The range of visual aids stretches all the way from a flip chart costing a few dollars to professional audio-visual productions costing tens of thousands of dollars. As a speaker there are some principles to remember about effectively using visual aids.

Unless you’re in a teaching situation, or dealing with a complex concept, you should eliminate as many visual aids as possible, leaving only those that enhance your presentation without distracting the audience from paying attention to you and to what you’re saying. Too much light, sound and imagery will render you faceless and forgettable, whereas your goal as a speaker should be to be memorable.

Would you want another speaker on the podium talking at the same time as you? Well, too many sophisticated audio-visuals can be just about the same thing.

The reason you’re there in person, rather than having just sent a letter, memo, voice mail, or email to the attendees, is to demonstrate command of your subject and to interact with the audience. Your presence allows the audience to get a feel for you by seeing the expression on your face, observing your body language and listening to the tone of your voice. The overuse of visual aids interferes with all that. If the audience wanted to watch a video they could have done so at home or at the office. They came to see and hear you.

The more visual aids you use, the less you come across as a leader. The more senior and respected you are, the fewer visual aids you should use. Except as a backdrop, such as the company name and logo, or some other image relevant to the occasion, a CEO should never use visual aids. 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 belong in the CFO’s talk, not the CEO’s.

Another reason to avoid overly-sophisticated audio-visual use is that complexity increases the odds of something going wrong. You’ve probably sat in an audience while the speaker fumbled with the “next” and “back” buttons, or continually interrupted the presentation to instruct an unseen operator. It’s disconcerting, destroys the flow of the presentation, and diminishes the reputation of the speaker. Before using sophisticated computer-driven technology during your speech (as useful as it is during the preparation of your talk), be sure it will enhance your presentation rather than detract from it.

Visual aids containing only words, unless merely summaries in point form, 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 you, with the result that they will finish the thought before you do. Then their minds will wander and you’ll lose their attention. Unless it’s a point-form summary, deal with just one point per visual aid.

            Whenever possible use pictures and graphs rather than words and numbers. An appropriate picture really is worth a thousand words. Graphs are much more understandable than columns and rows of numbers. A table with complex data confuses, but a simple graph clarifies. An audience will long remember a clear, graphic presentation but will always quickly forget a complex table.

            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, 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 either confusing or redundant. Talk, then show, is the way to go. Except for summaries and backdrops, don’t let the audience see the visual aid 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. The visual aid must also support or enhance your message. If you’re good, and if you’ve prepared properly, you don’t need gimmicks. But visual aids used to make a speech more entertaining, such as a cartoon or effective picture, are always appropriate. The key is to be sure they’re relevant to your message, and even these should be kept to a minimum. If you’re using someone else’s cartoon or picture, permission must be obtained from the copyright holder and credit given.

            Don’t hand out copies of your visual aids beforehand unless you want them used as a workbook in a teaching situation.

            It’s particularly dangerous to use visual aids right after lunch or dinner. Darkness induces dozing.

The criteria visual aids must meet are that they be relevant, informative, necessary, foolproof, and worth the trouble and expense. Visual aids should just support your message; they should never be your message.