Visual aids available for use in a presentation range from a flip chart costing a few dollars to professional audio-visual productions costing tens of thousands of dollars.

            This article is designed to help you become a more dynamic speaker, not a graphic arts designer or a computer technician, so it will simply deal with some principles to keep in mind when deciding whether to use visual aids, how many to use, and how to use them effectively.

            Unless you’re in a teaching situation, or introducing a new and complex concept, you should eliminate as many visual aids as possible, leaving only those that clearly enhance the presentation without distracting the audience from paying attention to you and to what you are saying.

            Visual aids designed to make the speech more entertaining, such as the occasional cartoon or effective picture, are perfectly fine to use.  Remember, though, that if you’re using someone else’s material, such as a comic strip panel or picture, permission must be obtained from the copyright holder and credit given.

            Backdrop visual aids, such as a company logo or some other image relevant to the occasion, are always appropriate and you should never hesitate to use them.        

            However, you wouldn’t be too thrilled if there was a competing event going on while you were speaking. Over-produced visual aids, and especially sound and light shows, constitute a competing event. They are competition, right there on the same stage with you. You wouldn’t want another speaker on the podium talking at the same time as you, would you? Well, sophisticated audio-visuals can be just about the same thing, or maybe worse.

            Too much light, sound and imagery will reduce you to a faceless and forgettable technician, whereas you should want both you and your message to be memorable. You want the audience to go away talking about you and what you had to say; you don’t want them to be talking only about the great sound and light show.

            The reason you’re there in person, rather than having just sent a letter, memo, voice mail, or email to the attendees, is the inherent value of having the author of a message physically in front of the intended audience. It is your chance to show how well you know your subject. It is your chance to interact with the audience. Your being there gives the audience the opportunity to get a feel for you the person. They get to see the expression on your face, observe your body language and listen to the tone of your voice as your message is being delivered. The overuse of visual aids interferes with all of that. If the audience wanted to watch a video they probably would have done so at home or at the office. They came to see and hear you.

            When you rely too much on visual aids the audience will think that you don’t have the confidence, the ability or the conviction to deliver a powerful speech. The more visual aids you use, the less you come across as a leader, so the more senior and respected you are, the fewer visual aids you should use. The CEO should never use visual aids except as a backdrop, such as the company name and logo, or some other image relevant to the occasion. If there is content in the CEO’s speech that requires visual aids for clarification, someone else should give that part of the presentation. For example, budget details should be presented by the Chief Financial Officer, not by the Chief Executive Officer.

            Another reason to shy away from overly sophisticated audio-visuals is that additional complexity increases the odds of something going wrong. You’ve probably sat uncomfortably in an audience while the speaker fumbled with the “next” and “back” buttons, or continually interrupted the presentation to instruct another person operating the equipment to go to the next image, return to the last one, or skip a couple. It’s disconcerting to the audience, destroys the flow of the presentation, and diminishes the reputation of the speaker.

            Sophisticated, computer-driven technology is extremely useful during the preparation of your speech; but before using it during the delivery of your speech be sure that doing so will enhance your presentation rather than detract from it. Make sure that you clearly know how to operate the equipment or have a competent person assisting you; and always include the assistant and the technology in your rehearsals.

            Visual aids must not be your message; they should just support your message. The criteria visual aids must meet before being used are that they be relevant, informative, necessary, foolproof and worth the trouble and expense.

            Visual aids containing only words, unless they merely summarize what you’re saying in point form, are usually redundant and rarely add anything to a speech. People can read a lot faster than you can talk. If the visual aid just repeats what you’re saying, the audience will read what’s on the screen rather than listen to and look at you, missing your tone of voice, inflection, and body language, all of which may be extremely important to your credibility and to the persuasiveness of your message. Worse still, they will finish the thought before you do; then their minds will wander and you’ll completely lose their attention.

            Whenever possible it’s better to use pictures and graphs rather than words and numbers. An appropriate picture can, indeed, be worth a thousand words. Graphs are much more understandable than tables and rows or columns of numbers. A table with complex data confuses, but a simple graph clarifies.

            Eliminate all clutter. An audience will grasp and remember a clear, graphic presentation but will usually ignore and always quickly forget a complex table.

            Unless it’s a summary of points that you’ve covered, deal with just one main point per visual aid. Be sure the contents of the visual aid can be clearly seen by the entire audience. If you have to read to the audience what’s on a visual aid, then the visual aid is worse than useless.

            When using a visual aid, explain in advance the point that’s going to be illustrated on it, then show the visual aid as evidence to back up, not just repeat, what you said. Talking and showing a visual aid at the same time, unless it’s just a summary or a simple backdrop, is confusing, redundant, or both. Talk, then show, is the way to go.

            If the visual aid is not a summary or backdrop, don’t let the audience see it until you’ve introduced what’s going to be on it, and then get it out of the way as soon as you’ve dealt with it.

            Never use a visual aid solely for dramatic effect, it must also support or enhance your message. If you’re good and if you’ve prepared properly you don’t need gimmicks. People remember two types of speakers: the best they’ve heard and the worst they’ve heard. You’ll never make it into the first category if you overuse visual aids.

            Don’t hand out copies of your visual aids beforehand unless you want them used as a workbook in a teaching situation or when introducing a new and complex subject. As in the case of the audience reading wordy slides, the problem with the audience having copies of your visual aids is that they will start flipping through the deck and examining the copies rather than listening to and watching you. They’ll no longer be paying attention to the pace, tone and continuity of your presentation; you’ll have lost their attention and a lot of the effectiveness of your talk will have evaporated.

            Finally, never speak to the audience while you’ve turned to look at your visual aid. If you have to look at the visual aid for some reason, stop talking. Always talk to the audience, never to the visual aid.