Working with Visual Aids
Visual aids are an important part of presentations. They can help to keep your audience engaged, make your point for you—there is a reason why people say that a picture tells a thousand words—and remind you what you want to say.
However, you can also take them too far.
If good use of visual aids can make a presentation, poor use can ruin it. Who, after all, has not be subject to ‘death by PowerPoint’, in one of its many forms? This page explains more about how to use visual aids effectively in presentations and helps you to avoid being remembered for all the wrong reasons.
What Are Visual Aids?
Visual aids are exactly what they sound like: a visual support to you standing up and speaking.
They are commonly something like slides setting out your main points, or a video. They can also take the form of a handout, either of your slides, or a summary of your presentation, the use of a flip chart, or even something interesting that you have brought along to show your audience and make a point.
If visual aids are used well they will enhance a presentation by adding impact and strengthening audience involvement. They can also be a helpful to reminder to you of what you wanted to say.
You should only use visual aids if they are necessary to maintain interest and assist comprehension in your presentation.
Do not use visual aids just because you can, or to demonstrate your technological competence. Doing so may make it harder to get your messages across clearly and concisely.
For each visual aid or slide, ask yourself why you are using it. If there is no real purpose, don’t include it.
Thinking Ahead—Planning Your Visual Aids
Most visual aids will need advance preparation. You will need to know how to operate the equipment effectively.
Check beforehand what facilities are available so that you can plan your presentation accordingly.
Also check whether you need to send your presentation in advance to be loaded up, or whether you can bring it on a memory stick or similar.
You can find more about preparing a presentation in our dedicated page on the subject.
It is now common to use presentation software such as PowerPoint.
Indeed, few presenters would dare to attend an event without a PowerPoint file. However, it is still possible to manage without. Some of the very best lecturers and speakers do not use PowerPoint. At most, they might draw on a flip chart or whiteboard. What they have to say, and the style in which they say it, is compelling enough to hold their audience.
For most of the rest of us, PowerPoint is likely to be the way forward, however.
Top tips for using PowerPoint
- Keep it simple. Use no more than three to five bullet points per slide and keep your bullet points to a line of text, if possible. Your slides should be a guide to what you are going to say, not a verbatim account.
- Don’t use visual effects unless they actually add to your presentation. PowerPoint has some very nice options for adding and subtracting text, but they can be very distracting. Stay away unless you really know what you’re doing.
- Keep it short. A half-hour presentation can usually be summarised into six to ten slides at most.
- Don’t use the notes function. PowerPoint has a ‘notes’ function that allows you to write notes under the slides for your benefit. Don’t. You will try to read them off the screen, and stop talking to your audience. Instead, use cue cards held in your hands and focus on your audience.
Other common visual aids include:
- Whiteboards and interactive whiteboards
- Flip charts
Whiteboards and Interactive Whiteboards
Whiteboards are good for developing an explanation, diagrams and simple headings.
They can also be used for recording interaction with, and comments from, the audience during brainstorming sessions.
Remember that writing on a whiteboard takes time and that you will have to turn your back to the audience to do so. If using a whiteboard, you should ensure that your handwriting is legible, aligned horizontally, and is sufficiently large to be seen by all the audience. Also ensure that you use non-permanent pens (sometimes referred to as dry-wipe pens) rather than permanent markers so that your writing can be erased later.
Bear in mind that the white background of a whiteboard can cause contrast problems for people with impaired vision.
Interactive whiteboards can be used for PowerPoint presentations, and also to show videos, as well as to write on and record interactions with the audience. They are, effectively, projector screen/whiteboard combinations, with attitude. If you plan to use an interactive whiteboard, you should make sure you know how it works, and practice using it, before your presentation. It is NOT a good idea to make first use of one in a major presentation.
A flip chart is a low cost, low tech solution to recording interactive meetings and brainstorming sessions.
At many venues, however, they have been replaced by interactive whiteboards.
A flip chart can be prepared in advance and is portable, it requires no power source and no technical expertise. Flip charts are ideal for collecting ideas and responses from the audience and are good for spontaneous summaries. However, if the audience is large, a flip chart will be too small to be seen by everyone.
Top tips for the effective use of a flip chart:
Arrive early and position the flip chart so that you can get to it easily when you need it.
Position the flip chart so that you can stand next to it and write while still at least half-facing your audience. Do not turn your back on your audience.
Make sure you have several marker pens that work.
Only use blue or black marker pens. It will be difficult for those at the back of the room to see any other colours. You can use red pens to accentuate blue or black.
Make your letters at least 2-3 inches tall so that everybody can see what you have written.
Draw lines in pencil on blank pages before your presentation, to help you keep your writing legible and straight.
If you are using a flip chart as an alternative to PowerPoint:
- Plan out your pages as you are writing the outline for your presentation;
- Write notes to yourself, in pencil, on the flip chart to remind you of the points you want to make. Your audience will not see the pencil notes.
If you have something that you want to present and then accentuate during the presentation or discussion, write out the flip chart page beforehand so that you can just flip the page to it—or just use a PowerPoint slide.
If you need to refer to something that you wrote on a page at a later point in your presentation, rip off the page and fix it to the wall.
Videos are particularly good for training purposes. Short videos can also be embedded into a PowerPoint presentation to make a point, or provide an example. This is becoming increasingly popular with the advent of YouTube, because far more videos are available. Smartphones have also made recording your own videos much easier.
However, as with any visual aid, make sure that you are using video for a purpose, not just because you can.
Handouts summarising or including the main points of a presentation are an excellent addition, but must be relevant.
Presentation software packages such as PowerPoint can automatically generate handouts from your presentation slides. You can also prepare a one-page summary of your presentation, perhaps as a diagram, if that seems more appropriate. This may be particularly useful if you are asked to do a presentation as part of an interview.
If you do provide handouts, it is worth thinking carefully about when to distribute them.
Giving out handouts at the start of a talk will take time and the audience may start to read these rather than listen to what the speaker is saying. However, if your presentation contains complex graphs or charts, the audience will appreciate receiving the handout before the presentation starts since they may find it easier to view these on paper than on the projection screen. The audience may also appreciate being able to make their own notes on the printed handout during the presentation.
Consider the best time and method to distribute any handouts, including either placing them on seats prior to the start or giving them out at the end of your presentation. You may also consider emailing copies of handouts to participants after the event. If your talk includes questions or discussion this will give to time to summarise this and communicate it back to the attendees.
A final take-away
There is no question that visual aids, used well, will enhance your presentation. They add a more visual element to the auditory aspect of you speaking. They therefore help to engage your audience on more levels, and also keep them interested.
The key to avoiding ‘death by PowerPoint’ is to focus on the purpose of each slide or visual aid, and ask yourself:
How does this add to what I am saying?
‘Adding’ may of course include ‘providing a summary’, but if your slide adds nothing to your spoken words, then do not include it.