Nine Mistakes Presenters Make with Visuals
by Dianna Booher

Mistake #1: Using Visuals to "Cover" for Problems

Presenters have used visuals to cover for a multitude of problems - to serve as "notes" to jog their memory about the next point, to fill time in case they run out of something meaningful to say, or to give them something to do with their hands such as holding a remote mouse. Using visuals indiscriminately decreases their effectiveness when you really need them.

Mistake #2: Letting Visuals Dominate

Don't let your media upstage you. Watch for thoughts like, "As long as I'm preparing slides, I may as well do 25 as 15." Any technique - even the most creative slides - can get monotonous. As a rule of thumb, your presentation should average no more than one visual per minute. Average is a deceiving word here, however. For example, during a presentation to a group of proposal writers, I may use three slides in five minutes to present examples of unclear documents. On the other hand, I may use no visual at all for 20 minutes during a keynote address on life balance or communication. Vary number and selection based on topic and purpose. Less is more.

Your purpose is not to guide your audience from visual to visual. If this is your approach, you may as well prepare bound sets of visuals and distribute them to your audience members for self-study. You should dominate; your visuals should support.

Mistake #3: Using "Laundry Lists"

The next worst visual - second only to a full page of text projected on the screen - is a bulleted list of single words or topics. After a while, such charts all begin to look like your grocery list. Consider how you can convey your ideas through a more creative visual than words alone.

Presenters are tempted to use such visuals because they provide an outline to speak from without the audience seeing any notes. But using visuals containing only words defeats your purpose. Even when displayed in a clever way, words are not visual. Photographs, diagrams, art, line graphs, and cartoons are. This is not to say that you should never use a text-only visual. If you do, however, be sure to supplement it with other visuals that "fill in" what's missing from the collection of words.

Mistake #4: Selecting Visuals Inappropriate to the Concept

Real objects or simulated models best demonstrate operating procedures or processes. Enlarged photos or line drawings best illustrate internal workings of equipment. Line graphs best show trends (as opposed to exact numbers). Bar charts best illustrate high-low comparisons. Flowcharts best exhibit interactive processes or the passage of time. Pictures or cartoons best illustrate concepts. Know what you want to convey and select your visual accordingly.

Mistake #5: Talking to the Visuals Rather Than the Audience

Visuals are for the audience, not the presenter. Never face your visuals while talking or, worse yet, read them to your audience. Know your material well enough to be able to maintain eye contact while elaborating on the key points using your own words. The visual is the beginning point, not the end.

Mistake #6: Setting the Screen Center Stage

You yourself should be center stage in front of your audience. Your group came to hear you - not to see your slideshow. Otherwise, you could have e-mailed them your handouts or your slides. When you stand to the side and place your visuals center stage, the danger is that you become only a slide narrator. In most rooms, a screen set diagonally across the corner of the room works well.

Mistake #7: Creating Clutter

Avoid text, data, and art that does not clearly relate to the key concept. Avoid bombarding your audience with statistics and numbers that dilute rather than strengthen your main points. Listeners need to grasp the key concepts (such as, "Our costs have risen 40 percent"); they will pick up the specifics from your handout and can mull them over later. Also, make sure that your font style and size are uniform; both should contribute to ease of reading, not create visual clutter. Adequate white space also helps viewers differentiate between main ideas and supporting ideas and makes comparisons easy. Finally, make sure animation aids understanding rather than distracts. Just because you can easily make lines and objects swirl, dance, and flash does not mean they should.

Mistake #8: Packing the Page

Limit each slide to one major concept. One purpose of a visual is to simplify complex data. If listeners have to study the visual to understand it, the visual misses the target.

Mistake #9: Getting Fancy with Transitions and Builds

The types of builds and transitions you decide to use will affect the pace of your presentation dramatically. Transitions that "fade through black" will seem to take forever, whereas those that "appear," "fly in," "wipe right," or "wipe left" will feel faster.

Also consider the fact that when you decide to use a build rather than have all bullet points appear at once, you limit your options of how fast you can cover the material. If all your bullet points appear at once and your time is short, you might say, "You'll notice the six steps we've taken this quarter to market product X. I'd like to take a couple of minutes to elaborate only on item 4 here." The audience will have an opportunity to skim for themselves all six steps. And then you can talk about the one most important item. Yet, if you had automated the bullets, you would have obligated yourself to talk a little more fully about each as you built the slide.

Consider both the pros and cons before letting the possibility of what you can do dictate what you should do.


Dianna Booher is CEO of Booher Consultants, a communication training firm offering workshops in oral presentations and technical writing, and an author of 40 books. Tips excerpted from Speak with Confidence: Powerful Presentations That Inform, Inspire, and Persuade (McGraw-Hill, 2003). Contact Booher Consultants by telephone 817-868-1200, by e-mail mailroom@booher.com and visit www.booher.com .

Speak with Confidence:
Powerful Presentations to Inform, Inspire, & Persuade

by Dianna Booher

McGraw-Hill, 2003
Booher's newest book is her most comprehensive work yet, covering every aspect of public speaking, from overcoming nervousness to mastering essential skills to exemplifying executive presence. Booher distills this knowledge into 497 clear, precise tips that systematically cover the fundamentals to becoming a powerful communicator and delivering presentations with style and confidence.

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Copyright 2003 by Dianna Booher. All rights reserved.

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