How to Stop Abusing Your Visual Aids

It is an abuse of a less serious nature, but important in the world of training and development, and of course, public speaking in general. I thought I’d dwell on a Cave Man basic of training a little. Using visual aids. My cave drawings were distracting my audience. Or, am I distracting my audience from enjoying my visual aids. Ever happen to you?

This a more traditional blog for me, but I thought it was time to direct some energy toward a basic, but essential part of training–the presentation or delivery of training, and the most important tool we have to use. After ourselves, of course. I’m talking about visual aids, how we abuse them, and hopefully, how not to abuse them.

The biggest problem speakers and trainers have with visual aids is in speaking to these inanimate objects in most cases and not their audience. We don’t yell at these objects. Maybe we curse the technology when it fails, but for the most part, we love our visual aids–especially when they work for us. However, when we fail to use them as intended, we are abusing them.

We like to use them as an outline or cue cards for what we are about to say. This becomes a problem when we get lazy, thinking the visual aid is what matters most. We need to go back to the basics once in awhile and think again who all this is for. We need to not insult our audience by reading the slides verbatim. While it is perfectly fine to refer to a bullet point or two and expand on it, taking each one becomes, not only repetitive, but also turns what could have been interesting, given your point of view, an exercise in the mundane. A speaker or trainer should never be mundane.

We should be about dynamic presentation, using those aids as intended, to enhance and add impact. Visual aids can also be the spice, adding beauty and clarity. A visual aid, such as a basketball being dribbled by the speaker, serves to get our attention.

Bad visual aids can ruin a speech. Good visual aids can make it dynamite. If we don’t abuse them.

Even though we all know the rules, we can’t help but show all we know, be artistic if we are that, or technical/special effects genius–if we are that. Herein lies the danger: making too much of the visual aids we use or forgetting (a momentary lapse, I’m sure) of why we use them in the first place.

The Visual Aid is the most important training tool we have to use. After ourselves, of course.
Amateurs put too much on a slide.

“But the information is exactly what they need to know?”

Yes, but do they need it at the exact moment you are speaking?

I hope not–because that would be a pretty boring presentation. This could be the person helping someone how to fill out a form. It’s all well-intended, but when you put the document on the big screen no one’s going to read it–let alone learn from it. Make it an abbreviated snapshot but provide a copy the whole document as a handout if necessary. Make that handout (also a visual aid by the way even though you are handing it out) available at the end of the speech or training session unless you want your trainees focusing on the printed page instead of listening to you. When you do that–even if the form or document is the subject of your presentation–you lose your value as a speaker.

Once a document is in the hand of the trainee or audience member, you’ve lost them to the printed page. At the theatre, you will have a program, but the lights go out soon after you’ve had a chance to look at it. If the play is engaging you won’t try to look at the program at all. If it lags you will catch yourself trying to read it even in the dim light reflected from the stage.

Better to focus your talk on what the audience needs to hear. If your talk is to help them understand the document, focus on what will guide them on their own–unless you are doing an over-the-shoulder with each of them.

Let’s not forget the basic advantages of visual aids. They do give us clarity, add interest, help people retain information, provide additional credibility, and an artful or dramatic image can be persuasive.

You’ll find the rest in an speech book chapter on visual aids. Keep in mind. Good visual aids are one thing and how you use them is another. Simple is better than complex. You can either show us pretty pictures, put up lots of unusable data, make our audiences work harder or you can direct them to what you want them to see.

I know this is basic, but I still see visuals abused every day in the conference room, presentations that evoke boredom, elicit questions of “why me,” or “that’s cool, but what does it have to do with anything?” If your audience is thinking about your visuals in any way other than seeing them as adding to your presentation, something is seriously wrong. For lack of good visuals an entire presentation of valuable information, a speech of substance and meaning becomes a meaningless exercise. Visuals are an important part of the package, yes, but not all.

We all know the audience comes first. The speech or training is about them, and not about us; however, it is not about our visual aids either. We are married to our visual aids when we use them. Don’t abuse them.

Can’t get more basic than that from the Cave Man tradition. It’s tough writing on walls. Just enough works all the time.

Enough from the Cave Man. More platitudes and ruminations can be found on my website under What I Say. I am available for public speaking, presentation delivery and design, training development, consultation, speech and presentation coaching, etc. Just give me a call. My eBook, The Cave Man Guide to Training and Development, is out and available through major distributors, and I have a second book in the works based on many of my blogs here that I hope to publish early next year.

Meanwhile my dystopian novel, In Makr’s Shadow, will be out this year. Believe it or not, it’s about a world and a time when we don’t need people to ruin the world for us and we turn to an evolving artificial intelligence to fix the mess we started. Sound familiar? Not with all the twists, I put in it. ‘Nuff said for now. Happy training.

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Andrew Krzmarzick

Great tips, Jack! I just gave an Ignite talk and I was forced to keep the visual aids simple as I the audience would only see 15 seconds of each one. So it had to be memorable with very few words and back up my words…not the other way around.

Faye Newsham

I’m working my way through slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations for a Graduate school course currently and I’m seeing a lot of really useful information in it… not that I’ll be spending 36 to 90 hours on my next 30 minute presentation (an early estimate of required time for a “good” presentation), I do like both visual comparisons and practical guidance the first 5 chapters are getting me now. A key for me was to learn that I hadn’t been making presentations, I’d been making teleprompter fodder with an occasional graphic. Once I got that mulled around for a while, it really began to make sense. The audience will either look at the slides or listen to me… so the slide should be just interesting enough to grab their attention while being brief enough to cause them to turn their attention back to the presenter in something like 30 seconds.

Edward Tuffte would argue that simple is not necessarily better or easier to understand. It is far more important to communicate the right information through graphics than how simple or complex it initially appears.

Jack Shaw

I was having so much trouble getting the formatting with my images here that I just deleted them, deciding the words were enough. Thanks for your comment, Faye. My blog was a reaction to remembering what I have seen lately in terms of visual aids and presentations. Things have changed over the years. Once PowerPoint was plus in that you could enhance a presentation, but some people go to extremes. As our world came to expect the visuals, then the visuals had to change and will continue to change. I still look to the speaker to be the focus and to use the slides in way that propels and gives impact to the presentation as it should.

Sandra Yeaman

Hey, Andy, a colleague and I just gave Ignite! presentations at our Stately Speakers Toastmasters club yesterday. My colleague’s was a strict Ignite! – 20 slides, each presented for 15 seconds before automatically advancing to the next. Mine was a combination of a presentation on the three steps I take to prepare an Ignite! presentation – Outline the ideas, Find appropriate images, Put the two together onto the slides — plus an abbreviated version of The Three Little Pigs in Ignite! format. I was amazed at the reaction from club members – they were actually taking notes. Not only did I get my ideas across, I’ve been hearing from many that they are inspired to follow the same format for an upcoming presentation. For those who are unfamiliar with Ignite!, check out this website:

Melinda Davey

Another thing to consider is how to give presentations to groups that include people with visual disabilities. If some people can’t fully see the visual aids, how are you as a presenter making sure that you communicate all the information to them?

Here is a post from the Accessibility Forum 2.0 blog about giving an accessible presentation.