Any object or visual prop you display to your audience, that you use to enhance your speech. Typically, a visual aid will be either a physical object or a visual image, the latter may be a drawing, a projected image, or a video.


Visual aids are standard features of most technical presentations: they aren't just desirable—they're expected. Effective visuals can be crucial in illustrating and clarifying your verbal message. On the other hand, poor or poorly presented visual aids can seriously damage your presentation and create a negative impression with the audience. In preparing your speech, pay special attention to creating visuals that support your objective and main message. Remember, your purpose in using visuals is to promote understanding. By using appropriate, good-quality visuals, you have an opportunity to make an especially positive impression.

Understanding visualsEdit

There are three kinds of information making up a visual:

  1. Words—phrases, sentences, bulleted lists, tables
  2. Pictures—photographs, drawings, clipart, maps, graphs, charts, and diagrams
  3. Math—formulas, statistics, and other uses of numbers

All three may be combined in one slide. Try to strike a balance such that information is provided elegantly, yet clearly.

Attributes of good visualsEdit

  • The visual aids must be clearly visible to each person in the audience.
  • They must be legible, so the audience can clearly understand what's being shown.
  • They must be simple, with each one illustrating a single point. Make one main point per slide, label it clearly, and select images that are appropriate to your speech.

Suggestions for your visualsEdit

  • Because your visual presentation will be completed prior to your talk, and therefore “fixed” as a visual aid, you may wish to supplement your visual tools with a flip chart. This can help when new information arises that you want to reinforce visually, which is likely to happen when answering questions at the end of your presentation.
  • Use graphics, like arrows, to point out important parts.
  • Keep math as simple as possible.
  • For equations, consider using a flip chart or other media.
  • If you must use presentation software, break down an equation, step-by-step, across several slides.
  • Clipart or photos can help enliven a statistical slide, but don't clutter the field with too many images. Instead, use them solely to reinforce the main idea.

Example: in comparing dairies of different sizes, the audience will understand better if each is represented with a smaller or larger milk bottle than they would a slide packed with various pictures of dairies.

Commonly Used Types of MediaEdit

The most commonly used media in technical presentations are the flip chart and computer-based visuals. Here are specific tips pertaining to these media, as well as general guidelines for using visuals. Most of these suggestions can apply to a number of visual aids.

Flip chartEdit

A flip chart mounted on a portable easel can be effective when used with a relatively small audience—20 or fewer people. With a flip chart, you can write or draw during your presentation. You can record audience responses; if necessary you can tear off individual pages and tape them to a wall. Also with a flip chart, you can remove a visual from view after it's been displayed. Flip charts are ideal for simple visibility, however, you should avoid using a flip chart for complex graphs or tables of figures.

Flip chart visuals can be prepared in advance of a presentation. To make sure that succeeding pages don't show through the page you're displaying, write on every second or third page; use small strips of masking tape to facilitate changing from one page to the next. Use colorful crayons or felt-tipped marking pens, but avoid ink that “bleeds” through the paper. Make letters large, with plenty of spacing between words. And when delivering your technical presentations take care not to stare at your flip chart while speaking. If you must write on the flip chart, pause, then resume speaking when you’re done.

Computer-based visualsEdit

The technology for computer-based visual presentations is rapidly changing. Using a laptop computer presentation software (such as Mac OS Keynote, OpenOffice,org, or Microsoft Powerpoint), a screen, and other equipment, you can produce and display dramatic visual aids, including animation and simulations. Computer-based visuals are becoming the standard for most presentations. They can be used for large and small audiences and can convey simple as well as complex information. If you use a remote control, you can change the visuals while walking about the room, giving you more freedom of movement. To accomplish this, the data projector, a device that accepts output from a computer and projects it onto a hanging screen or wall, is becoming an increasingly popular part of mobile computing. Plan to devote plenty of time to creating the visuals in advance, to making sure all of the electronic components work together and to rehearsing with them. Have a backup plan in case technical problems occur during the presentation.

General Guidelines For Using Visual Aids EffectivelyEdit

  • Make them visible—Every audience member should be able to see and read your visuals. Make letters large: at least one-half inch for every 10 feet between the visual and the farthest audience member. Display them high enough so all can see them, and don’t stand between your visuals and your audience. This may seem obvious, but you should also check to confirm that your site offers a projection screen or other suitable white space for projecting your images. Make the most of your computer-generated images by projecting them onto an adequate screen.
  • Keep them simple—This is the most commonly violated dictum for using visuals. Make graphs, diagrams, and tables both simple and general, with no more than two curves or bars on any graph. With writing, restrict your text to a minimum, one idea per visuals using the “seven seven” rule—no more than seven lines and no more than seven words per line. Never display typewritten lists, computer printouts, or pages from a book. Give each visual a title. Avoid a preponderance of labels—you can explain your visuals when you speak.
  • Make them colorful—Use color on tables and graphs. Red is a good choice for the areas of greatest interest. However, avoid more than two or three colors per visual, other than “photo” slides.
  • Don't use too few or too many—Experienced technical speakers recommend that each visual be displayed between 30 seconds and one minute. Those displayed more briefly frustrate the audience, because they can't assimilate the data you're showing. If yours is a fast-paced presentation with an ample amount of material, it's generally preferable to use many visuals with a small quantity of material on each than a few that are overloaded with detail.
  • Present them smoothly—Master both your medium and your presentation, paying special attention to practice and rehearsal. Avoid talking continuously while a visual is being displayed; most audience members can't absorb information from two sources simultaneously. At the same time, offer enough explanation to make your visuals clear and easy to understand.
  • Use the “storyboard” approach—A technical presentation is most effective when you match your visuals to your text. Plan and design your visuals at the same time you plan and design your spoken presentation. Build your presentation so that your visuals and your words work together to build understanding.

Creating Effective Slide ShowsEdit

Regardless of which presentation software you employ in your speech, the following suggestions can help improve your slideshows.

Above all, endeavor to avoid these common annoyances:

  • The speaker reads the slides to the audience.
  • The text is too small.
  • The colors used in the slides make them hard to read.
  • The slides have full sentences instead of bullet points.
  • The text or graphics are flying around too much.
  • The charts and diagrams are too complex and hard to see.

Plan your slides with moderation in mind. They should enhance your speech rather than upstage or replace you. While it may be useful to study all of the bells and whistles of your image editing software, using them should always be a judicious choice. Special sound or visual effects may be entertaining, but they often detract from a tech talk.

Now, try these suggestions for success with your slideshows:

  • Have more to say than what appears on your slides. They should add emphasis or clarity.
  • Use the Handouts feature to create coordinated handouts that can help explain and reinforce concepts.
  • Use the Notes feature to coordinate your comments with your slides.
  • Eliminate slides that are not relevant.
  • Make all your slides match in font, background, and title style.
  • Use the “on mouse click” option for slide transitions and other timing, so that you can control when the slides change. Practice slide transitions with the equipment before your actual speech.

Some experts recommend selecting a “cornerstone” slide as your primary slide. It is the one slide out of the entire set that can serve as a foundation for the rest of the presentation. All other slides relate back to the cornerstone slide in some way, either to explain a detail or to add one. This may be the first slide you create, though it won't necessarily be the first one that is shown to the audience. If you could only show one slide to your audience, however, this would be the one. Creating this slide will help to focus your tech talk on your main theme, and keep your other slides from wandering off-course.

Doing all of this will help to ensure that your audience will understand what they see and then remember what they learned from you.


Selected Works of Edward R. TufteEdit

Edward R. Tufte (wikipedia article) has a lot to say about the visual communication of information. The following four books are valuable beyond measure.

He also discusses the pitfalls of using presentation software, such as Microsoft Powerpoint:

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