Does Your Presentation Need Visuals?

Learning Objectives

Determine whether your presentation will be enhanced by a visual aid.

Before you just open up PowerPoint and begin creating slides, you should stop for a moment and consider what type of visual aid will best serve your purpose and if you even need an aid at all. Select a visual aid that adds to your presentation in a meaningful way, not one that is merely something pretty to look at or a substitute for thorough preparation.

Visuals are not there for you to hide behind when you are in front of your audience. Because of the tendency for novice speakers to use visuals as a crutch in their speeches, it has even been suggested that beginner speakers be forbidden from using visual aids while they are learning to present.[1]

Visual aids serve a unique role in a presentation, and you should consider the specific purpose and desired outcome of your speech when determining if, when, to what extent, and in what format you use visual aids.

Here’s a quick checklist to decide whether electronic visual aids (e.g., PowerPoint) are a good idea for your presentation:

  •  Are the visuals you have in mind relevant to your topic?
    • In some cases, visuals almost go without saying. If you’re presenting on the artist Amy Sherald, it makes good sense to show examples of her work. If you’re just putting up a slide for the sake of having something on the screen, you should reconsider. Everyone loves a good cat meme, but if it has nothing at all to do with your topic, it’s not helping.
  •  Are the visuals appealing and suitable for the occasion?
    • A quick search for “bad PowerPoints” reveals how distracting bad visuals can be. Even worse are visuals that are inappropriate for the setting or offensive to the sensibilities of your audience.
  •  Can you keep the information simple enough for your viewers to grasp quickly?
    • If you need complicated text, data, facts, or figures, it might be a better option to give your audience a handout they can peruse later.
  •  Can all your viewers see your visuals from anywhere in the room?
    • If there’s no projector, for instance, just holding up your laptop isn’t going to cut it. Not being able to see the visuals easily is frustrating for everyone.
  •  Can you count on the technology to work? Do you have time to set it up and practice using it?
    • Spending 15 minutes trying to fix the A/V setup is a highly counter-productive way to start your speech.

Remember, even if a PowerPoint would be impossible (for technical reasons, for instance), there may still be visual aids you can use effectively in your speech. If you’re talking about your knitting hobby, why not bring in a sweater and talk about how it was made? However, many of the questions in the checklist above still apply. If the crowd can’t see that rare stamp from your collection, it’s more frustrating than fascinating. And, of course, it’s crucial to consider the relevance and appropriateness of anything you’d want to show your audience.

While there are many possible reasons to use visuals in your presentation, your guiding principle should be: does this visual make the message clearer or more memorable? If you cannot answer with a resounding “YES!” then re-think the plan for your visuals and begin again.

  1. Palmer, Erik. Well Spoken: Teaching Speaking to All Students. United States, Stenhouse Publishers, 2011.