Presenting? Help your audience with visual aids

Why do I continue to attend presentations where the speaker uses poor visual aids or bores the audience with “death by PowerPoint?” 

There is a ton of advice available about how to use visual aids in presentations. Classes, books, workshops, the list goes on. Even the folks in your marketing department can give tips on using visual aids well. And I recently read this blog on how to make your presentation less boring.

Yet I still see slides with too many words in fonts so small there is no way to read them from the front of the room, let alone the back. 

Here’s the good news: You don’t have to be an expert in PowerPoint or Prezi to make good visual aids that will help, not hinder, your presentation. 

Avoid death by PowerPoint.
Avoid predictable presentations that put audiences to sleep. The right visual aids command attention.

Focus on the message

To build a clear, concise presentation, I always recommend starting with a Message Map. Once you have your map, you literally have the outline to your presentation. Use the map to ensure your presentation sticks to your key message. 

Before we move on to creating great visual aids, remember that you must do your part to prepare. Know your message. Practice it. If you have to rely on wordy slides that you must read aloud word-for-word, then you haven’t respected your audience.

As you build your visual aids, keep in mind that you are the focus of your presentation, not your slides. Your slides are there for emphasis only. They should be easy for your audience to understand and relevant to your presentation. 

A picture is worth a thousand words

There is a reason that’s a popular saying. Used well, pictures can more quickly and vividly convey your message. 

That said, make sure the picture is relevant to your topic. Don’t show your pet if you’re speaking about finances. Provide enough context about the picture or graphic so your audience understands. 

Use relevant, interesting visual aids that convey your message, like this graphic showing the components of a great presentation.

When putting your picture into your presentation, keep in mind that it may need to be cropped or enlarged. You also need to pay attention to copyrights and trademarks. Geetesh Bajaj lists several tips on using pictures in presentations in his blog

When using graphs, make sure any axes are labeled and that any colors used can be distinguished from each other, especially from the back of the room. 

If you keep your pictures and graphs simple and relevant, they will help teach your audience as well as give you visual cues—so you aren’t reading your notes word for word. 

Use fewer words per slide

Speaking of words, use them sparingly. If you must put words on a slide to convey a complex message, pare them down. There is no need for complete sentences in your visual aids. Here’s an example from the University of Toronto. 

Original slide:

Shuttle components

  • The Orbiter is one key component of the space shuttle, and it holds the astronauts along with all of the equipment.
  • The solid rocket boosters are another component, and they provide the initial thrust required to get the shuttle out of the atmosphere. They are jettisoned and recovered.
  • The liquid rocket booster is the final key component, and it provides the thrust required to get the rocket into orbit. It is jettisoned after leaving the atmosphere, and it burns up on reentry.

Revised slide: 

Shuttle components

  • Orbiter
    • Holds astronauts & equipment

  • Solid Rocket Boosters
    • Provide thrust to exit atmosphere
    • Jettisoned & recovered

  • Liquid Rocket Booster
    • Provides thrust to achieve orbit
    • Jettisoned; burns up on reentry

The shorter version is easier for the audience to digest because it more clearly and concisely states the needed information in bite-sized form. 

As you review your slides, if you’ve written any complete sentences, revise them. One of the few times it’s appropriate to use full sentences on a slide is when you directly quote someone. 

Also, when using words, to keep the audience focused on you versus trying to read ahead, employ reveals or builds. They help the audience stay with you and pay attention to your message in the moment. 

Last, but definitely not least, pay attention to your font size. Can the people in the last row read your slide? Guy Kawasaki writes, “Find out the age of the oldest person in your audience and divide it by two. That’s your optimal font size.”

Explore other types of visual aids

Though it is widely used and what most presenters choose to fall back on, PowerPoint is just one of many options for using visual aids to emphasize your points. 

Videos

As videos become more popular, I see increased use of short videos in presentations. Let me emphasize short. The audience is there to hear your message, not to watch a long video. That said, short videos can be useful in making a point or telling a story. 

Live drawing

Another popular visual aid is live drawing on stage. You can use a white board, as long as your audience can see it. Don’t worry if you’re not a great artist. If you use the live drawing well to make your point, the audience will pay attention to your message, not your handwriting or sketch. 

Drawing during your presentation can help keep the audience’s attention.

Props

While they can be cumbersome to carry, props are another way to use visual aids to make your point. I once attended a large internal meeting between two contentious groups. The first presenter brought in a giant stuffed elephant to emphasize the “elephant in the room.” It worked. It broke the ice and made the audience comfortable asking tough questions. 

Final steps for a successful presentation

Clear, concise message? Check. Great visual aids? Check. 

Now what? 

Arrive at the venue early to make sure everything works, so you have time to make any changes if you need to. Test your visuals on the screen or stage. Will the people in the back of the room be able to see them well? 

Stand to the right of the screen when facing the audience, so you are to the left of the screen from their perspective. You want them to see you first, and then your visuals. 

You, the presenter, are more important than the content. Stand to the left so people connect with you.

While moving to emphasize a point can work well, don’t stand in front of an important visual that the audience has not yet had time to absorb. 

With a clear, concise message, appropriate preparation, and great visual aids, you can use your presentation to get your story heard. 

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