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Good Presentation Technique: Layering

Jon Schwabish

published on July 29, 2013 in Design

Far too many of the hundreds of presentations I’ve seen in economics and public policy have relied too much on text and bullet lists. Why? It’s probably because text and bullets also serve the function of the old-fashioned pack of 3×5 cards: They help the presenter stick to the story. (Practicing is a better idea, but that’s a topic for another day.)

Lots of experts (including some of my favorites, Nancy Duarte, Carmine Gallo, and Garr Reynolds) advocate using images. Visuals, they argue, are more likely to be remembered than slides that are dense with text, tables, or data.

Make that point, however, and prepare for two main objections:

  1. How am I going to use a stunning picture — a sunset? a flower? an animal? — to support my discussion of health care costs or the unemployment rate?
  2. If I don’t put up a lot of text and data, how will the audience know I’m smart?

I’m coming to believe that effective presentations require a more deliberate approach than simply swapping out all of the dense text for images. Instead, I’m coming to appreciate a technique I call layering. (Other commentators, like Stephanie Evergreen, call this the slow reveal; Edward Tufte, with characteristic derision, calls it the dreaded build.) When they use layering, presenters still show the audience all of the ideas, just one step at a time.

Thus, instead of this:

How about this?


Layering lets the presenter show everything they want, but it helps focus the viewer’s attention where they want it.

I can make a similar case for technical graphics. Instead of this:

How about this? (Note the Twitter-like heads, as urged by Carmine Gallo.)


It’s not going to be easy to completely remake the technical and scientific presentation culture, but better slides will give audiences a reason to stay engaged and perhaps even to act on what they learn.

Jon Schwabish is an economist and data visualization creator. You can reach him at, at his website, or by following him on Twitter @jschwabish.