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Presentation Skills: Visuals: Slide Design

Visuals Can Power Your Presentation—If You Know How to Use Them

Visuals can be your friend—or a sure way to obscure your message and confound your audience. What kind of visuals work best? And what should you avoid?

Lately, magazine articles have been popping up with titles like "More Power than Point" and "Friends Don't Let Friends Use PowerPoint." Some critics even want to eliminate PowerPoint or other visuals altogether. Why the backlash? Because too many presenters simply fail to use visuals correctly.

The thing to remember is that visuals are simply a tool. Use them wisely and they can add power to your presentation. Misuse them, and all you do is obscure your message and distract or confuse your audience. Here, then, are a few tips on using visuals effectively:

Visuals are an aid—not the whole focus of your presentation.
Your visuals should not dominate or overshadow your message. Once upon a time, presenters talked about "visual aids." The visuals were just that: an aid that helped to better convey your message while also helping audience comprehension. They were intended to help you to better convey your message. Now, armed with the likes of PowerPoint, presenters often let the focus turn away from them and onto the projected image.

"At-a-glance" works best.
Your visuals should provide your audience with "at-a-glance-comprehension." That means visuals that enable your audience to grasp your main points quickly and easily. And that in turn means visuals that are simple and clear. It doesn't help to pack so much material onto a slide that it becomes impossible to read and, often, impossible even to comprehend. Dense visuals bury the message instead of helping to convey it. If you must use densely packed visuals to fully explain an idea, save them for handouts. You can fill in the details in the "Notes" pages in PowerPoint, or you can prepare one set of visuals for your presentation and another set, with more detail, for your audience to take away.

Keep your audience in mind.
Good visuals serve your audience's needs, not yours. That's why visuals should not be designed as a script for the presenter. They should be designed to help the audience understand a point or idea.

Your visuals should give added clarity and reinforcement to your spoken words, not simply echo them.

Beware the droning effect. Keep a consistent framework, or template, but avoid visuals that all look the exactly the same. There are more than enough features in computer graphics programs that allow you to get some variety into your slides. Just don't get carried away with design elements that don't contribute to your listeners' comprehension.

Pictures say more.
People grasp pictures more quickly than words. So work in pictures wherever you can to support your message. Avoid diluting graphic visuals with lots of words. If the graphic requires written words to explain it, it may not be the right graphic in the first place.

When you are using words, keep them brief. Use key words only, not full sentences. Avoid more than six lines of text on a single visual, with no line of text longer than six words. The worst visual is a projection of a black and white typewritten page.

Use color sensibly.
The effects of color choice are often subliminal, but they can have a significant impact on your audience. One example is the color red, which conjures up strong negatives, particularly in business and science. In one, it typically represents financial loss. In the other, it suggests issues that are problematic. On the other hand, you may want to use red deliberately to represent a negative fact or issue. (Red, by the way, can be hard to see, particularly over a distance. So if you use red, use it sparingly.)

Where to stand.
Position yourself directly facing the room, ideally at center stage, with the visual to your left at an angle of roughly 25 degrees. That rule may change slightly in some circumstances, depending on the room setup. In some rooms, there's a fixed lectern, with the screen in the middle. In that case, you should speak from stage right (audience left) to preserve the left-to-right orientation of your listeners, better enabling them to read left to right, from speaker to screen.

Once again: visuals are secondary to your presentation. Your message needs to come from you, the presenter. PowerPoint or other visuals alone won't do it for you. It's still you who has to get the message across. Finally, remember: low-tech can often "sell" better than high-tech. We'll have more to say about that in a later issue.


This Issue

Learn more about using visuals by working with a personal coach or attending a presentation skills seminar that includes tips on how to design and use visuals. Click here to read more about designing effective visuals.

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