Using Visual Aids In Presentations

Posted by Belinda Huckle  |  On May 24, 2017  |  In Presentation Training, Tips & Advice

Unless you’re delivering a wedding speech or grandstanding from a political soapbox, chances are you’re already using some form of visual aid if you’re presenting in business. And that’s not surprising.

Research has shown that when we reinforce what we’re saying with some form of visual support, comprehension and retention of that message is greatly enhanced as images are stored in long term memory, and words are stored in short term. Something our prehistoric ancestors knew 35,000 years ago when they started painting images in caves all around the world.

Image credit.


However, as beneficial as visual aids can be, they also have the potential to burden you, your presentation and your audience if relied on too heavily, or used incorrectly.

Now this post isn’t about making you into a slideware design guru. Nor is it a technical presentation on how to make use of all the amazing slideware tools that are available today. Instead, it’s about preventing the common mistakes that we see presenters make every day. Mistakes we’re sure you probably also see in meeting rooms and boardrooms in your world, every day.

Starting with the basics…

5 golden Dos when creating slides

man and woman building slide presentation

Slideware such as PowerPoint is often pilloried by presenting ‘experts’ who see it as the scourge of the presenting professional. Such experts frequently believe that its use should be eradicated. Our view is that PowerPoint is simply a tool to assist you, not one to be relied upon as a crutch. Using it correctly is a matter of training and practise.

So here are 5 things every presenter in business needs to know when creating slides:

  1. The 5 x 5 rule of thumb. If your slides are being used for display purposes there shouldn’t be more than about 5 bullet points per slide and no more than about 5 words per bullet point. This will ensure you have enough of a prompt to guide you, but not so much information to distract your audience. NB this guidance doesn’t apply when you’re intending for the slides to also be used as a standalone document. But that’s a whole other conversation.
  2. Replace words with graphics whenever possible. Org charts, flowcharts, process diagrams and the like are an effective way to get a lot of information across in a quick and easy to digest format. And with functions like SmartArt and Icons in PowerPoint you have no excuse! Just ensure that they aren’t too heavy on detail, cluttered, or difficult to read – if they are, you’ll lose your audience as they’ll be trying to decipher your slide, instead of listening to you.  
  3. Make graphs meaningful. I wish I had a gold coin for the number of times I’ve heard a presenter put up a graph or spreadsheet and then say ‘Sorry, this is a bit small/busy/hard to read etc’. If this is you, STOP. Simply make the graph/table bigger, make it as simple as possible, ensure the legend is legible (please!) and use clear call outs to make the message obvious.
  4. A picture paints a thousand words. It does. Really. So why don’t people use them more often. And I don’t mean ClipArt – that should have been relegated to the 90s. I mean awe inspiring images that help to get your message across and engage your listeners. And they are now incredibly easy to source (and free) from a wealth of websites (the subject of another post coming soon).
  5. Variety is the spice of life. Any style of slide, after a short while, will become boring. So mix it up as appropriate. Text on some slides, graphics on others, pictures/photos on others. Guaranteed this will keep your listeners leaning in rather than tuning out.

A final note on slides – Talk about them, not to them

Remember high school when you created your slide presentation the night before, then got to class and couldn’t remember what you wrote down, so you just read off your slides for 10 minutes?

No? Yeah, neither does anyone else.

If you just plan to read off your slides during a presentation, you may as well just hand out some print outs and save your breath. It’s incredibly boring for your audience and eliminates the need for you to be there at all.

Instead, use your slides to convey key information, while you deliver the insights to your audience. This keeps their focus on you, and ensures that your message isn’t lost of confused during your presentation.

Easy ways to get creative with multimedia

People don’t appreciate how easy it is to be seen as a really creative and memorable presenter. So here are just a few ideas I think anyone can use, just about every day.

  • Ditch the slides and simply tell a story. That doesn’t mean ditching the slides altogether. Simply insert a black slide (or a very impactful but simple photograph) and then tell the audience a story that helps to illustrate your message. It could be an anecdote about a customer; a case study from within the business; some personal disclosure; or something you read recently in the media. Storytelling is one of the most powerful ways of communicating and something we’ve been doing since man could speak. It’s incredibly engaging and will bond your audience to your message.
  • Use another medium. Even if just once you make use of a flipchart or a whiteboard, perhaps to write up an attention-grabbing statistic at the start of the presentation, or a well-crafted handout during the presentation to provide some crucial detail, people will start to see you as a creative, confident, and naturally spontaneous presenter.
  • Incorporate a prop. If you’re showing off a new product, or delivering a training session, then using props is perfect, as well as practical. The important part here is to understand and manage the excitement of your audience.

It’s unreasonable to assume that your audience will sit comfortably and patiently while a new piece of kit (or new chocolate bar variant!) is right in front of them – so allow some ‘investigation time’ right at the start, so that everyone in the audience can get the excitement out of their system and return their focus to you.

On that note, it’s a bad idea to pass around an object during your presentation, unless you’ve allocated that time to do so. Having an object being passed around while you’re speaking is a sure-fire way to be ignored.

Plan and rehearse your presentation

We’d like to think it goes without saying, but you should plan your visual aids around your presentation. A visual aid, be it slides or a physical prop, should be used to ENHANCE the clarity of your message, increase the ENGAGEMENT of your audience, and make the information EASY for you to deliver. If it does all three you know you’re on the right track.

But if you’re concerned it’s a fantastic idea to practice your presentation in front of your colleagues before the actual event. This way you can get immediate feedback and make changes to your presentation before delivering it to the real audience.

Ask your audience to feedback on:

  • Were the slides distracting?
  • Were these props appropriate and relevant?
  • Were there too many props or slides?
  • What were the main points of my presentation?

Deliver better presentations

Using visual aids during your presentation can be immensely effective, for you and your audience. Using them incorrectly though can lead to confusion, distraction and apathy – by all parties!

Become a stronger, more creative business presenter by getting in touch with the presentation experts, secondnature.


Belinda Huckle

Written By Belinda Huckle

Co-Founder & Managing Director

Read Bio

Belinda is the Co-Founder and Managing Director of SecondNature International. With a determination to drive a paradigm shift in the delivery of presentation skills training both In-Person and Online, she is a strong advocate of a more personal and sustainable presentation skills training methodology.

Belinda believes that people don’t have to change who they are to be the presenter they want to be. So she developed a coaching approach that harnesses people’s unique personality to build their own authentic presentation style and personal brand.

She has helped to transform the presentation skills of people around the world in an A-Z of organisations including Amazon, BBC, Brother, BT, CocaCola, DHL, EE, ESRI, IpsosMORI, Heineken, MARS Inc., Moody’s, Moonpig, Nationwide, Pfizer, Publicis Groupe, Roche, Savills, Triumph and Walmart – to name just a few.

A total commitment to quality, service, your people and you.