Use color wisely

Like fonts, charts, and other visual communication, color was once a scarce commodity. Color printing was expensive, and color overheads required hand applications of color overlay material. New technologies have simplified the technical aspects of using color, but wise color use is still a complex issue. Judge each situation on its own merits; just because you can use color doesn't mean you necessarily need to.

Do your homework. If you will be speaking to an international audience, be sure to note that certain colors take on different meanings in different cultures. Red means prosperity in China but implies death in many African countries. An Internet search almost certainly will yield the background you need. If you will be speaking to an organization, company, or industry group, you may be required to use a specified color palette and/or format template. Check in advance.

Instead of relying solely on color to make your points evident, build in some redundancy. Remember that an estimated one of every 10-12 men has some type of color perception problem. (Blue-green and red-green combinations are particularly problematical.) If you are presenting a line graph, for example, define the lines both with color and with line thickness or pattern.

When using colors to differentiate text and backgrounds, note that despite the many instances of white text on blue you may have seen, audiences generally prefer dark text on a light background rather than the reverse. Avoid either white text on yellow fills or dark colors on dark backgrounds or fills. Aim for contrast, but avoid a stark white background because when projected, its brightness sometimes gives people headaches.

The PowerPoint controversy

As PowerPoint use has become ubiquitous, an acerbic backlash to its use has also gained momentum. Use of the program's default slide design, in particular, has been blamed for everything from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster (Tufte, 2003) to economic losses in the business community (Simons, 2004). Editorials have asked "Is PowerPoint the Devil?" (Keller, 2004) and "Does PowerPoint

Make You Stupid?" (Simons, 2004). As outlined by a host of critics, PowerPoint's short phrase headings and bulleted lists limit the amount of detail that can reasonably be presented. They create many layers of hierarchy, and these ultimately obscure logical connections (or the lack of them) between the facts used to make an argument. Their use oversimplifies and fragments the subject matter. Other criticisms include the fact that bullet points may leave critical assumptions unstated, and that the format gives an illusion of preparation, whether or not it is justified (Bell, 2004).

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