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Effective Presentation

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Effective Presentation with Visual Aids


In their textbook, Speech Communication Made Simple authors Paulette Dale and James C. Wolf divide visual aids into three categories: no-tech (props or objects), low-tech (overhead projectors) and hi-tech (presentation software). When used well, all three categories of visual aids can help you illustrate your points clearly and create a presentation your audience will enjoy. Ahead are ten tips to ensure that your visual aids help your presentation instead of hinder it.

Practice your speech
Many speakers think that if they are using presentation software such as PowerPoint, they can comment on the slide as they go and don’t need to put a lot of thought or practice into their presentation. This isn’t true. Visual aids that don’t benefit listeners bore them. Max Atkinson, an international consultant for public speaking, rails against the norm of speakers stumbling through a slide presentation in his book, Lend Me Your Ears: all you need to know about making speeches and presentations. He encourages speakers to prepare visual aids with their audience at heart. “The kinds of visual aids that audiences like best are those that help to clarify things for them, rather than ones that merely serve as a crutch for the speaker.”

Have a specific purpose for your visual aid
Make sure your visual aid illustrates a relevant point. Atkinson elaborates, “Audiences tend not to be very impressed by the use of objects that are not obviously relevant to the point being made, especially if they appear too gimmicky, or are being used purely for the sake of livening up an otherwise boring presentation.”

Make sure everyone can see your visual aid
Nothing is more frustrating for an audience member in the back row than squinting to read slides or make out a graph. Dale and Wolf give a great guide that will help speakers create text visible to everyone in your venue. “Measure the distance in feet from your visual aid to the back of the room and divide by twenty. This number—the quotient—should be the minimum letter height (in inches) of any words used in your visual aid. For example, if the last row is forty feet from your visual aid, divide forty by twenty. Your minimum letter height should be two inches.”

Keep visual aids uncluttered
Overloading your audience with too much information will detract from your point. Keep charts and graphs simple and direct. If you’re creating a PowerPoint presentation, don’t use any more than twenty words on a single slide. You can also overwhelm your audience with too many visual aids. No one wants to hear a speaker race through a long series of slides. Atkinson encourages speakers to steer away from textual slides. “The visual aids that most often attract positive ratings from audiences are ones that are genuinely visual or pictorial rather than verbal or numerical."

Practice using your visual aids
Use your visual aids while you practice your talk. It will give you an accurate picture of how they alter the length of your speech and you won’t appear to be fumbling in front of your audience.

Look at your audience, not your visual aids
Your eye contact with the audience keeps their attention on you and gives both of you a sense of connection. If you’re using presentation software, don’t read your slides. Besides breaking eye contact, it tells the audience that you have not properly prepared for your speech. And it creates uninteresting presentations. Your audience can read your slides to themselves faster than you can read them out loud.

Do not let your visual aids become a distraction
When you’re not using a visual aid, cover it up. Don’t give your audience something to look at besides you. Don’t distribute objects, photos, or handouts during your speech. If your audience is passing things around or reading, they will not be listening. “Some speakers recognize this by inserting slides with nothing on them but a corporate logo or some other image.” But Atkinson says this could still be a distraction, “So long as there is something on the screen, audiences have a reason to look away and break eye contact with the speaker.” If using the presentation software PowerPoint, pressing “B” on your keyboard will black out the slide, or consider inserting blank slides into your presentation.

Prepare a backup
As helpful as it is, technology can be unreliable. Be sure to have either a low-tech or no-tech backup such as transparencies for an overhead projector.

Choose pictures carefully
A poor use of pictures can actually undermine your presentation. If your pictures are of people, make sure they are people your audience can relate too. Many pictures can look phony or dated. Approach cartoons with caution. Atkinson says, "I have often been asked whether it is a good idea to liven up a presentation by inserting these [cartoons] from time to time. The answer is that I have hardly ever seen it work.

One reason is that they are often marginally relevant to the subject matter, and therefore make you look as if you know you are boring the audience and are desperately hoping that the cartoon will somehow help to retrieve the situation. Another problem is that the humor of many cartoons depends on the caption underneath, which is often printed so small that no one can read it. Even if they can read it, they will do so at different speeds, which means that they're unlikely to get the point and laugh at exactly the same time. Worse still, they may not get the point or not think it funny enough to be worth a laugh."

Keep video clips short
Try to keep your clips around thirty seconds. If you go any longer, the audience may get absorbed in the film and forget the point you were trying to illustrate. According to Atkinson, “The danger is that the audience will start to feel as though they are at a film show, rather than a presentation. Once that happens, you may well find yourself losing the impetus, and have problems getting them back into the mood for listening to a talk. And, if it was a lively and well-produced piece of video, there's the added risk of coming across as dull and amateurish compared with what they've just been watching.”

Your listeners will appreciate an effective use of visual aids and you’ll be glad you spent the time and preparation necessary to use them well.

Speech Communication Made Simple by Paulette Dale and James C. Wolf, Third Edition, Pearson and Longman, 2006.

Lend Me Your Ears: All You Need to Know About Making Speeches and Giving Presentations by Max Atkinson, Oxford University Press, 2004


Ashley Barrett is a professional writer, editor, and researcher for ProProducts™

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