Guide on the Side: Communicating With Color

Marie Wallace has enjoyed a fulfilling career as a librarian, beginning in 1951 in academia with the University of California and transitioning in 1971 into the private law library world until her 1995 retirement from O’Melveny & Myers. She is the 1997 recipient of the American Association of Law Libraries‘ highest honor, the Marian Gould Gallagher Distinguished Service Award. Throughout her professional life, Marie has been a guiding force in the Southern California Association of Law Libraries, Practising Law Institute’s programs for law librarians and Teaching Legal Research in Private Law Libraries (TRIPLL).

Today, Marie has commenced on a new path she terms “Life in Progress,” which enables her to pursue a diversity of interests as a master swimmer, law librarian, trainer, storyboarder and designer of wearable art. She continues to be a dynamic speaker and prolific writer on such topics as private law library management, presentations and training. She is a member of Toastmasters International and is active with the American Society for Training Development (ASTD) and in continuing education for private law librarians. She devotes her “free” time to various non-profit and civic activities.

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

Content metaphors

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:

Get attention

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

Show direction

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

Replicate reality

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.

Posted in: Guide on the Side, Presentation Skills