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Word Clouds – Good or Bad?

What do you think of word clouds (sometimes called tag clouds or text clouds) in presentations? Do they help or are they a distraction?

I was MC’ing a business conference recently and two consecutive speakers had word clouds in their presentations. It was really interesting to watch the audience’s reaction because while some were thoroughly engaged with the speaker’s narrative, others were definitely not. I think they have become so ubiquitous in presentations that perhaps they have lost their impact and value. 


On the internet, there are pages and pages of companies offering word cloud generation services. Perhaps that says it all – perhaps they are not as striking or as effective as they once were.


Advocates will say that word clouds are great visual tools because they help communicate ideas in a very direct way and put the focus on the most important words. They can certainly help to visualise a survey in a way that’s more engaging than bar charts, pie charts or dare I say a screen full of text! 


Without doubt, they are an efficient way to communicate all the key concepts within one slide and they do a great job at stimulating the visual senses.  Of course, this is assuming you've created your own word cloud rather than using a generic one downloaded from a photo-sharing site, in which case you really have to question the value it brings to your presentation. 


Even if they are done well you have to be careful of their accuracy. There are many blogs that talk about the end result when each word differs in size based on the frequency and importance of its usage within the data source. As Andrew Wheeler says his blog In (slight) Defense of Word Clouds long words like Communication will appear larger in the graphic than a short word such as One


However, the main concern I have with them is that as speakers and presenters we want to be memorable and impactful. If we all use the same techniques, we lose the ability to distinguish ourselves from other speakers. I like to keep slides quite straight forward and I believe one of the keys to avoiding death by PowerPoint is being different and presenting with visuals that others aren’t using. I try and avoid stock photos and use as many of my own pictures as I can, or I create new visuals with tools like Canva. That way I know my presentations will be unique and memorable.  


The other thing about word clouds is they need time to understand. I’ve seen too many speakers talking while their audiences are still digesting all the information on the slide. The result is they might miss some important information the speaker is sharing. 


I’d be interested to hear what you think and whether you find word clouds a helpful tool... or maybe you’ve sat through too many presentations and have become bored of them. 

Bespoke Communication Training

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