Do I Use a Visual Aid or Not? A Vital Question Presenters Must Ask Themselves

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It may surprise some of you in today’s culture where nearly every business (and school) presentation seems to be a PowerPoint that you don’t need a visual aid to speak. Yes, public speaking is about speaking, not about visual aids; that is called reading. Even if you want to use a visual aid, it doesn’t have to be a PowerPoint (Prezi or Keynote either). Your visual aid can be a poster, diagram, sculpture, model, video, or as the name implies, anything visual that aids in telling your message. When asking yourself, “Do I use a Visual Aid or Not?” I suggest thinking about what the audience needs first. I call this thinking being Audience-Centric, and it is usually the difference between a mediocre and an amazing presentation (especially when people can’t put their finger on the difference.) Think about how you will share your message and what is the best way for your audience to receive, comprehend, and remember your message. If you think a visual aid is necessary, create a visual aid. Use the same audience-centric thinking to determine what type of visual aid you want to use.
Since most presentations use PowerPoint or another slide-based program like Keynote or Prezi, let’s use that as our typical visual aid for this discussion.

11 Questions to Determine Do I Use a Visual Aid or Not?

  • Is the venue compatible with visual aids? – Before you think too hard about using a visual aid or not, find out if a projector is available and ask about the room size. If a projector is not available, then don’t waste your time and skip thinking about a PowerPoint. With a PowerPoint ruled out, do you want to use a poster or model?
  • web_offer_banner_3_contentmarketingHow do I want to be perceived? – If you want to be the thought leader, then I suggest ditching the PowerPoint and command the stage. When you’re the only thing to look at, you command the audience’s attention and all eyes are on you. If you take my suggestions in creating your PowerPoint, you can still keep 80-90% of the attention if you use your PowerPoint correctly.
    I suggest using large images on each slide and having no more than 7 words per slide. Bulleted lists and long paragraphs force your audience to read the screen and tune you out. Even worse, while they’re reading, you’re distracting them by talking because they can read faster than you can talk. Furthermore, when you put all the information you will say on the slide, you are useless because your audience can just read the screen. (That is especially true for webinars where your audience is looking at the screen and can’t see you.)
  • Room size – will your visual aid be visible? – Is the venue intimate enough that everyone can see your visual aid (especially if using a poster or model) or do you need large screens like you’d see at a conference or concert? Do not create a visual aid that no one can see and don’t wait until 5 minutes before your presentation to find out either. If you’re speaking to a large group in a large room, a visual aid can be hard to see for people in the back of the venue. (Large or long rooms are another reason to have minimal, large text on your PowerPoint.)
  • What is the length of the presentation? – One of the best reasons to use a visual aid is to aid the presenter because it can be hard to remember the order of longer presentations. (Never memorize a presentation, even short ones!) Visual aids give you a cue to what is next and keep you on track. Even though I suggest not memorizing a script, you should have an outline of your presentation and your visual aid will walk you through that outline succinctly. This way you will not accidentally wander off track on a tangent and lose track of time or confuse your audience.
  • Have I presented this presentation before? – If you have presented the presentation before, especially if you’ve done it several times recently, you may not need a visual aid for that cue. You probably know the presentation well enough, especially shorter presentations, that you can easily get through it with little variations to the order.  When giving a presentation for the first time, especially longer presentations, I usually suggest having a visual aid (even if it is just a poster that lists the steps of your message.)
  • How much time do you have to prepare? – If you’re short on time, draft your outline, do a few walkthroughs of that outline, and make your visual aid of your outline. (Yes, I’m intentionally repeating “outline” because I don’t want you to script anything and don’t skip outline your presentation when preparing.) If you need to expedite your preparations and do not have enough time to get comfortable enough to know the order of your presentation, then use a visual aid. Again, if presenting a long presentation for the first time, plus not having a lot of time to practice, then use a visual aid to keep you focused.
  • What is your familiarity of the topic? – I always say speak about what you know, but at times you need to stretch what your knowledge base. This is true when doing bid presentations because you are the expert in your field, but you may not be intimately familiar with the project you’re bidding because you haven’t lived it yet. Use a visual aid to keep you on track and to give you an additional level of comfort.
  • web_offer_banner_3_contentmarketingWhat is your comfort level with public speaking? – Usually, I suggest new speakers use a visual aid because they need that prompt of the slides’ titles to jog their memory and to keep them on track when they are nervous.
  • What is your comfort level with visual aid software? – Converse to my previous statement, if you’re a new speaker and not familiar with PowerPoint, I would suggest skipping it and spending the time to practice your presentation more so you are more comfortable.
  • Are you speaking by yourself or with a partner/team? – If you’re speaking solo, then it is easier to answer some of the past few questions and make the determination of using a visual aid or not. When speaking with a team, especially for bid presentations, use a visual aid to add uniformity to the presentation. Keep in mind, the PowerPoint needs to be created be one person to look uniform. You don’t want to divvy up the slides and have the collection of slides look mismatched. If you’re presenting with speakers from a different company (common in the construction industry) or from a colleague from a different office, make sure the PowerPoint looks uniform (and that you practice together, even virtually.)
  • Do you have access to a remote? – My first two questions asked you about the physical capabilities of the venue, having a remote is not a deal breaker, but it makes things easier. That is unless you’re speaking with a team. If you’re a duo and speaking back and forth throughout the presentation, then one speaker needs to be in charge of the remote. Otherwise, it gets awkward passing the remote back-and-forth. If you’re doing a section and your team member is the lead presenter of another section, a simple handoff of the remote is acceptable and not awkward.

I’m sure you didn’t expect 11 questions to ask yourself, “Do I Use a Visual Aid?” (I didn’t think it either before writing this blog post.) Each answer should be considered because we all have a limited amount of time to prepare a presentation and you don’t want to waste it creating a visual aid that won’t be fully utilized or conversely, struggle to present without one.

Additional Resources

How Speak Simple Can Help You

Win more work, increasing your billing rate, and prospects coming to you are all results of being a good presenter. Erica Olson created Speak Simple to help technical professionals to become comfortable presenting and excel at each presentation, whether a bid presentation or an educational, content marketing presentation. Learn more about Speak Simple’s flagship program is SpeakU, a self-guided presentation training program.

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