“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” I never really liked that saying. I like it even less now that I’m getting closer to qualifying as one of those “old dogs.” I’ve got two teenage daughters and they teach me new things all the time, mostly about technology. And I return the favor by helping them learn important lessons from the past. Like, you know, how to do the “Electric Slide.”

Today, I’d like to share a design tip with you. Consider it a “new trick.” It’s called masking. And it’s used to help reduce distractions in the background of an image while also focusing the audience’s attention on one specific thing. This tip is shared on the TED blog in an article called “10 Tips on How to Make Slides that Communicate Your Idea, from TED’s In-House Expert.”

The Expert

That expert is Aaron Weyenberg and he says masking is one of his favorite slide design techniques. It allows you to take a screenshot or image that looks like this:

And help the audience focus on one part of the image, like this:

The steps to complete the process will differ depending on what presentation media program you are using. The Powerpoint process will be a little different than the Keynote process which will be a little different than the Google Slides process. We’d suggest completing a search for whatever presentation media program you are using for more specific steps. But in general, this process will help you understand how to use this design trick.

The Process

Here are the general steps you’ll want to follow to create a stunning design that helps direct your audience’s attention to a specific area of your image.

  • Select an image for your slide.
  • Set the image transparency for something less than 100. (Image transparency allows you to adjust the degree to which the image is see through.)
  • Duplicate that image and place it directly on top of the other image.
  • Set the duplicated image’s transparency back to 100. You now have one “see through” layer of the image under a regular copy of the image.
  • Mask the duplicated image using a shape that you select. Stick with us here. What you need to do now is select a shape and place it over the part of the image you want to draw attention to.


Let me break down the concept of “masking” a little more here. Design Shack says, “At its simplest definition a mask is a way to apply something to a very specific portion of an image.” Check out their article “A Complete Beginner’s Guide to Masking” if you’d like a little more background info on the concept. There is also a YouTube video Weyenberg suggests watching if you want to use masking in Keynote. You can find it here.

Basically, masking allows you to choose a shape, like a circle or rectangle. Then it allows you to control what happens both inside of and outside of that shape. In the examples above, the circle mask (along with the duplicate layers of the image) allows you to set the transparency inside that circle to 100%. Boom! All the eyes in the room will go immediately to that circle. And everything outside of that circle is set to something like 30% or 50%. So it literally fades into the background while you are focused on talking about what is inside the circle.

How To Use It

Imagine if you are debuting a new website or the features of a product. Masking allows you to focus on only one part of the image, page, or product at a time. Or say for instance you are sharing the story of one person. You can use masking to show pictures of that person with classmates or family members. You can highlight the specific person you are talking about while also showing different contexts of that person’s life. Masking allows you to give a focused tour or talk while not losing the relationship of the parts to the whole.

Once you get comfortable using the masking technique, you’ll find lots of ways to use it. Overall, it’s a simple trick that allows you quiet the background noise and help direct the eyes and attention of your audience. Plus, it just looks pretty cool.

We’ve got more design tips and tricks from our incredible designers at Ethos3. Find out how you can take your presentation to the next level. 


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