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How To Keep Visual Aids From Becoming Visual Distractions

by Joseph Sommerville, Ph.D.

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How To Keep Visual Aids From Becoming Visual Distractions You’ll find that electronic slide shows play a part in most business presentations today. Used correctly, visuals can help your presentation in three ways. First, they can reinforce a message by complementing the verbal and vocal channels of communication. Second, they can help clarify complex or abstract information and relationships through visual representation. Third, they can help persuade the audience by enhancing the presenter’s credibility. But it’s important to remember that for all the positive benefits from using visuals, slide shows work most effectively when they visually augment the presentation rather than become the focus of the presentation. To prevent your visual aids from becoming visual distractions, follow these ten guidelines:

1. Apply the principle of reveal and conceal. Display your visuals only when you’re referring to them. At other times, keep them concealed by blanking or whiting out the screen with your remote. You’ll maintain audience attention and direct the focus where it’s most effective. When you compete with the screen for eyeballs, the screen usually wins.

2. Don’t read or recite text from the screen. One of the most frequent complaints I hear from audiences regarding visuals is being forced to watch a presenter read a screen full of text. Your audience can read text much faster than you can speak. If you insist on reading, your audience will jump to a separate mental track and you’ll lose their attention. Slide shows make poor teleprompters.

3. Add variety and interest to your presentation by using physical objects as props. They can provide a refreshing change from the bloated decks that commonly plague so many presentations. I once saw a financial planner pass out two-dollar bills to his audience. He was making the point that his investment offerings, like the two-dollar bills, weren’t commonly seen, but still contained value.

4. Maintain eye contact with the audience, not the slide show. Actors learn never to turn their backs on their audience. Follow the same guideline. Position your computer so you can see what’s displayed on the screen. Using the “presentation mode” in your software allows you to see both the current slide and the next slide in the sequence.

5. Avoid generic clipart, especially what’s included in your presentation software. Most clipart is so widely used and recognized it has become a visual cliché. Instead, source for graphics from online sites such as or When you use cartoons to make a point, a single frame the audience can quickly read and understand works better than a panel cartoon.

6. Don’t import graphics meant for print into an electronic slide show. They’re usually too small and too detailed to be effective visuals. Design visuals specifically for your presentation. In your labels, round up and abbreviate big numbers. When you present to an international audience, localize spellings, currencies and measurements.

7. Remember that words are verbal aids rather than visual aids. Text heavy slides actually prevent comprehension by forcing the audience to wade through a morass of meaningless and unnecessary information. Write in headlines and bullet points that emphasize key points instead of using complete sentences. Make certain the font size enables easy reading.

8. When you must present as part of a series of speakers, recruit some assistants to help you set up your equipment and start the slide show. When it’s your turn to speak you can focus on establishing rapport with your audience instead of fumbling with your equipment. This becomes even more critical if you have to switch computers or connections or reposition yourself.

9. Use a remote to advance your slides.  (see a review of different models at Many presenters prefer not to be tethered to their computer, but returning to your keyboard each time you need to advance the slide distracts the audience.  Another distraction involves a VIP who stations a minion at the computer and announces “next slide” each time he wants to advance slides. Use a laser pointer sparingly. Instead, highlight key information on a slide by changing the color of the text or placing a box around it.

10. Minimize your equipment use. When you need to show a video clip or play an audio file, convert it into a format that can be embedded in your presentation. This cuts down on both the amount of equipment you must carry with you as well as the number of things that can go wrong. Use a separate audio feed from the computer to amplify the sound so the audience can hear it easily.

When you follow these guidelines, you’ll avoid the most common mistakes found in slide shows today.  The audience will see you as more credible, more professional and more confident. That translates into increased chances for a focused message and an effective presentation.

©2010 Peak Communication Performance. Excerpted from Rainmaking Presentations: How To Grow Your Business by Leveraging Your Expertise, available at Barnes & Noble and Download the first chapter at  Affluent’s Presentation Expert, Joseph Sommerville, Ph.D., shows professionals how to design, develop and deliver effective presentations. When you book him to show your organization how to create more persuasive presentations, you’ll discover why better communication means more business. Contact him at

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