Why Use Visual Aids?

Learning Objectives

Identify how visual aids can enhance a presentation.

Visuals can spark interest, build emotional connections, clarify your words, explain abstract ideas, help draw conclusions, or increase understanding. For instance, a speaker may show a stacks of books to represent the amount of data storage in a speech about the evolution of computers, or demonstrate the proper use of ear plugs by distributing ear plugs, showing how to insert them, and then blasting an air horn in a speech about preventing hearing loss in order to make the value of ear protection more memorable and concrete. Done well—simple, visible, relevant, memorable, and audience-focused—visual aids can have a profound impact on your audience and your overall message.

Visual aids can be an important part of conveying your message effectively since people learn far more by hearing and seeing than through hearing or seeing alone.[1] The brain processes verbal and visual information separately. By helping the audience build visual and verbal memories, they are more likely to be able to remember the information at a later time.[2] If you can find a visual aid to complement what you are saying, you will help your audience understand the information you are presenting and remember your message. For example, a speaker might show the proper and improper ways to bow when being introduced in Japan while at the same time talking about the movements and also displaying a slide with the appropriate angles and postures for bowing. By using multiple modes in concert with each other, the message is strengthened by the pairing of words, images, and movement.

A guinea pig

This picture of a guinea pig has nothing at all to do with the content of this page. It’s cute, but it’s just a distraction. Visuals should always be relevant to your message.

Not just any visual will do, however. Each visual should be relevant to your message, convey an important point, be clearly understandable, and be visible by your entire audience. Visuals should be used to make concepts easier to understand and to reinforce your message. They should illustrate important points that are otherwise hard to understand.[3][4][5]

Use visuals for speeches about processes, products, or demonstrations of how to do something, such as a diagram of how email is delivered in a speech about computer security. Use visuals when you need to explain things you cannot see because they are hidden or abstract, like a model of your internal organs in a speech about gastric bypass surgery. Use them when you need to grab your audience’s attention or stir their emotions. A speaker could use a photo of a starving child and a bag of rice that represents the daily calorie intake of a poor child in a speech about food insecurity to create a visceral reaction in the audience. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, so use images to tell a story or create a visual metaphor. Visual metaphors are useful when trying to evoke an emotion, such as showing an image of someone running or diving into a pool when you want to evoke action on the part of your audience. The images convey the message to “get going” or “dive in.” When talking about numbers or statistics, use visuals to provide context, comparison, and to help your audience understand the meaning of data. Done well, graphs can help make patterns or trends in the data much more comprehensible to your audience.[6]

  1. Vasile, Albert J.. Speak with Confidence: A Practical Guide. United Kingdom, Allyn and Bacon, 2004.
  2. Malamed, Connie. Visual Language for Designers: Principles for Creating Graphics that People Understand. United States, Rockport Publishers, 2011.
  3. Detz, Joan. It's Not What You Say, It's How You Say It: Ready-to-Use Advice for Presentations, Speeches, and Other Speaking Occasions, Large and Small. United States, St. Martin's Publishing Group, 2000.
  4. Palmer, Erik. Well Spoken: Teaching Speaking to All Students. United States, Stenhouse Publishers, 2011.
  5. Young, Kathryn Sue, and Travis, Howard Paul. Oral Communication: Skills, Choices, and Consequences. United States, Waveland Press, 2008.
  6. Tufte, Edward R.. Visual and Statistical Thinking: Displays of Evidence for Making Decisions. Graphics Press, 1997.