Undeniable Conference Impact: Using Visual Aids

Visual aids are enhancements to a presentation that can engage the audience, provide additional information, and reinforce key points. Years ago, equipment like overhead projectors and posters provided the common visual aids; however, with the evolution of multimedia, enhancements like PowerPoint slide shows and portable digital projectors for showing animated clips have become common. One pitfall of visual aids is that they can interfere with a presentation by causing distraction. Experts recommend limiting aids to those that are essential and powerful in order to focus and not overwhelm an audience.

A Background on Visual Aids

The use of visual aids for presenting, coaching, and teaching has been around since the 1920s and 1930s, consisting of film strips, glass slides and physical pass-around objects. Several universities have amassed catalogs of visual aid products that trace the history of using visual literacy and visual education to reinforce main content. The appeal of the aids is that they address additional learning styles. Not all people are auditory learners who can synthesize information from lectures and speeches. Many learners are visual learners who respond better to still or moving images.

In an oral presentation, information is often said too quickly for some audience members to grasp. Even if some listeners can grasp some points, their ability to retain these points after the speech may be faulty. Therefore, a primary goal of visual aids is to organize and punctuate the key take-away points that a speaker wants an audience to remember. Retention of specific facts and details can be enhanced by visual aids that show relationships between facts by using tables or graphs; these deliver synthesis at a glance.

Statistics show that three hours after a presentation only 70 percent of people can remember content presented verbally. The retention of information reinforced with visual content, however, is much higher after three hours: 85 percent, according to California State University data. The impact of visual aids on the retention of content in a speech is even more impressive after three days. Sixty-percent of listeners can remember visually enhanced content, compared with only 10 percent remembering exclusively verbal presentations.

Types of Visual Aids

Handouts are the most widely used form of visual aid. They can be a single page or multiple pages. The most effective handouts do not rely on words alone, but include colorful and informative graphics and charts. Any words included are typically in an easy-to-read font (such as Courier or Times New Roman) and imposed on a white background.

An advantage of handouts is that they allow an audience member to view examples and addendums that extend the presentation and enlighten with details. Another benefit is that listeners can use the main points highlighted in a handout as guideposts for understanding and following the oral delivery. There are pitfalls to relying on handouts, however. Some audience members become overly engrossed in them to the point that they cease listening to a speaker altogether. 

There are two forms of slides that can be used as visual aids: projector slides and PowerPoint slides. Project slides are physical objects, often made of glass or plexiglass, which are shuffled into a projector that produces the image on a white screen that must be brought to the presentation or provided by the host facility. PowerPoint slides are digital slides that are created on a computer with text, animation, video and audio. The digital slide show can be shown on a white screen by using projection equipment or shown on a large monitor or television via an HDMI or other cable connection.

The disadvantage of the classic physical projector slide is that the presentation room must be completely darkened. While a PowerPoint presentation can often require a dim atmosphere, those shown on a television monitor can be seen effectively in normal room light. Another advantage of PowerPoint slides is that the slide show can be conveniently carried on a thumb drive or data card. A disadvantage of physical projector slides is that they cannot be embellished with animation and motion video. 

Flip charts are oversized bound notebooks or tablets that rest on easels and can be flipped to a new page during main points of a presentation. When used, flipcharts have to have content that is large enough to be viewed by the entire audience. They also have to be positioned at an angle that can be seen from around the room – a task that is often difficult. Using symbols, borders, and block letters often make flip charts more legible and effective.

Benefits of flipcharts include being portable, inexpensive, and easy to make. They also create an intimate atmosphere. By having one universal aid like the flipchart, the need for mass handouts is eliminated. The most common drawback is that no matter how big they are, flipcharts often cannot be seen by everyone in the audience and often require a reshuffling of seats in order to increase viewership. Another drawback is that even up-close, flipcharts are often illegible and cannot hold too much information without appearing cluttered.

Posters are a visual aid that can often convey the themes and sound bites of a presentation in clever, succinct ways. A creation of few words, a typical poster relies on images and symbols to convey ideas figuratively. Posters can be used to summarize at the end of a presentation section. Also, they can be an animated way to introduce new content.

A disadvantage is that a good poster can only focus on one complete idea. So, the presenter has to make sure the poster has an umbrella impact or has to create multiple posters to use throughout the presentation. Also, text on posters is often too small to be read from a distance. A positive, however, is that one large graphic or image on a poster can be all it takes to drive home a point and make it memorable.

Videos, with their crisp color and dynamic presence, can often captivate an audience that has grown weary from oral presentation. There are several kinds of videos that can be utilized in a presentation. Self-created videos made via camcorders, wireless phones, and movie maker software can be used from storage on a hard drive. Online videos can be commandeered for a presentation if a monitor and Internet connection are available. Film strips or whole movies can also be shown using a DVD player, projector, or computer.

The advantage is that video can elevate themes and content through storytelling. Stories resonate with audiences and are more likely to be remembered. With online video networks like YouTube and Google Video one advantage is that a presenter has a global archive at her fingertips. A disadvantage is that special equipment often has to be prearranged; internet connections, monitors, projectors, and DVD players may not be available at all sites or could have electrical malfunctions that thwart their use and impair presentation plans.

What to Include?

Certain rules and guidelines ensure that a visual aid becomes an effective tool rather than noise. The first and most oft-broken rule is never to let the visual aid simply mirror and echo the presentation point by point. Include only specific data and ideas that are the key take-away points you want the audience to remember – not general information. Make each aid an occasion to pause and reinforce; reinforcement is different from redundancy. Visual aids with simple redundant information that has already been spoken are useless and often ignored.

Some of the most effective visual aids are numbers and statistics -- provided they are not left in numerical form. When translated into colorful bar graphs, pie charts, and maps, statistics can lend authority and substance to any presentation. PowerPoint slide shows can be one of the most effective or ineffective visual tools. Because they are so pervasive, digital slide shows can often bore an audience; many experts are starting to advise against using them. This is because most people use them to merely “walk through” the entire presentation, rather than as a punctuation tool that highlights select portions of the content. While devoid of bells and whistles, an old-fashioned paper hand-out can often be effective because the audience carries home physical reminders of key content.

Using Your Visual Aids

A pitfall of visual aids is that they become such a dominant presence that both the presenter and the audience focus on the aids instead of making human contact. Presenters must not lose the audience connection. Eye contact and talking directly to individual audience members are key actions even while presenting visual aids. The customary advice is “Never talk to your visual aids!”

Using visual aids to increase retention is the main goal of any speaker. Therefore strategies must be used to boost recall. Bullet main points on visual aids so audiences will know what should be remembered and what’s important. Use summary and repetition of key points on slides, handouts, and posters, but be mindful to repeat only the essence of the idea. Do not simply rehash than same statement and information over and over again with the same words as that could bore and disconnect the audience.

Use audience members or assistants to hold, distribute, display and manage visual aids. This ensures that the speaker does not lose momentum and does not interrupt the flow of the presentation too often. Assistants however should not be distracting. Any dissemination that will call too much attention to itself should be done during a break or at the beginning of a presentation. Physical relics or information designed for the audience to take home should be given at the tail-end of the speech.

Do not use any visual aids that will require turning your back on the audience. This is common when speakers are using blackboards and whiteboards. Often, this is a mistake for those using laptops and projectors as well. The audience should always be engaged, which partly means they must have frontal exposure to the face and body of the presenter.

Always arrange visual aids so that the entire audience can partake of them. This means volume on videos or movies must be pre-tested for adequate sound in the front, back, and all corners of the room. The location and angles of monitors and flipcharts must be universally appeasing. Text and images should be large and easily readable. If these conditions cannot be met, it is best to avoid the use of the aid altogether.


While visual aids can be exciting for both the audience and the presenter, a presenter should never plan beyond his technological capabilities. Always know what technology will be available to use at a presentation destination. Even then, have a backup plan.

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