The Do’s and Don’ts of Using Visual Aids

Keep visual aids simple. It’s better to have a few extra slides than a lost audience.

While attending technical or academic presentations, it’s not unusual to view colour slide so full of information it would take 10 minutes to understand it. Then bewilderment sets in when the speaker pulls the slide after 30 seconds and replaces it with yet another slide filled with data. Sometimes it seems as if the speaker doesn’t know their audience can’t absorb all that in such a short time. You’ll be left thinking, “They seem to know their subject; why can’t they communicate it clearly?”

Filling a slide with too much information is just one of the pitfalls we’ve seen presenters fall into over the years. When preparing your next talk, consider these tips:


Your visual aids should strengthen your presentation – not detract from it. Include a clear, brief, heading on each slide or page. Use bullet ed short phrases to complement your heading. Don’t use sentences or entire paragraphs unless you plan to read them out loud – your audience will want to read what you show them. Avoid using all capital letters except in headings; text in all caps is hard to read.

Whether you use slides, overhead transparencies, flipcharts, computer displays or paper handouts, keep visual aids simple: no more than three or four key points on each item. It’s better to have a few extra slides than a lost audience. In preparing tables and charts for projection, limit data to key points. Include only columns, rows or plots that you plan to discuss. Leave details and more comprehensive data summaries for your written paper or a separate handout.

Leave plenty of “white space” or other background color to make your visuals easier to read. Check spelling and your slides’ readability by printing them on standard-sized paper. Then – as a quick check to determine whether they can be read from the back of a room — place the printed sheets on the floor to see if you can read them while standing up. If you use overheads, refrain from marking them with hand-written additions before your talk.

Your Presentation

Your presentation manner and style are as important to success as the information you are about to deliver.

Pace yourself; don’t rush through your slides. Be familiar enough with your material so you know which slide is next. Few things are more upsetting to an audience than a speaker trying to organize information while making his presentation. As a presenter, I’ve found it helpful to have a printout of my slides in front of me on a lectern or table.

When speaking, stick to information presented on your slides and make sure your slides directly support your verbal presentation. Either read every line out loud or direct your audience to the line before you elaborate. The audience should be able to easily read your points while you speak. Be careful not to use too many slides. As a rule of thumb, I allow 30 seconds to one minute for each slide.

  • Don’t assume that your audience knows as much as you do. Avoid technical jargon and define or describe terms as you introduce them.
  • Be certain the data you present supports your conclusions. Point out how the results and conclusions fit together. Don’t think your results are so good they speak for themselves.
  • When you present data slides, describe them briefly before discussing what they mean. (“In this graph, distance is plotted against time. The average walker is represented by the solid line, the speed-walker is represented by the dashed line.”)
  • Talk to the audience – not the screen. Turn to the screen only long enough to point out something (“I draw your attention to the peak in the curve at 25 minutes”), then turn back to the audience and tell them about it.
  • Some presenters flick the laser pointer all over the slide, making the little spot look like a drunken fly buzzing the screen. When using any kind of pointer, point to a word or a row of data and describe it briefly. Then move the pointer off the screen before continuing your speech.
  • Discuss each slide before you launch into a new topic or change slides. Help your audience understand the slide in front of them. Consider your audience’s needs at all times.

The Do’s and Don’ts of Technical Presentations

Do Don’t
  • Prepare slides as an aid to your presentation
  • Put a heading on each slide
  • Use short phrases for bullet items
  • Keep your slides simple
  • Leave a lot of “white space”
  • Know your material and which slide is coming up next
  • Discuss the slide being shown
  • Talk to your audience
  • Present an outline of your talk at the outset
  • Pace yourself through your presentation
  • Define (and perhaps redefine later) your abbreviations
  • Describe how your data leads to your conclusions
  • Describe every slide when it first appears (at least, read the heading!)
  • Use the pointer judiciously
  • Prepare too many slides for your allotted time
  • Use all capital letters – except in main headings
  • Use sentences or paragraphs.
  • Use too many abbreviations
  • Put more than three or four key points on one slide
  • Go off on another subject before you have finished discussing the current slide
  • Talk to the screen
  • Wander off your planned talk
  • Rush through your presentation

Final Words

When preparing your next talk, step back and look at your presentation (on your computer screen, for example) from your audience’s viewpoint. Would you be able to understand your talk, without your own unique background and experience? For this presentation, at least, you are the teacher and the audience members are your pupils. Be prepared, be confident, be familiar with your material. Then, after your talk, you can enjoy the other presentations!

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