Guide on the Side: Communicating With ColorBy Marie Wallace, Published on September 2, 2001
Color is a powerful and magical presentation tool. It shapes what an audience sees, feels and remembers, and provides presenters with an auxiliary voice to communicate ideas and convey meaning. Also, research confirms that color has a strong positive impact on basic learning behaviors: motivation, comprehension and retention. That's the good news. The great news is that printers and software such as PowerPoint, PageMaker, FrontPage put an abundance of color options and professionally designed templates at your finger tips.
Color is convenient and inexpensive to use whether you are in a high or low tech venue. Yet many communicators omit it when they design and deliver their interactions with audiences. Why? One reason is lack of "know how." Many feel they do not have the background or eye that artists and graphic designers bring to color. "Seeing" (visual literacy) is not high on public education agendas, so most of us lack confidence in our color judgment. Yet we all know, perhaps by observing nature in rainbows and sunsets, how to select a festive color combination for parties, to highlight important facts with highlighters, to correct drafts with red pens and to look for things by their color.
Places where you can communicate with color in your presentations and training:
Brochures and announcements (print or digital)
Programs and agendas
Maps and diagrams
Handouts, job aids and instructional materials
Visuals (slides, transparencies, flip charts, greaseboards, post-it notes)
Physical environment (walls, lighting, furniture)
Evaluation and feedback instruments
Name tags and name tents
Garments the presenter/trainer wears
Objectives you can realize with color in the above places:
Emphasize a point or point of view
Highlight one item in a group
Identify specific features of equipment such as the "on" switch
Differentiate variables in a graph or chart
Signal the transition to a new topic
Prioritize information or data
Indicate sequence of operations
Group categories of activities
Add impact and clarity to drawings
Control where the eye goes first and whether it moves vertically or horizontally
Identify recurring themes
Illustrate structure, relationships and patterns
Map routes and destinations
Make large collections of data easier to use
Speed the sorting of information
Help learners recall key information
Code information by use
Make information in manuals, instruction sheets and job aids easier to find
Create or change a mood
Help group and re-group the audience for interactive exercises
Energize the physical space
Give yourself a jolt of energy
Things to consider when adding color to your presentations:
When you are in the design phases of your presentation or training and weighing delivery modes, think about selecting a specific color or a color palette to augment your message. Work the color scheme into the announcement and continue through the content, handouts, visuals and physical environment. A panel program can by colored by each panelist personifying a different hue. "I am yellow and have a cautionary tale." "My color is purple and I am passionate about this topic."
Once the objectives are set, begin by designing color into the announcement media (print or electronic). It is surprising how much an invitation in color alters the response. For instance, one company added color to their invoices and began receiving customer payments 14 days earlier than when the invoices were sent out in black and white. (See Printing with Color - Visual Demo.) Use color in the map to provide the route(s) to reach the meeting place and recognize the destination.
Can you use color to reinforce your message and objectives, perhaps by using color as a metaphor for content or seeing the topic through a prism of light? Think how colors are used in our everyday language--"see red", "feel blue," "green with envy."
Consider the mood the audience is likely to arrive in. Excited, enthusiastic, tired, confused, overwhelmed, resentful? Do you want to build on that mood or alter it? Will bright or subdued colors work best to make the space inviting?
How much is the audience going to read from the screen or handouts? Will the ambient lighting in the room be sufficient? Remember color is light and pigment but without light, you cannot see the pigment. Dim the lights and you wipe out the color scheme.
If you chose to use slides, select consistent colors for the background, headers, bullets and graphics. Change them only to reflect a major change in topic. Test your choices for legibility. You want high contrast between the fonts and the background. Generally use light colors for background and dark for text. Light text on a light background is very difficult to read. Also, avoid color combinations which color blind people have difficulty distinguishing (green and red, yellow and orange). For excellent Before and After examples of color in slides, peruse Claudyne Wilders' collection of articles and columns in Presentations magazine.
Enhance handouts with colored paper, fonts and section dividers. This is especially useful if there are exercises involving the handouts. "Turn to the light green section of your manual." "Check the glossary behind the salmon colored divider." Bright colors on the handout covers invite users to look inside and also brighten up a room if they are out on the tables or chairs when the audience enters.
Color your agendas and flipcharts. At your next meeting note the change in energy level when you print the agenda with red for action items and blue for reports. Consider creating colorful "mindscapes" on flipcharts to visually record and capture how ideas are related.
What about the room? Will it be decorated in institutional neutrals? You cannot re-paint the walls or re-carpet for your presentation but you can bring color in by using large swatches of inexpensive solid color fabric on the front walls and the speaker table. Flowers, balloons, posters, banners and streamers add color as well. Can you control the lighting? Just because you use slides, you don't have to dim the lights to the point that all the color in the room, including you, fades to black. Alternatively, don't make the room so bright that it is hard on the eyes and there is a fatiguing glare.
Will there be audience participation? Can you use color to group and re-group the audience with colored name tags or name tents for interactive exercises? "Will all the light blue tags go to the blue table in the right corner and the green ones in the left corner?" Enhance interactive tools such as flip charts and greaseboards with color pens.
Consider the colors you wear as part of color communication. Avoid wearing colors that blend in with the walls and make you disappear. Pick colors appropriate to the occasion, which suggest authority and make you feel energetic and comfortable.
Finally, if you plan to use a participant reaction type of evaluation instrument, use colored paper or colored fonts on white paper. Color will increase the number of responses and the thoughtfulness of the replies.
Next month Learning about Color will suggest ways to lessen the feeling of being "chromatically challenged." In the meantime, start experimenting by applying some of the applications described. Begin using color to communicate rather than to decorate. Get feedback from others on your choices and observe the results.