58.2, May 2011

Specific Guidelines for Creating Effective Visual Arguments in Technical Handouts

Chien-Ching Lee


Purpose: This paper analyzes the PowerPoint handouts of 22 engineering undergraduate students to establish criteria for judging the persuasive capabilities of the students’ visual argument in handouts that are expanded versions of PowerPoint slides used for presentations. Specific guidelines on how to create effective visual arguments that are useful as slides meant for presentations cannot be used as handouts.

Method: The criteria were derived primarily from Doumont's (2002) three laws of professional communication that suggest how to combine rhetorical and visual elements to form coherent arguments.

Results: The results show that Doumont's laws are helpful in judging the persuasiveness of the students’ visual arguments. In addition, the weaknesses in the students’ visual arguments applied to all three laws, which is in line with Doumont's view that the laws have an order of precedence.

Conclusion: The guidelines in this paper can help practitioners convert their slides into handouts more effectively and encourage teachers to spend more time teaching visual argument in the classroom.

Keywords: visual communication, technical communication handouts, visual arguments, Doumont's three laws of professional communication, arguments

Practitioner's Takeaway

  • PowerPoint handouts may be able to replace lengthy documents following presentations.
  • Presented were specific tested guidelines used to create effective visual arguments in technical communication handouts converted from PowerPoint slides from a rhetorical perspective.
  • With these guidelines available, more time should be allocated to the teaching of visual argument in order to bridge the gap between practice and pedagogy.


The potential for using PowerPoint handouts instead of lengthy follow-up documents after a presentation is quite promising. Even though there are currently reservations concerning this idea, PowerPoint handouts can be a viable solution to many needs in the academic and corporate world if specific guidelines on how to create effective PowerPoint handouts from a rhetorical perspective are made available. In the academic world, PowerPoint handouts can be used to replace progress reports for research projects or postgraduate students’ confirmation. The handouts may help create a win-win situation in which the process of preparing the handouts helps presenters crystallize the significance of the information they are presenting so listeners can understand the argument in less time. Similarly, many multinational companies see the need to leverage knowledge sharing in their companies and among their various worldwide branches because knowledge sharing is the prime driver for innovation (Lin, 2007; Trussler, 1998) and the value of knowledge grows when it is shared (Garvin, 2003). However, employees often do not have the luxury of time to write and revise lengthy documents. Godin(2008) added that “no one reads memos anymore.” (p. 20). PowerPoint handouts can highlight the important points to be made more easily, thus enhancing readability and reducing the need for presenters to edit volumes of text.

Currently, it is difficult to find guidelines on how to construct effective visual arguments in technical handouts. Visual argument in this paper refers to the persuasive rhetorical strategy where text and visual elements are used to present an argument that meets the presenter's purpose and audience's needs. The term “visual” in visual argument refers to the use of text and visual elements together rather than just visuals alone. As technical communication uses the informative and persuasive mode, it is not practical “to imagine diagrams working without textual explanation, or textual explanation working without diagrams, or graphs, or tables of some kind” (Amare & Manning, 2007, p. 69). Furthermore, the word “argument” is used in this paper rather than “rhetoric” to refer to technical communicators having to explain or provide reasons for the conclusion made in line with their rhetorical goal.

In many instances, technical communicators use the slides meant to supplement their presentation as handouts because they are not aware that presentation slides and handouts serve two different purposes (Atkinson, 2005; Doumont, 2005; Godin, 2008). In addition, many textbooks have sections on document design and informative graphics. However, guidelines on how to combine these elements to form arguments both rhetorically and visually are lacking (Amare & Manning, 2007). Furthermore, many technical communication instructors do not teach visual argument or do not spend enough time teaching visual argument even though their students are assessed on it. Brumberger's (2005) survey for example, found that a significant number of her respondents who were business communication educators reported that more than 50% of student assignments required visual communication, but more than two-thirds of her respondents dedicated 20% or less of teaching time in undergraduate courses to visual communication. The reason for this neglect might be because they assume students will be able to automatically transfer their knowledge of verbal argument to visual argument. Another possible reason could be that many teachers do not know what to teach in visual argument. Without adequate understanding about visual argument, it is therefore difficult to justify the amount of time in the curriculum spent teaching it in an already packed course.

This paper analyzes the PowerPoint handouts of 22 undergraduate students to establish criteria for judging the persuasive capabilities of the students’ visual argument in handouts that are expanded versions of PowerPoint slides used for presentations. The handouts were analyzed using Doumont's (2002) three laws of professional communication because these laws can be applied widely in communication as they are general laws of communication and, more important, suggest how to combine rhetorical and visual elements to form coherent arguments. In addition, the application of these laws has been tested on individual slides but not in visual arguments (Gross & Harmon, 2009) and specifically, not in technical communication handouts.

I hope to explore in this paper what information elements are needed in handouts to enhance the reader's understanding of the holistic argument with the least constraints. Many technical communicators create handouts to accompany presentations, but little has been written about how to create those handouts or what makes for a good handout. This paper focuses on the rhetorical perspective of visual arguments rather than the document design and informative graphics perspective. In addition, I hope the specific guidelines will help deepen technical communication teachers’ understanding about the teaching of visual argumentation and promote further experimental studies on visual argument at the level of whole presentations in handouts.

I will first present the case for the use of visual arguments in technical communication followed by the different purposes served by PowerPoint slides and handouts. I will then present a checklist for creating effective visual arguments based primarily on Doumont's (2002) three laws of professional communication and other related literature, which I used to analyze the students’ handouts. Finally, I will conclude by highlighting some guidelines in creating effective visual arguments gleaned from the results of the study.

Literature Review

The Viability of Using Visual Arguments in Technical Communication

Robinson (1998) mentioned that engineering thinking is very much argumentative in nature. He explained that engineering thinking involves solving problems based on deduction and analogy and engineers need to use rhetoric effectively to explain the choice of the solution using propositions similar to that in an argument. Arguments are traditionally written in the textual form since they require the statement of propositions in sentences. Therefore, I would like to first address two objections made regarding the viability of visual arguments before going on to discuss the use of visual arguments in technical communication.

One objection toward the use of visual arguments is that they are too ambiguous and vague (Fleming, 1996). A defense to this statement is that verbal arguments could sometimes be ambiguous too (Blair, 2004) due to inappropriate word choice, incorrect sentence structure, or grammar issues. In addition, there are many strategies that can be used to reduce ambiguity in visual arguments. Birdsell and Groarke (1996) felt that presenters could reduce misinterpretation by making the context of the communication clear to the audience. Besides that, presenters could also use textual content to clarify the intended message for the audience. Amare and Manning (2007) further suggested that technical communicators could reduce ambiguities by using diagrams rather than images as diagrams are able to provide clear contrasts (highlight the important points), could be edited to show only the relevant details and enhance the audience's ability to understand the main message of the diagrams more easily. They also classified Peirce's (1935) 10 classes of sign into three rhetorical purposes and mentioned that informative diagrams (diagrams that promote the audience's understanding of some idea) serve the purposes of technical communication better than decorative diagrams (diagrams that evoke the audience's feeling), or indicative diagrams (diagrams that provoke the audience to action for example, to locate some information). When everyone in the audience draws the same interpretation about the visual argument made, then the argument is no longer ambiguous or vague.

The other objection to the use of visual arguments is that arguments must have propositional content and visual communications are not able to convey propositions (Fleming, 1996). It is important to acknowledge that meanings are derived differently from the visual and verbal forms. In verbal arguments, presenters need to have a strong mastery of the language in order to convince their audience logically and emotionally. In visual arguments, we need to consider not only the words, but also the immediate visual context, immediate verbal context, and the visual culture (Birdsell & Groarke, 1996). For example, a presenter might want to argue for the use of light-emitting diodes instead of incandescent light bulbs in car lamps because they promote better road visibility. If we use Alley's (2009) assertion-evidence structure for PowerPoint slides, the assertion (point to be proven), could be stated in the heading of the slide. The evidence for the assertion (propositions) could be provided by a sequence of diagrams that provides the immediate visual context for the argument and is in line with the visual culture in engineering. The sequence of diagrams could include diagrams that contrast the difference in the degree of luminance offered by the two types of light bulbs on a dark road and during rainy days. The clarity of the propositions in the sequence of diagrams could be enhanced when the presenter includes text that clarifies the point being made for each diagram (immediate verbal context).

Having established the viability of using visual arguments for technical communication, I would like to present the different purposes served by PowerPoint slides and PowerPoint handouts in technical communication.

The Different Purposes Served by Powerpoint Slides and Powerpoint Handouts

PowerPoint slides and PowerPoint handouts serve two different purposes (Atkinson, 2005; Doumont, 2005; Godin, 2008). PowerPoint slides for presentations are meant to supplement the presenter's talk by highlighting important points using visuals. In addition, the slides should use as little text as possible so as not to distract the audience from listening to the presenter's explanations. PowerPoint handouts, on the other hand, are more detailed because they are meant to be read after the presentation and readers do not have the opportunity to seek immediate clarification from presenters regarding any ambiguities they have in the handouts. Doumont (2005) felt that since PowerPoint slides and PowerPoint handouts serve two different purposes, there is no point in comparing the two. I would like to however, extend results from research conducted regarding PowerPoint slides to PowerPoint handouts. Just as researchers (practitioners) revise their presentation papers for potential publication in journals (company documents) after conferences (presentations), presenters could convert their PowerPoint slides into PowerPoint handouts effectively if they have clear guidelines to follow. To build on research regarding PowerPoint slides for PowerPoint handouts, let us look at the criticisms made regarding the default PowerPoint structure.

Criticisms Regarding the Default PowerPoint Structure

The first criticism is that the default PowerPoint structure of topic-subtopic with bullet points imposes a linear order to the slides where hierarchies are deeply nested in lists. Doumont (2005) felt that lists are ineffective since they make it difficult to highlight the relationship between ideas. Godin (2008) and Tufte (2003) also agreed that lists fragment the subject matter so much that they obscure the logical connections among ideas in an argument. Garner, Alley, Gaudelli, and Zappe (2009) added that lists violate the principle of signaling because the reader is not given clear cues with regard to the relationship between the bulleted items.

Another criticism regarding the default structure is that it provides presenters with the opportunity to fill up the large text box in the body of the slides with as many details as they want (Garner et al., 2009). The use of too much text in slides violates the redundancy principle (Kalyuga, Chandler, & Sweller, 1999) because the audience is more likely to read off the slides than listen to the presenter if both the information in the slides and the presenter are saying the same thing. Hence, redundancy in this case is detrimental and it reduces the coherence of the argument (Lee & Tan, 2010; Mayer, 2001).

The large text box also provides more space for presenters to include visuals. However, presenters tend to misuse visuals or use inappropriate visuals, which mislead the audience. Doumont (2005) and Alley and Neely (2005) felt that presenters tend to focus more on using flashy animations and over-decorated visuals rather than presenting content in the slides. Goldstein (2003) agreed that presenters seem to have delegated the task of presenting the talk to the special effects in their slides rather than owning their presentation and making a connection with their audience as human beings. Furthermore, Garner et al. (2009) found that some images do not explain the point being made but instead repeat verbal information that is already in the slides. The inappropriate choice of visuals also misleads the audience (Markel, 2009). For example, Venn diagrams are used to compare two things in terms of similarities and differences. If a presenter uses Venn diagrams to present information about processes instead, the audience would be very confused about the message presented.

The criticisms above regarding the PowerPoint default slide structure seem to show that presenters do try to present the message in an impactful manner but often fail because they do not understand what effective communication involves. Let us now look at Doumont's (2002) three laws of professional communication, which can address these lapses and help us create effective PowerPoint handouts.

Doumont's Three Laws

Doumont's (2002) three laws focus on getting the message across to the reader in the most impactful manner given constraints. In order to do so, presenters must first have a clearly defined purpose or message. In addition, Doumont (2002) mentioned that presenters must be aware that the three laws have an order or precedence. For example, the second law cannot supersede the first law.

The first law is to adapt the content to the readers’ needs. Duarte (2008) and Reynolds (2008) agreed that the most important process in preparing for presentations is the brainstorming process where presenters analyze their readers’ needs and then define a clear purpose in their message to meet those needs. Doumont (2002) added that to fulfill the first law, presenters must focus on catching the readers’ attention and getting them to act upon the message.

The second law is to maximize the signal-to-noise ratio in order to enhance the clarity of the message (signal) and minimize anything that would distort the message (noise). To maximize the ratio, presenters must increase the strength of the signal or filter out the noise. The strength of the signal is increased when presenters are clear about the readers’ needs and the purpose of their presentation. In addition, noise is reduced if the handouts convey the message clearly and accurately without any irrelevant information or misleading graphics. Furthermore, presenters could improve on the clarity of their organization if they use an organization suitable for their audience. Gross and Harmon (2009) found that presentations made to general audiences are best organized as narratives while presentations made to professional audiences are best organized as arguments.

The third law is to utilize effective redundancy. In terms of organization, effective redundancy refers to handouts having an overview that outlines the content to be presented and a review to recapitulate main points before the conclusion.

Guidelines on document design and information graphics look at the visual and text elements at the individual slide level but not at the whole presentation level (Gross & Harmon, 2009). It is important to investigate to what extent individual slides are integrated into the presentation as a whole rhetorically because presenters need to present coherent arguments in handouts.

Methods And Procedures


One class of 22 students participated in this study. There were 15 Singaporeans, 4 Malaysians, 2 Burmese, and 1 Chinese national in this class. The students were polytechnic graduates who gained direct entry to the second year of their undergraduate studies. These students have written technical reports for their final year polytechnic project; however, they do not have experience in writing PowerPoint handouts.


I teach Technical Communication to second-year engineering undergraduates in a university in Singapore. The course consists of 2-hour tutorials per week and lasts for 13 weeks. The course schedule and teaching materials are prepared by the module team in order to standardize teaching across the more than 50 classes taking this course each semester.

A key feature of last semester's course was the use of a project-based learning approach. The students wrote a report, developed an oral presentation based on the report with the aid of PowerPoint slides, and prepared a visual argument using PowerPoint handouts. As the assignments were related, it is necessary to explain what input was given prior to the students’ submission of their visual argumentation assignment.

The first assignment was a group assignment in which the students had to write a recommendation report for a professional audience. The main information elements in the report follow Finkelstein (2005) and are listed below (Figure 1).

Figure 1: The outline of the report following Finkelstein (2005)

For the second assignment, the students presented the part they wrote in the group report. Each student's presentation lasted 5 minutes and included the use of PowerPoint slides.

For the third assignment, the students had to prepare a visual argument using PowerPoint handouts for their part of the presentation. The rationale was that as this was a separate assignment it should cater to another audience need (other than oral presentation) as its primary focus (Doumont, 2002). Each student was limited to six PowerPoint slides. The handouts needed to have Introduction, Body, and Conclusion sections. As they were writing for a professional audience, I told them to use an argumentative organization (Gross & Harmon, 2009). In addition, I provided input mainly on document design and informative graphics following Bovee and Thill (2008). I also used the report outline to include a few more guidelines derived from Doumont's (2002) three laws in order to highlight to the students what they needed to focus on in the handout (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Additional guidelines from Doumont's (2002) three laws that highlight to students the focus necessary in each section of the handout

In addition, I reminded the students that they needed to put in more effort to make the handouts clear because the readers would not have avenues for immediate clarification if they did not understand the content in the PowerPoint handouts. The breakdown of marks for this assignment was 20% for content and organization, 50% for design, and 30% for language. The students submitted the assignment 1 week after their oral presentations. After grading the assignments based on the given breakdown, I was very curious to find out the level of effectiveness of these handouts from a rhetorical perspective, specifically with reference to visual arguments, and thus I re-analyzed the handouts based on the checklist on the next page.


The students’ handouts were analyzed using a checklist derived from Doumont's (2002) three laws of professional communication and the above mentioned literature review to find out the level of effectiveness of the handouts in forming unified arguments.

The first information element in the checklist is the overview, which is important because it outlines the content of the whole presentation to readers at one glance. A clear context also helps readers better understand the argument. Thus, presenters should elaborate on the problem(s) faced in the company (background), propose a solution for the problem(s) faced (objective), and state the qualifications for their recommendation based on specific measurements (scope).

In addition, the clarity of the message could be enhanced if presenters follow a consistent argumentative organization. This consistent organization helps readers to understand the immediate visual and verbal context for the argument because readers can see how the ideas in each handout are linked to the whole argument. Presenters can reduce noise by using appropriate informative diagrams that contain only relevant results followed by verbal content that clarifies the significance of the results in the diagrams. Presenters can also review the main results at the end of the argument. Readers might miss important information in the argument and a review helps to re-establish common ground with the readers. A clear and explicit conclusion that answers the objective set out in the beginning of the argument also reinforces the strength of the argument.

Items in the checklist were not weighted because an argument should be viewed and assessed holistically rather than based on individual items. This is in line with Doumont's (2002) view that if law 1 is not fulfilled, law 2 and law 3 are unlikely to be fulfilled.


Table 1 shows that Doumont's laws are helpful in judging the persuasiveness of the students’ visual arguments. In addition, the weaknesses in the students’ visual arguments show that the weaknesses applied to all three laws, which is in line with Doumont's (2002) view that the laws have an order of precedence.

Table 1: Results showing the number of students who have the respective information elements in their handouts

Information elements / Number of students (N=22)

No. of students whose handouts have the information elements

No. of students whose handouts do not have the information elements

Effective redundancy

Overview provided outline for the entire presentation



Adapting to the audience

Background – Acknowledged the reader's needs



Objective – Stated what are being compared and for what purpose



Scope – Stated the terms in which they were compared



Maximizing signal-to-noise ratio

Consistent organization – Definition, explanation of the definition, results, explanation of the significance of the results



Visuals in the Results section contained important results only



Text explained the significance of the results to the reader



Presenter used appropriate visuals to convey the message intended throughout the handout



Effective redundancy

Review summarized main results



Clear conclusion stated



Generally, the argument in the more persuasive handouts showed that the students were able to establish a clear context for the reader. There was also a consistent argumentative organization that helped to provide a clear immediate visual and verbal context to the argument. The text and visuals also formed unified arguments. The students used tables that included only relevant results, and text to explain the significance of the results to the reader. However, many of these handouts lacked an overview, suggesting that the students seemed to view the overview as less important than the review.

The argument in the less persuasive handouts showed that these students underestimated the importance of setting a context for the reader because the overview, background, objective, or scope information elements were missing. In addition, there seemed to be a lack of a consistent organization in the handouts and this inconsistency resulted in the reader not being able to link the ideas in each slide, and from each slide to the whole argument. Furthermore, the students sometimes used indicative diagrams, which confused the reader. For example, one student had two arrows pointing toward each other from opposite directions in one slide to signify that the top speed of a car is 160 km/h whereas the top speed limit on expressways is 90 km/h. Although in engineering it is common to use these two arrows to indicate opposing forces, a table would have been a more appropriate diagram to present the intended message. Furthermore, the text in the handout repeated the results presented in the diagram, rather than explaining the significance of the results to the reader. In addition, many students did not have a clear review or conclusion for the reader.

Examples of persuasive and nonperuasive handouts are given below. These two examples were taken from two students in the same group.

Student 1

Student 1 was proficient in forming a unified visual argument in the handout (Figures 3a–3f). In the first slide (Figure 3a), Student 1 provided a clear context for the problem affecting the reader (the university's Planning and Estate Office) by stating that there was a need to reduce the electrical consumption of the air-conditioning system because it accounts for 60% of the electricity bill. Student 1 then stated that the objective of the argument was to convince the reader that the thermal energy storage (TES) system was better than the heating, ventilation and cooling (HVAC) system in terms of energy usage and operating cost.

Figure 3a: Student 1 provided a clear context for the problem affecting the reader

Furthermore, Student 1 presented the content accurately and clearly with few irrelevant or misleading visuals (Figures 3b–3e). In addition, Student 1 provided an “overview” in the second slide (Figure 3b) that included a definition of the two points of comparison (energy usage and operating cost) and explained the relationship between the points of comparison and the expected outcome in the results (if the energy usage and tariff or electricity cost goes up, the operating cost would increase). Student 1 might have presented the definitions (which were supposed to be in the results section) in the overview slide because the two terms were the two main ideas that Student 1 was going to present for the argument.

Figure 3b: Student 1's overview slide provided the definition and explanation of the definition for operating cost and energy usage

Student 1 tried to highlight the significance of the results to the reader by establishing the difference in operating cost during peak and off-peak hours in Figure 3c. Student 1 stressed that there was a need to capitalize on the 7-cent difference for better cost savings.

Figure 3c: Student 1 highlighted the 7-cent difference in electricity cost during peak and off-peak hours

In the fourth slide (Figure 3d), Student 1 reinforced the argument that better cost savings could be achieved with the use of the TES system because it could shift its energy usage to the off-peak period. Student 1 highlighted in the table that although there was only a slight difference in terms of total energy usage in 24 hours, the difference in energy usage for the TES and HVAC systems during peak and off-peak hours was quite substantial, with the TES system using more energy during the off-peak hours while the HVAC system used energy only during the peak hours. Student 1 further explained that the TES system was able to shift its energy usage to off-peak hours because it freezes and stores ice at night and uses the energy stored in the ice to cool the facilities.

Figure 3d: Student 1 highlighted that there was a substantial difference in energy usage during off-peak hours between the two systems

Student 1 further highlighted the significance of the results in terms of cost savings to in the fifth slide (Figure 3e). The slide showed that using the TES system resulted in a savings of $583.19 per day, the equivalent of a 40% reduction in operating cost per day.

Figure 3e: Student 1 showed how the difference in energy usage translated into substantial cost savings per day for the TES system

Student 1 concluded the argument by providing a review in the sixth slide (Figure 3f) showing that the TES system is better than the HVAC system because it uses less energy and reduces the operating cost by 40%. Student 1 could have added that based on the results, the TES system is recommended as the better air-conditioning system to make the conclusion of the presentation more explicit to the reader.

Figure 3f: Student 1's conclusion slide where the main results were reviewed

Student 2

Student 2′s visual argument in the handout was ineffective. Student 2 did not provide a context for the argument as the overview, background, objective, and scope information elements were missing. Thus, the reader was not aware until the last slide that the student's aim was to convince them that the TES system was better than the HVAC system in terms of reliability, storage space, and reduced fire risk.

In addition, Student 2 tried to maintain the “definition, explanation of definition, results, explanation of the significance of the results” organization in the Results section but Student 2′s argument was clouded by the presence of many irrelevant and misleading visuals (Figures 4a–4e). Student 2′s first slide (Figure 4a) did not define “reliability” or establish the outcome in the data the reader should be looking for. Instead, Student 2 presented the results on reliability in the first sentence by mentioning that the TES system had a backup standby cooling system while the HVAC system did not. Student 2 repeated this idea again in the second sentence and then used a table to highlight that the maximum cooling capacity of TES during the peak period was more than 70% while that of HVAC was less than 50%. The information in the table was confusing because the reader could not establish a clear link between the standby cooling system and the cooling capacity during the peak period. In addition, the text that followed the table did not explain the significance of the finding but instead repeated the same information seen in the table.

Figure 4a: Student 2′s unclear argument about standby cooling capacity and maximum cooling capacity

Student 2′s explanation of the significance of the finding in the first slide was found in slide 2 (Figure 4b). The explanation was confusing because it was difficult to see the links in the argument. Student 2 mentioned that high reliability led to low maintenance (which is logical) but then went on to attribute it to the smaller size of the TES components. Student 2 further wrote that as the components were smaller, it would be easier for the technicians to repair the system. This statement confuses the reader because smaller components are not necessarily easier to repair.

Figure 4b: Student 2′s explanation on why the TES system was more reliable

Student 2′s third slide (Figure 4c) presented the second point of comparison, which was storage space. Student 2 seemed to have phrased the cause-and-effect relationship incorrectly because Student 2 mentioned that “storage space determines how large the storage tank will be.” Logically, the size of the storage tank would determine the storage space needed and not vice versa. As the heading of the slide was storage space, the reader would expect information about the size of the storage space needed. Instead, in the sentence preceding the table Student 2 talked about the amount of chilled water needed and also highlighted in the table the amount of chilled water needed.

Figure 4c: Student 2′s unclear argument about storage space and the amount of chilled water needed to operate the system

In slide four (Figure 4d), Student 2 provided information on the space required for the TES system and explained why it had to be placed underground. The two statements here disrupt the flow of the argument further as they would be more appropriate for slide 3. Furthermore, Student 2 used two unlabelled images, which seemed to serve a decorative function to fill up empty space in the slide.

Figure 4d: Student 2′s suggestion on where to store the TES system

Student 2′s argument regarding the third point of comparison (reduced fire risk) was also confusing (Figure 4e). Student 2 mentioned that the chilled water in the TES system could be used to extinguish fires but failed to establish why this led to a reduction in the facility and insurance premium costs. In addition, Student 2 did not have a Conclusion slide even though Student 2 had not used up the maximum number of allowed PowerPoint slides.

Figure 4e: Student 2′s explanation about how the TES system reduced facility and insurance premium costs.


The objective of this paper was to establish criteria for judging the persuasive capabilities of students’ visual arguments in handouts converted from slides. The students’ handouts were analyzed based on a checklist derived primarily from Doumont's (2002) three laws of professional communication. These laws have been tested on individual slides but there are no specific guidelines to date on the use of these laws to create effective visual arguments in technical communication handouts.

The results show that there was no automatic transfer of the students’ knowledge from their verbal argumentation to their visual argumentation assignment. Although the students had already written their section of the report and presented their section orally, some of the students could not coherently structure the visual argument in their handout. The results from this study also seem to suggest that the weaknesses in the students’ arguments are not just confined to one law but apply to all three of Doumont's laws. This is in line with Doumont (2002) who mentioned that the laws have an order of precedence. The two student examples above also highlighted that there can be distinct differences in the quality of the visual argument presented even between students in the same group. Thus, more specific guidelines would help students analyze for themselves the effectiveness of the visual argument in their handouts.

In summary, I would like to share a few specific guidelines gleaned from this study on how to structure effective visual arguments in handouts:

  1. Each document (report, slides or handout) should be a stand-alone document. Even if there are presentations (report or speech) before the handouts are distributed, presenters need to prepare the handouts with the assumption that readers will not re-read the report. Hence, information needs to be presented as clearly in the handout as in the report, and with more effort owing space constraints of PowerPoint slides.
  2. Each document (report, slides, or handout) serves different purposes. Reports present detailed and lengthy arguments, slides are meant to supplement presentations, and handouts are meant to present detailed but concise information. Information presented in one document cannot be re-used without adaptation in another document.
  3. Information elements like the overview, background, objective, and scope are very important in establishing a clear orientation and context for the reader. These elements cannot be omitted due to space constraints.
  4. The flow of argument in the handouts could be enhanced if presenters follow a consistent structure. In this study, the Results section had a consistent “definition, explanation of definition, results, explanation of significance of the results” flow. A consistent structure helps presenters go straight to the point and be mindful about the message that has to be conveyed.
  5. Information in the text and visuals should form a unified argument where the text explains rather than repeats the significance of the results in the visuals to the readers’ needs. Presenters should not introduce too many new variables in an argument since it confuses the reader.
  6. Informative diagrams are more appropriate for visual arguments in technical communication than indicative or decorative diagrams because they promote understanding of the argument. In addition, where visual illustrations or data graphics are used, communicators must label them to convey their relevance. Furthermore, the visual information must be carefully chosen so that it directly supports the author's argument.
  7. It is important to review the results and also state an explicit conclusion after the review in order to leave readers with no doubt as to how the objective of the argument has been answered.


Technical communication practitioners often create handouts that are converted from slides meant for presentations. I have emphasized that handouts and slides serve different purposes and I have proposed specific guidelines on how to create effective visual arguments in handouts. In the classroom, visual argumentation is seldom taught explicitly beyond the document design and informative graphic aspects. Two possible reasons for this might be that many teachers assume their students will be able to automatically transfer their knowledge about verbal argumentation to visual argumentation, and teachers may be unsure about what to teach their students about visual argumentation. I hope that the guidelines above are useful in encouraging teachers of technical communication to allocate more time in the curriculum to teaching visual argumentation and to promote more discussion within the academic community and among practitioners about the use of visual arguments in real-world contexts. Although the context for this study makes reference only to the recommendation report and the argumentative rhetorical strategy, I hope that the guidelines will be useful for other contexts of technical communication because the theoretical framework for the guidelines is based on Doumont's (2002) three laws of professional communication, which are general laws of communication. In addition, the sample in this study is small (one class only). I hope that more experimental research will be carried out to improve on the guidelines provided.


Alley, M. (2009). Rethinking the design of PowerPoint slides: The assertion-evidence structure. Retrieved March 29, 2010, from http://writing.engr.psu.edu/slides_body.html.

Alley, M., & Neely, K. A. (2005). Rethinking the design of presentation slides: A case for sentence headline and visual evidence. Technical Communication, 52, 417–426.

Amare, N., & Manning, A. (2007). The language of visuals: Text + graphics = visual rhetoric. IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, 50, 57–70.

Atkinson, C. (2005). Beyond bullet points: Using Microsoft® PowerPoint® to create presentations that inform, motivate and inspire. Redmond, CA: Microsoft Press. Birdsell, D. S., & Groarke, L. (1996). Toward a theory of visual argument. Argumentation & Advocacy, 33, 1–10.

Blair, J. A. (2004). The rhetoric of visual arguments. In C. A. Hill & M. Helmers (Eds.), Defining visual rhetorics (pp. 41–61). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Bovee, C. L., & Thill, J. V. (2008). Business communication today (9th ed). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Brumberger, E. (2005). Visual rhetoric in the curriculum: Pedagogy for a multimodal workplace. Business Communication Quarterly, 68, 318–333.

Doumont, J.-L. (2002). The three laws of professional communication. IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, 45, 291–296.

Doumont, J.-L. (2005). The cognitive style of PowerPoint: Slides are not all evil. Technical Communication, 52, 64–70.

Duarte, N. (2008). slide:ology: The art and science of creating great presentations. Sebastopol, CA: O'Reilly Media.

Finkelstein, L. (2005). Pocket book of technical writing for engineers and scientists. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Fleming, D. (1996). Can there be visual arguments? Argumentation & Advocacy, 33, 1–20.

Garner, J. K., Alley, M., Gaudelli, A. F., & Zappe, S. E. (2009). Common use of PowerPoint versus the assertion-evidence structure: A cognitive psychology perspective. Technical Communication, 56, 331–345.

Garvin, D. A. (2003). Building a learning organization. Harvard Business Review on Knowledge Management. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Godin, S. (2008). Presentation Zen: Simple ideas on presentation design and delivery. Berkeley, CA: New Riders.

Goldstein, M. (2003). It's alive! The audience, that is, but some presenters don't seem to know it. Successful Meetings, 53, 20.

Gross, A. G., & Harmon, J. E. (2009). The structure of PowerPoint presentations: The art of grasping things whole, IEEE Transactions on Professional Communication, 52, 121–137.

Kalyuga, S., Chandler, P., & Sweller, J. (1999). Managing split-attention and redundancy in multi-media instruction. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 13, 351–371.

Lee, C. C., & Tan, S. C. (2010, December 7). Graphic representations and transfer of ideas between multi-draft pre-writing stages. Paper presented at the Ascilite Conference, Sydney, Australia.

Lin, H. F. (2007). Knowledge sharing and firm innovation capability: An empirical study. International Journal of Manpower, 28, 315–332.

Markel, M. (2009). Exploiting verbal-visual synergy in presentation slides. Technical Communication, 56, 122–131.

Mayer, R. (2001). Multimedia learning. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Peirce, C. S. (1935). Collected papers of Charles Saunders Peirce, In C. Hartshorne & P. Weiss (Eds.), Pragmatics and pragmatism (vol. 2). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Reynolds, G. (2008). Presentation zen: Simple ideas on presentation design and delivery. Berkeley, CA: New Riders.

Robinson, J. (1998). Engineering thinking and rhetoric. Journal of Engineering Education, 87, 227–229.

Tufte, E. (2003). The cognitive style of PowerPoint. Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press.

Trussler, S. (1998). The rules of the game. The Journal of Business Strategy, 19, 16–19.

About the Author

Chien-Ching Lee teaches technical and professional communication in Nanyang Technological University. Her research interests are in visual communication and interactivity issues in social media. Contact: leecc@ntu.edu.sg