In recent years, bookshops are full of books about how to do presentations. Most of these books are about design, the use of images or fonts, etc. The aim of this post is going further, because only by knowing the basics of presentations (the Presentation Theory) we will be able to use its components properly.

The history of presentations does not start with PowerPoint. A teacher who uses the blackboard to explain what is a triangle is a presenter. A puppet show is also a presentation. Our ancestors explained stories with the help of drawings on rocks.

A presentation is, essentially, a speech with some visual aid in which the presenter transmits a message to an audience. The visual support that the presenter uses consists of a set of images having a communicative aim that can be classified in pictograms, ideograms and logograms.

* Pictograms, ideograms and logograms

Pictograms are usually considered as the simplest form of writing. Pictograms represent physical objects. Thus, for example, a cow drawn represents a cow. Due to its simplicity, pictograms allow an instant and intuitive understanding of the message. However, they are not able to represent abstract and complex concepts.

In a second stage, people began to use ideograms. Ideograms are graphic symbols that represent ideas. Ideograms still retain a high degree of intuitive communication skills, but they require a minimum of learning of the code that they represent.

Although ideograms allow us some degree of abstraction, they cannot transmit highly complex and abstract messages. For this reason, in a third stage, logograms emerged. Logograms represent words. With logograms it is possible to transmit any kind of message, but in return, their understanding requires the study of the code by which they are used and, therefore, they can’t be interpreted intuitively.

* The relationship between abstraction and intuition is inversely proportional

It is easy to understand the success of the writing system by logograms. Through writing, we were able to transmit and keep, from generation to generation, the thought of mathematicians, historians, poets, philosophers… Thus, the speech was gradually losing its importance and was limited to some specific fields.

With the advent of PowerPoint and other similar tools, however, presentations have been re-valued and they even have become an art. The ease of use and their increasing sophistication have made it possible to extend presentations to a wider audience.

However, the tradition of presentations from cave drawings, puppet shows and blackboards has been lost. Raised in a culture where written language is the dominant mean of transmission of knowledge, we used PowerPoint in the only way we knew.

* Example of common slide

It is in this way how presentations resemble written documents that, in fact, are just the script of the presenter’s speech. Despite images are sometimes included, their role is purely decorative and they are of poor quality. Thus, the presenter becomes a member of the audience who reads aloud the text of the slides. A presentation of this kind only confuses the audience.

When presenters speak to an audience they are sending a message through the spoken language. So, showing slides with the same message is a redundancy. We are duplicating the same message and, therefore, we are forcing the audience to divide their attention.

Spoken language allows us, as well as logograms, transmit abstract and complex concepts. However, no word can reach the audience as an image does. Try to explain La Gioconda. You can describe the color of her eyes and her hair, you can describe the landscape of the painting. You can tell me who painted it, but none of this will help me if I do not see it.

It is for this reason why we use graphics to explain statistical data and we use pictograms and ideograms in road signs.

This does not mean that logograms must be banished from the slides. As explained earlier in this post, the ability of pictograms and ideograms to transmit abstract concepts is limited and they can be sometimes confusing. Images need words to ensure that the message reaches the audience correctly, but written words are not intuitive.

The different elements involved in a presentation have different functions and qualities. Speech, images and writing are tools that, used together where each of them is most appropriate, will allow us to do presentations that will reach our audience.