Improving slides with the iceberg model

Gepubliceerd op: 17/02/2021
Slide design

Improving PowerPoint slides is much easier if you know at which level to start. Why focus on alignment or font size if the slide itself is superfluous? My iceberg model will help you to create slides that really support your story.

Why is a slide not working? Often it is difficult to say. When attending a presentation, you will probably recognize an excessive use of bullet points as being bad. Or, you notice that an image has a low resolution, you spot a watermark, or you cannot read tiny letters. Before you realize that there might be a more fundamental problem, the next slide appears.

Slides can step-by-step lead to connection, understanding, and persuasion. They can also lead deeper and deeper into the swamp of boredom. Most of this happens unconsciously. You do not know what exactly bored or exited you. And, when in the audience, you should not be aware of slide design. Good design is invisible. It just works. That makes creating and improving slides a subtle art.

Starting point

When a client asks me to improve a PowerPoint presentation (e.g. for their NWO or ERC grant interview), I first determine the starting point. You can try to improve a slide by looking at fonts, colours, alignment, and resolution. However, this is futile when a slide lacks a clear purpose. At the same time a gorgeous slide can communicate another thing than the presenter wants it to present. It just distract (the visual channel always wins). Below the surface of the design, the tip of the iceberg, lay four more levels of decision making. Here I present them from eye-catching and obvious to hidden and fundamental.

1 Design

The design layer is the one that is the most obvious. It entails e.g. colours, fonts, alignment, resolution, animations, stylistic effects, and composition. Improvements on this level can be about visual logic. Is everything that belongs together positioned together? Do elements with the same function have the same colour, line, and font? The gestalt laws and The Laws of Simplicity are of great use here. This level is all about playing with PowerPoint.

I seldom read the texts when working on this level. The job here is to finetune colours, alignment, fonts in order to avoid confusion and create impact. Often I overlook obvious textual errors. Because the meaning of words distracts from their design, graphic designers often work with Lorem Ipsum, a meaningless Latin placeholder text.

2 Image

One layer deeper the conversation is about ‘image’. It covers e.g. aesthetics and semiotics. Say, for instance, you want to illustrate a healthy lifestyle by showing a runner. This gives you a myriad of options. Do you show a person running through a city, in the gym, or on the beach? Do you choose a man or a woman? A white person or a person of colour? Frog’s-eye view or bird’s eye view? Does the person run to the right or to the left? Or do you choose to depict running shoes? Which brand? New or used? All these options have a different connotation.

This layer is also about Google search. Often you start of with an idea, discover that you cannot find the right (copyright free) image, you try another path and stumble upon a great picture. Or you decide to make the photo yourself. Also, this layer is about word choice. Different words can evoke different images in your mind. Some mental images are preferable over others.

3 Visualization

One layer deeper we are talking about the visualization of your message. Improvement comes from answering the question: is this the best way to visually support the message of the slide? Is this the strongest argument? The support of this argument can be textual, visual, or a combination of the two. Do you use a list of bullet points, a pyramid, or an iceberg (like I do in this post)? Which rhetorical device(s) do you apply? Do you use a logical argument or do you play the emotions of your audience? A graph or a photo? Cite a study or give an example? Ideally you work out the answers to these questions on paper (post-it notes work great). Sketch, write key-words.

4 Message

Below the visualization is the layer of what you visualise: the message of your slide. Do you just want to present data without giving it a meaning, or are your data an argument for a point you want to make? Do you want to explain a central concept, or do you want to convey its importance? Every slide should have an easily to express message and goal. Is the message to complex? Rethink, or split it into several slides with each a sub-message. Does a slide lack a message or function? Then, just remove it. It works great if you write down the question each slide answers on post-it notes. One note, one slide.

5 Story line

At the bottom of the iceberg model you find the story line. Each slide is a step in a sequence. Is that sequence logical? Does it flow naturally? Does it have a clear beginning-middle-end structure? What comes before and after this slide? Does the whole story fit in the given time, or do you have to delete slides? A thing I always do when asking someone to proof present, is to time the arrival of the problem (but what we do not know yet is…). My rule of thumb here is that the problem should be clear around 20 percent of the time.


Parallel to these stacked layers runs the strategy. This is all about audience, goal, core message, and setting. Decisions on each level should be made in consultation with these aspects. Does this image work for this audience (medical doctors look differently at bloody body parts than the average listener)? Do you have to present al the tiny details to convince this audience, or can you rely on your authority and focus on the ‘why’? What is the overall message? Is this font big enough for the room (design for the last row)? The mix of audience, goal, message, and setting is always different. You can never give the same presentation twice.

Two-way traffic

The above might feel a bit artificial. Things often do mingle. But, in the past years the more PowerPoint presentations I improved, the more I realized that I implicitly applied these layers. Since they crystalized into this iceberg model, the conversation about slides becomes more efficient and effective. If I do not succeed in finding an answer on one layer, I dig deeper till I find one.

Off coarse this model also works when you make a presentation. You create a strategy, think up a story line, divide that into specified steps, make a sketch for each, open your laptop and search for images, and finally you bring them together on intuitively understandable slides.

Main image: Andrea Spallanzani via Pixabay

Hermen Visser

Hermen Visser

Hermen Visser (1985) studied Biology at Leiden University. Already during his studies he developed a passion for science communication and took his first steps as a trainer. He taught students in layout skills and the graphic software Adobe Illustrator, InDesign, and Photoshop. Since his graduation in 2011 he works as a freelance science journalist and trainer. He was radio and web editor at the editorial offices of the Dutch broadcasting agencies. VPRO and NTR. Currently he writes as a freelancer for VPRO Gids and Trouw.