This column is aimed at people who want to gain a reputation as effective public speakers, not as graphic arts designers or computer technicians. And one of the best ways to achieve this goal is to eliminate as many visual aids as possible from your presentations.
Unless you’re in a teaching situation, or introducing a new and complex concept, you could probably get by without any visual aids at all. I’ve given hundreds of speeches in which I used no visual aids whatsoever.
Visual aids range from a flip chart costing a few dollars to professional audio-visual productions costing tens of thousands of dollars, and a good rule of thumb is that the more expensive the visual aids, the less attention the audience will pay to (or remember) the speaker.
Visual aids designed to make a speech more entertaining, such as a relevant cartoon or illustrative picture, are perfectly appropriate. (But always remember 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 also always appropriate.
Not too many people would welcome a competing event going on while speaking. But that’s exactly what over-produced visual aids (especially sound and light shows) are. They constitute a competing event, right there on the stage with you.
Too much light, sound and imagery reduce you to a faceless and forgettable technician. You should want the audience to go away talking about you and what you had to say, not about the great sound and light show they just attended.
The reason you’re there in person is the inherent value of having the author of a message physically in front of the audience. It’s your chance to show how well you know your subject and to interact with the audience. Your being there gives the audience the opportunity to get a feel for you the person. Your message is stronger, too, because they get to see the expression on your face, observe your body language and listen to the tone of your voice. The overuse of visual aids interferes with all of that.
If you rely too much on visual aids the audience may think that you don’t have the confidence, the ability, or the conviction to deliver a powerful message. 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. A 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 a 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 CFO, not by the CEO.
The more sophisticated the audio-visuals, the greater the odds that something will go wrong. You’ve probably sat uncomfortably in an audience while the speaker fumbled with the remote control or continually interrupted the presentation to instruct another person operating the equipment what to do. 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, be sure that doing so will actually 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 shouldn’t 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.
But if you’re going to use visual aids, here’s some advice.
Visual aids containing only words, unless they merely summarize what you’re saying in point form, are usually redundant and rarely add anything to your presentation. 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. They will miss 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, the audience will finish the thought before you do; then their minds will wander and you’ll completely lose their attention.
Pictures and graphs are always more effective than words and numbers. An appropriate picture can, indeed, be worth a thousand words. Graphs are much more understandable than tables or rows and 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 quickly forget a complex table.
Unless it’s a summary of points that you’ve covered, deal with just one point per visual aid. Be sure the visual aid can be clearly seen by the entire audience. If you have to read what’s on a visual aid to the audience, then the visual aid is worse than useless.
When using a visual aid, explain in advance the point that’s going to be illustrated by it, then show the visual aid as evidence to back up what you’re saying, 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 its purpose has been met.
Don’t use visual aids solely for dramatic effect, they 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.
Never 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 visual aids, the problem with the audience having copies of them 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.
It’s worth repeating: most people overuse visual aids, and the most competent speakers use them as little as possible.