Supercompetent Speaking: Tips for Visuals

Keep in mind that too much visual information presented too quickly can be confusing.

By Laura Stack, MBA, CSP

While the information we gather with all our senses can be vitally important, we human beings prefer the visual medium over all others. Our brains just work that way: We possess the ability to differentiate and process subtle differences in light intensity, color, and movement almost instantly, even though images tend to contain much more information than other sensory inputs.

As a result, we often can grasp something presented in visual form much more easily than something explained to us verbally. A picture, then, really is worth a thousand words. Therefore, when it comes to professional presentations, good visuals not only help personalize your talk, they save time and more easily transmit your ideas. They also can help the audience remember and integrate your message better.

That said, too much visual information presented too quickly can be confusing. So keep these points in mind as you prepare your presentation visuals:

Keep them simple and uncluttered. Make your visuals easy for anyone to read. Overly complicated visuals may distract or overwhelm the audience, detracting from your message. Concentrate your information in the upper two-thirds of the image, because people look there first, and sometimes people sitting in front of them cut off the bottom of the screen. Limit the number of colors on the screen and the number of images per slide. Use animation and sound effects sparingly.

Streamline charts and tables as much as possible. Never include more than four lines on a line graph, for example, and make the lines and colors easy to distinguish from one another.

Use text sparingly. For textual slides, think 6 x 6: six lines or bullets of about six words each, max. Avoid hyphenation. Use only as much text as you need to explain the point or to label a table or chart, and limit the number of individual labels.

Don’t overdo the bullets. Some information works well as bullets; some does not. Vivid images and compelling, memorable prose may prove more suitable in some instances. When you do use bullets, play close attention to their size and placement.

Spread information over multiple visuals. Aim for one main point per visual. Include only as much information as necessary to get the point across in a single, easily grasped form. This helps maintain audience attention, if only because it allows you to present at a slightly faster rate that keeps people on their toes. Some authorities suggest slimming down to as few as one bullet expressing a single thought per slide.

Separate the slides. In Webinars, to hold your audience’s attention, use more slides. Instead of a slide with six bullets, create six slides with one point each.

Strive for consistency. Use the same types of fonts, colors, terminology, images, and backgrounds throughout the presentation. This way, you don’t throw off your audience with a jumble of styles; they’ll know what to expect and look for as soon as a visual appears. Save unexpected graphic elements for making an impact and don’t overdo their use.

Use the right images. Include only those images appropriate to the topic. Try to make them fresh, too; don’t use boring clip art. If possible, create your own graphics or purchase them from an image service such as

Make all text easily readable at a distance. Use at least 24-point text throughout, with slightly larger text for labels, and avoid italics or complicated fonts. Use all capital letters only in titles. Sans serif fonts such as Arial are easier to read quickly than serif fonts such as Times New Roman.

Test everything. Once you’ve created a visual, project it on your monitor/screen and step back to a reasonable distance to review it (this works better in a larger venue, such as the one where you’re actually speaking). You may find the font is difficult to read or the colors clash. It’s better to fix this now than to have to apologize to the audience for it later. On a related note, proofread your visuals carefully! Don’t embarrass yourself with misspellings and other typos.

Whatever forms they may take, make your presentation visuals easy to read, simple to understand, and consistent throughout the presentation. If your audience finds your visuals difficult to grasp, you could lose them early on. And remember: Ultimately, your visuals should enhance, rather than replace, your verbal presentation—so don’t fall into the trap of just reading from your slides.

Laura Stack has consulted with Fortune 500 corporations for nearly 20 years in the field of personal productivity and is the best-selling author of several books, including “Supercompetent.” She is a Certified Speaking Professional (CSP) and the 2011-2012 president of the National Speakers Association (NSA). Stack’s productivity-improvement programs have been used worldwide at companies such as Starbucks, Wal-Mart, Cisco Systems, and Bank of America. She is the creator of The Productivity Pro planner by Day-Timer. For more information, visit www.TheProductivityPro.comor

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