The Clash of Content

How to Ensure Your Visual Aids Support, Not Kill Your Presentation

Lauren Ferraro


It’s a classic scenario, all too often repeated: a keynote speaker steps up to the podium, and begins his address. Within moments, his fingers squeeze the clicker, and a barrage of bar graphs, pie charts and bullet points fill the screens. Fifteen minutes into his presentation, he feels a palpable shift in the energy of the room. It’s only mid-morning, yet he sees delegates’ eyes glazing over, and chins beginning to droop. Already, he’s lost them. What went wrong?

One of the most common errors committed by the executive speakers in my coaching practice is they present decks that are over-saturated with content, and disconnected from the core messages. They lack the understanding of what I call Visual Storytelling. In this article, I examine some of the top Dos and Donts when putting together your presentation.
1) Decks are Support Material, not Additional Material

Storytelling resides at the heart of any impactful presentation. You act as storyteller when giving a presentation, regardless of the content. Just like the teacher in the classroom, you expose the audience to characters and their actions, and provide context for understanding them.

You even frame our feelings about the information you’ve provided. Just as it is in storybooks, pictures support the narrative, without dominating. Powerful presentations require the same approach.

Whether you’re using PowerPoint, Prezi, Sway or Keynote, the winning formula contains visuals that support your spoken content. Well-produced visuals add impact,  guide the story along, and deliver that story in a concise and captivating way.
2) Don’t overload your audience!

There’s often a subconscious driving notion that the more we ‘tell’ the audience, the more impact our presentation will have. There are a number of reasons for this, not the least of which is our own ego. Putting out a litany of information makes us feel smarter. We vainly cling to the false equation that more data equals greater presentation punch. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Filling the screen with graphs, charts, bullet points and cartoon characters does not aid your key content. Why? Because the audience has to digest everything you are delivering, simultaneously. The eye can read only so fast. The brain can focus on only one idea at a time. And, crucially, the audience must harmonize information coming in through two senses at once (oral and visual).

For every slide in your deck, be disciplined in asking these three questions:

  • What do I want to give the audience?
  • On what do I want the audience to focus?
  • What is the take-away message?

3) A picture is still worth a thousand words

Besides the usual assortment of graphs and charts, you will often feel inclined to use photographs to enhance your message. Unless your presentation covers specific events for which custom images exist, you may gravitate towards stock photographs. It’s here, once again, that you risk stepping on a presentation landmine.

When using stock photographs, aim to include strong, high-resolution images that really underscore your message. This often means leaving yourself extra time to scour and search online libraries, as the Internet presents a dizzying array of choices. The extra time spent will pay dividends come presentation day.

Wherever possible, avoid photos that have only cursory or minimal connection to your message. Also, be sparing in your image choices – having too many images crowds the eye and diminishes the impact. One powerful image outperforms ten mediocre ones.
4) Colour Selection matters

Earlier I used the analogy of the pictures in a storybook. The illustrator’s choice of colours deeply affects our experience of the story. The same applies to your deck. When designing your presentation, pay particular attention to the colours you choose. While there are variations between one culture and another, we all have associations with colour that date right back to childhood. Amp up your visual storytelling by matching your colour choices to your messages. Take time to do a little research on what different colours ‘mean’, and use them accordingly.

Once you’ve done all that work, take preparatory steps to ensure it isn’t sabotaged by the equipment at your venue. Remember that the colours you see on your laptop may not translate perfectly to the big screen in the presentation hall. Whenever possible, arrive early to set up, so you can work with the technicians on hand to ensure the colours match. Do a mock run-through – not only will this give you an opportunity to check your visuals, it offers you one more chance to sharpen your oral presentation as well.
5) Font Selection matters too!

Once you’ve taken the time to ensure you’ve chosen optimal colours, apply the same detailed approach to font selection. Again, select fonts that compliment your message. While it might seem that choosing ‘fancy’ fonts makes your visual storytelling more artistic, in reality it slows down the uptake of information, since the audience has to first make sense of the font, then figure out what information you’re conveying. The KISS principle applies here – simple is best. Limit yourself to two fonts, maximum. If you must use more ornate fonts, limit them to titles or headings.

Point size requires good judgment, too. Ensure that you use a point size that reads well right to the back of the room. Your text might look fabulous to you on the laptop screen two feet from your nose, but that says nothing of how it will look to the people sitting seventy feet away from the big screen.
6) Ditch the laser pointer

It may seem counterintuitive, but laser pointers distract and confuse more than they help. In addition to the effort required to make sense of the slide itself, you now ask the audience to find and follow a tiny red dot, dancing through the middle of the data. Best to keep the slides concise, so that your spoken words alone can guide the attendees through the visual story.
7) Lead them on

I want to keep driving back to the main point: your goal is to tell a story. Lead the audience through a succinct storyline that is easy to follow. Again, resist the temptation to prove that you are the expert – this is the rabbit hole that will cause you to overload your slides with information. Less is always more with visual storytelling. Leave the audience with ‘golden nuggets’ along the way – key ideas and concepts that maintain engagement, while providing new insights.
8) Spoken word, physical gesture, and visual storytelling work together

All of what I’ve said assumes you’ve put in the time to ensure your oral presentation hits all of the marks. The rising and falling of vocal pitch, pacing and use of pauses, increasing and decreasing vocal intensity – all of these indicate to the audience what information most needs to be absorbed. Hand gestures do much of the same.

Reinforce your messages by repeating key information, having the audience guess what information the next slide may contain, and markedly changing the pitch of your voice between bullet points. Strive to combine the oral, gestural, and visual aspects of your presentation into a seamless whole.

Good presentation is an art, and any art takes time to master. Implement these strategies as you devise your presentation, and you will dramatically up your game as an engaging and effective visual storyteller.

Stay with the tried-and-true principles we learned sitting on the carpet during kindergarten story-time. This will guard against your audience succumbing to involuntary naps or tantrums, and propel you on to give presentations that are truly worth talking about afterwards.


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