see them (eg in legal journals or newspapers), but seldom produce them for their own updates. The problem seems to be partly confidence (lawyers worry that they’ll ‘dumb down’ a legal topic) and partly mechanics (lawyers find it fiddly to put together a neat flowchart).’

I also set out a few suggestions on what firms need to do to get lawyers to put more non-text explanations into their client updates.

A post-PowerPoint slideshow: no bullet-points; a single page ‘briefing agenda’ handout

I also took the opportunity to prepare slides and a handout in a post-PowerPoint way.

It’s a pretty simple idea, and it saves your audience from the misery of text-and-bullets presentations. Here’s my post ppt recipe:

  • Keep bullet-points off the slides: Say ‘no’ to text-heavy, bullet-point-laden slideshows; they hurt your message. You know about the disease (death by PowerPoint), and you’ve read the books (‘Beyond bullet points’, ‘Presentation zen’). So step away from the bullet-points.
  • Give your audience a one-page presentation summary: Have a look at the handout and slides (see the link below) and you’ll see the one-page briefing agenda (and accompanying detail sheets) that I gave to the audience. The single page briefing-agenda is better than a printouts of the slides: your audience sees the whole flow of your presentation on one page.

A briefing agenda, detail pages, and clear slides 

When you’re presenting you don’t want the audience reading your slides. But if you put text up there, that’s what your audience will do.

A simple point, but worth re-stating…

Originally written for

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