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Chapter 14: Visual Aids: When a Picture is Worth a Thousand Words


A picture is indeed worth a thousand words. But it must be a good one.

- Author

We are a visual society; if you want your words to be remembered, give your audience something it can see. You have a complex idea to get across: Is there some way to display it visually? People remember 50 percent more of what they see and hear than of what they only hear. It's no wonder that visual aids are integral to the majority of speeches and presentations. Visual aids are everywhere today, and this chapter will give you lots of ideas about how to use them - and how not to.

A visual aid is any sort of prop you use to support your speech. Charts, graphs, slides, photographs, handouts, and demonstration models are all visual aids. But always remember - you are your own best visual aid. The way you look, walk, use arm motions, and show expression (in other words, your body language) is a key part of your talk.

Visual aids are especially helpful to novice or nervous speakers, who may not have the confidence that their own movements and animation will carry the show. Aids also help diffuse any nervous energy by giving you something physical to do. But as with any aspect of your speech, practice is vital. Visual aids that weren't rehearsed will show the lack of preparation, and will accentuate a speaker's lack of experience. If practiced thoroughly, visual aids greatly enhance your professionalism. In fact, I advise my clients and students to use visual aids in all of their presentations.

However, visual aids do have their dark side: As any speaker who has had to come up with some will tell you, they take up a great deal of time and thought; they can take attention away from what you are saying; they are costly; and if anything goes wrong, they can be a catastrophe.

So why use visual aids at all? We use them because a picture really is worth a thousand words. They portray - vividly and instantly - things that would take volumes to explain verbally. They save time, create interest, add variety, and help your audience remember your main points.

Visual Evolution

Over time the character of acceptable visual aids has changed. There's more technology involved today. But some things have not changed. We've spent time researching the art and science of using visual aids, and here are some of the discoveries:

Remember that a visual aid is an aid to the presentation, not the presentation itself. A good presentation with visual aids is more effective than a good presentation without them, but remember that a visual aid is not a replacement for part of your speech. Done properly, visual aids can assist you in getting your message across. Done poorly, they can blur your message and lessen your credibility.

Put Your Visual Aids to the Test

To make sure each visual aid you are contemplating will really add to your presentation, ask yourself these two questions:

How to Create Visual Aids

A good visual aid springs to life after its creator has followed some basic steps:

  1. Go back to the outline of your speech and jot down ideas for visual aids. How could a visual aid help clarify an idea? What kind will work best - chart, model, graph, or illustration? Always design a visual aid to perform a specific function. Use visual aids only where they are needed and make sure they are related to the subject. They should not only liven up your speech but also have a purpose.

  2. Write down the essence of the visual aid on a piece of paper and start to work out the way it will look. The paper represents the visual aid; limit yourself to the one or two points you want to emphasize.

  3. Sketch out the visual aid itself. You will give this rough sketch to an artist if you're working with one. Whether you are creating your own visual aids or working with a professional artist, always make a rough sketch before you create your final version.

  4. Avoid clutter; make your visual aids simple and easy to grasp. If you must combine words and type, strive for a good, balanced layout. Each visual aid should have a title, and should cover no more than three main points. If you have more points to make, create additional visual aids. Limit yourself to no more than six lines on each visual aid; less is definitely best!

    If you're using numbers and words on the visual aid, make them large and easy to read; take advantage of the ways graphics can reduce the number of words. Make sure each visual aid emphasizes your main ideas.

  5. Use color in three ways: to please the eye, add emphasis, and differentiate one point from another. Even a little bit of color can spruce up a dull visual aid: Underline headings in color and put colored bullets in front of major points. But don't overdo it: A lot of color can lead to confusion. Using too much color is far worse than using too little.

    Color has a psychological impact on most people; we are drawn to the colored portions of advertisements and sales letters. Blue and black are both good for headlines; blue is also good for highlighting and underlining. Green implies go ahead and tends to be perceived favorably. Red is an excellent eye-catching accent; however, it is harder to see than the others and implies both stop and losses (red ink).

    So when you work out your rough sketches, use color and practice with it. Try out different colors and get reactions from your friends. In other words, work out the bugs before you finish the visual aids.

Rules to Remember

Ineffective visual aids - and there are a surprising number of them out there - all share mistakes that the good ones manage to avoid. Here are some tricks of the trade to help you make your visual aids and your presentation look professional:

  1. Make all the visual aids consistent but NEVER boring. Titles should be the same size, and type styles should not vary wildly. All charts should use color in the same way: If you use blue bullets for emphasis in one chart, use them in all charts. Never use more than three colors in a visual aid.

  2. Keep the visual aid out of sight until you are ready to use it. You want it to support you, not beat you to the punch line.

  3. Always talk to the audience, not to the visual aid. Don't let the visual aid become a security blanket; powerful speakers use powerful visual aids, but they also maintain eye contact with the audience.

  4. Stand to the side of what you're showing; not in front of it.

  5. Don't forget to stage the visual aid: Consider the room size, where the audience will be, the easel, power cord, lights, and so on. Clear away visual aids used by other presenters so that you can start fresh. Make sure your visual aids are high enough for people in the back rows to see. If you don't have a stand or an easel, hold the visual aid up yourself, but don't block your face. When you're finished, put all the visual aids aside; don't let them clutter the platform when you give your concluding remarks.

  6. Practice using your visual aids as you practice your whole talk. It's a mistake to practice your speech first and add the visual aids later. Use them as you develop your talk and each time you practice. Make sure they work - and work for you.

The Power (or Misuse) of PowerPoint

Technology is a wonderful thing. Most of the time. In the field of visual aids, the development of PowerPoint and other computer-aided graphics programs allow you to create powerful visual aids yourself, without having to depend on IT professionals to create them for you. Like any technical advance, however, programs such as PowerPoint don't solve every problem. Many presenters now rely on a computer program for success or to give them an excuse for failure. You can NEVER rely on a visual aid to make or break your presentation. It is not the slide, the animation, or the bells and whistles that spell success - it's the individual who is speaking.

One of the problems with using presentation software is that everyone else is using it too. In an article in an issue of Business 2.0 called "Ban it Now! Friends Don't Let Friends Use PowerPoint," author Thomas Stewart wrote that conference organizers will often offer to transfer your overhead transparencies to PowerPoint because they "want a uniform look."

"Why in the world would you want a uniform look?" says Stewart, who, as a presenter himself, also has to listen to a lot of other presentations. "They're all the same. One speaker finishes, his last slide saying thank you and giving his e-mail address. There is applause. The lights go up, he unplugs his laptop and leave the podium, the emcee introduces the next speaker. She walks up, mumbles inconsequentially while she plugs in her laptop. The lights dim and she shows her first slide. It reads good morning. This starts at eight, goes to 12, resumes at one, and ends at five."

So why use PowerPoint or any other presentation software? Because, done right, it can help your presentation be effective and professional. PowerPoint can be used for four different kinds of presentations:

  1. Overhead transparencies: You can use this program to create transparencies that are used with an overhead projector. If you don't have a color printer, you can save your work on a disk, take it to a printing center (either in-house or outside), and have color overheads printed.

  2. 35mm slides: Most commercial copy centers can convert PowerPoint presentations to 35mm slides if that's what you need for your presentation.

  3. Computer-driven slide shows: This is the most common use of presentation programs, where they are presented via a laptop computer. This is the most effective use of a presentation program, because it allows you to add movement and even sound to your presentation.

  4. Web slide shows: You can turn your PowerPoint presentation into a Website; this is particularly useful when you are using the presentation for distance-learning classes.

Some presenters seem to think that a slide is a slide is a slide, and that simply having computer-generated slides makes the presentation interesting. The audience knows better. Here are some tips for making your PowerPoint slides most effective:

It's your purpose that counts, of course. That's why you should NEVER start designing your presentation by designing your slides first. By the end of my workshops, most participants end up eliminating at least half the slides they have created. Begin with a sheet of paper or a blank computer screen and start outlining what you want to say. Get the content first, and add the graphics later.

Don't Keep Your Audience in the Dark: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Slides

Slides are a double-edged sword: They can effectively dramatize a difficult concept, but they also turn the audience's attention away from you, and your visual self is your most effective weapon as a speaker. So if you're going to use slides, they have to be very good for two reasons: to make up for the fact that you're plunging yourself and your audience into darkness, and to counter the tendency of most people to lose interest when they hear they're going to see slides. I have seen members of an audience deflate when they hear that slides are part of the presentation, and it's up to you to prove to them - very quickly - that what's coming up won't be disappointing.

Your voice has to be especially lively and dynamic if your presentation takes place in total darkness after a meal. Try to leave some light on; what you lose in slide clarity you more than gain back in audience involvement and alertness.

Despite the drawbacks, slides can work very well and are good visual aids for large audiences. Some situations really call for their use; for example, a surgeon demonstrating a new surgical technique, an engineer showing the ground around a new facility, and a real estate dealer presenting a property would all welcome the ability of slides to present in an instant what would take many words to convey. Sophisticated computer-generated graphics are common in both slide and overhead projector presentations and help speakers convey complicated concepts elegantly.

Slides also give repeat speakers flexibility; they can update their presentation by adding or subtracting slides without changing the entire display.

In fact, fewer and fewer people are using slides today - but they are still prevalent in some industries. If you have a good application for slides and are not using them to print words that you are already saying, the following rules of thumb will help you produce effective ones:

The Overhead Projector: Not Yet Obsolete

That old standby, the overhead projector, is still a helpful tool for many presentations. I use it because I do not use words on my visuals - only drawings. Many of my clients who are very involved in delivering teaching presentations have joined the ranks of companies that prefer overhead projectors. Here's why:

Keys to good transparencies include limiting yourself to six words per line and using display-size print that is large enough to ensure good visibility. You can also use clip art, preprinted borders, and attention-getting designs. Overlays can provide color for even more interesting visuals. Number your transparencies so that if they are somehow shuffled, you can sort them out easily.

Enhance Your Delivery

When you add the extra element of an overhead projector, you need to adjust your delivery accordingly. Here are some tips for a smooth presentation:

Plan for the Unexpected

You can avoid most common problems with overhead projectors through careful preparation and by assuming responsibility for the logistical details:

Points About Laser Pointers

Commercial laser pointers were designed to assist speakers when giving lectures or business presentations. The laser pointer beam produces a small dot of light on any object at which it is aimed. It can be an effective tool for drawing an audience's attention to a particular point on a slide or overhead, especially when you're speaking to a large audience and the slide is projected at a great distance.

However, like all other technological advances, it has its down side. It's difficult to hold the pointer steadily focused on the point you're stressing. What happens then is that the laser beam goes jumping around the slide like Tinkerbell flying around the Lost Boys, and the audience gets lost trying to follow the light.

Also, remember that a laser pointer is not a toy. The Laser Institute of America points out that the laser light can pose a risk to the eye if used incorrectly. They recommend:


Videos are being used increasingly by firms with sizable production budgets. This medium is characterized by high price and a lack of flexibility: Videos are not only hard to update inexpensively, but also can't be controlled by the presenter. Because the speaker has to stop the video to comment, most video presentations are designed for continuous viewing.

Videos make up for their drawbacks in sophistication and power. They most closely resemble the television and cinema experiences by which people are so swayed, and production can be very slick indeed. When both budget and occasion call for a powerful presentation, videos are particularly effective. If you ever use video, get to the site well in advance to check the setup. Nothing messes up a presentation faster than a DVD player that won't work.

Flip Charts

Believe it not, a flip chart is my favorite visual aid - actually two flip charts on either side of the stage or speaking area. They force you to move horizontally, which creates greater action and attention than moving forward and backward.

Flip charts are very good for smaller audiences. You can prepare them beforehand, or illustrate them as you go along. They can be actual cardboard displays, or simply an easel and a large pad. Follow these steps as you use flip charts:

As with any visual aid, once you've used your flip chart, you need to find a way to get rid of it. You might want to use your flip chart at different times in your talk, so the best thing to do is to have a neutral page after every picture or sequence. This can be a blank page, or one containing a symbol or picture relevant to your whole presentation.


Chalkboards are also good visual aids for small audiences, if you follow these hints:

Special Hint for Chalkboards and Flip Charts

To draw straight lines and perfect circles, trace them very faintly in pencil or with chalk before your presentation. Then draw over the lines during your speech; your audience will think you're a latter-day Leonardo da Vinci.

Models and Objects

Models and objects are limited to small groups. Good ones tend to be expensive, costly to duplicate, and often unwieldy. Models require ongoing narration from the speaker to come to life, but this need means that the presenter has flexibility and can change the speech to fit the audience. As with videos, models work best when the situation really calls for them.

When you pass out objects, samples, handouts, or other materials as visual aids, you lose attention as you do so. Don't introduce vital new points at that time; rather, use the time to summarize or to describe the object being distributed.


Handouts are visual aids the audience can manipulate, so it's important to manage their presentation in a way that keeps you in control. Make it clear what you expect your audience to do with your handouts. Don't give them out without first talking about the ideas they contain, or people will start to read ahead of where you are and you'll lose control.

Audience members are a lot more likely to remember things when they write them down, even if they never go back and look at their notes again. That's why handouts with questions and fill-in-the-blanks can be a good way to help an audience retain your information and message.

Save time and confusion and create a polished impression by counting handouts ahead of time. You'll need to know the number of rows and the number of people in each row. Try to be creative with your handouts. Avoid using typed lists, use drawings or other artwork where appropriate. The cardinal rule for visual aids also applies to handouts: They must have a clear purpose and contribute something you could not convey verbally.

Pictures That Tell Your Story

The best visual aids are a kind of shorthand. Charts and illustrations are the visual aids used most commonly and effectively by the creators of slides, transparencies, and flip charts.

Charts are inherently flexible and can show graphs (bar, pie, or line), organizational relationships, cause and effect, and how one event relates to another (flow chart). It's up to your imagination. Whether a diagram, cartoon, map, or original artwork, illustrations make visual aids visual and keep them from looking like typed restatements of your speech.

Not Just for Public Speakers

Visual aids - especially flip charts - are helpful for staff meetings and client discussions. They help reinforce your points and make you appear more polished and better prepared. You will make an impact because not many people use visual aids in these situations. Just watch everyone perk up the first time you use visual aids at a staff meeting.

A Final Caveat From Murphy

Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, stood up on stage before a worldwide audience to introduce his newest version of the computer operating system Windows. He and a colleague were demonstrating how easy it was to add peripheries onto the program. The colleague plugged in a scanner and waited for a message saying, "your new device has been loaded" to pop up on the giant screen behind him. Instead, the screen went blue and the dreaded "fatal error" message flashed behind them. There was some sort of glitch, and his powerful computer-aided graphics programs were not working. If the richest man in the world, the man who invented much of the way we use computers today, had problems with his presentations, chances are that, at some point, you will encounter an embarrassing problem or two.

Nowhere does Murphy's Law apply so well as with visual aids: If anything can go wrong, it will. To help you counter this law, a checklist is included that follows below. Use it and you'll always be prepared.

Just as Boy Scouts have their motto - "Always be prepared" - a speaker using visual aids must also have a motto - "Always have an alternative plan." And often that alternative plan rests with you. Visual aids can be wonderful devices, but you should never feel you can't deliver a good speech without them; you can. And at all times, just in case, you should be able to.

Vivid, instantaneous, exciting, and colorful are adjectives that can apply to your speech if you use good visual aids. Of course, a master of words can get praise like this for prose alone. But powerful speakers use visual aids to get themselves that much closer to presentation excellence. The next chapter, on stage managing, will show you how to ensure excellence and a smooth show by controlling environmental factors that affect your speech in general and your visual aids in particular.

Professional Projects: Creative Visuals
  1. Discuss the visual aids you would use for a humorous and informative presentation on the pitfalls of visual aids. Try to sketch them out, and show how you would make each point.

  2. You've been asked to give a three-minute orientation speech to new employees. Describe the visual aids you will use and why you have chosen them.

  3. Make a commitment to yourself that during the next six months you will try to use each type of visual aid. This will build your confidence and flexibility. Try to use multimedia (at least two different types of visual aids) for your next presentation.

Audiovisual Checklist

Here is a list of questions that you can use before every presentation to make sure that your visual aids are relevant, effective, and help make your message clear.




  1. Do my visual aids enhance my presentation?

  1. Can I concisely explain the purpose of each visual?

  1. Are my visuals clear, simple, and bold?

  1. Are they visible to each member of the audience?

  1. Are they numbered?

  1. Are they in order?

  1. Have I accounted for additional needs (for example, felt markets or flip charts)?

  1. Do I have an alternate plan?

  1. Am I comfortable enough to talk to the audience and not the visual?

  1. Do I have a way to orient the audience and to lead it clearly through each point of the visual aids?

  1. Am I prepared to explain each step in my own colorful words rather than to read verbatim from the visual aid?

  1. If I am using slides and darkening the room, have I given extra practice to my vocal variety?

  1. If I am using handouts, have I counted them and prepared the logistics of distribution?

  1. Have I noted on my confidence cards when to turn on and turn off each visual aid?

  1. Have I carefully timed the distribution of any objects or models to avoid losing the audience's attention?

  1. Have I accounted for Murphy's law?

  1. Have I accounted for O'Toole's law ("Murphy was an optimist")?


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