Get the picture

May 01, 2018
Poor visual aids can destroy a presentation, but they’re very easy to get right. Here’s how...

When you design visual aids properly, it makes the presentation more interesting and frees you, the speaker, to make a better connection with the audience.

Visual aids open up a second layer of potent communication with the audience to complement your spoken words. However, most presenters are guilty of creating slides that are more of a hindrance then a help. For example, images can be too small, not sequenced or grouped in any meaningful way, and text is often the dominant feature. We’re all familiar with the expression “death by PowerPoint”, but why does it continue to happen?

The scourge of bullet points

There are three reasons for the obsession with bullet points in presentations. First, they act as a prompt for the speaker. Second, they form a plan for the presentation as people essentially ‘write’ their presentations in PowerPoint. And third, they form a set of notes. You often hear people say: “email the slide deck to me” as if the slides are a valid form of communication.

If you look at these three reasons for bullet points, you’ll realise that they perform functions before, during, and after the presentation. Before the presentation, PowerPoint is a plan; during the presentation, it’s a prompt; and after the presentation, it’s a document. Although these are valuable aids to the presenter, they don’t help the audience.

Indeed, you could probably throw in a fourth reason why people fill their slides with text: they see everyone else doing it, which is the worst reason of all.

The power of images

Some people say that a serious presentation is no place for gimmicky images. You are there to inform, not entertain. But there’s nothing gimmicky about the use of appropriate images and even the most erudite broadsheet newspapers devote 30-40% of their real estate to visual content, primarily images. News websites have even more visual content with the BBC, for example, using around four to five images per 600-word article.

Bullet points are actually a distraction. Try holding a conversation and reading a book at the same time – it can’t be done. However, visual content such as images, graphs, diagrams and videos can add a complementary layer of communication to the presenter’s verbal and non-verbal content.

In the July edition we will look specifically at graphs but here, I want to make some comments about images. Images work on three timescales. In a matter of seconds, they grab attention. In a matter of minutes, they help explain often complex concepts during the presentation. And in a matter of months, years and decades, they can remain in the memory of attendees depending on their impact. Figure 1 shows examples of images that work on each of these three timescales.


It’s so straightforward to put pictures into a presentation nowadays. You can either take these pictures yourself with your phone or search for them online. They should always be relevant to your presentation, but you can always bring a visual angle to the concepts you’re explaining. Even if the audience has already seen what you’re describing, there’s great merit in showing a clear image as a focal point for the ideas you’re explaining. People will look at the image in a new light when you tell them something novel about it.

A sweet example

I remember a vivid example in a presentation on the declining population of the honey bee. There were full-screen, high-resolution images of bees gathering nectar from brightly coloured flowers and one picture that simply showed a pot of golden honey. The presenter even had a jar of honey on the table.

Everyone in that audience had probably seen honey before, and tasted it, but they were learning new insights on this topic and that made this familiar item suddenly seem spellbinding. People were looking at these everyday images in a new way and this brought home to me how simple images can be very powerful – and certainly much better than a wall of text.

Barry Brophy is a presentations consultant and lecturer in UCD.