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Graham Neil discusses verbal, visual, or none of the above

A wise man once said never mix politics and PowerPoint. Well he obviously never worked for any TV network, because it seems the only thing I see and hear these days are numbers from election polls on one channel, or the animated charts on another.

But do pictures speak louder than words and does the visual have greater effect than the verbal? When you address your audience how can you be sure that you are using the right balance of formal address, and visual aids?

Presentation Article and Advice about Visual Aids & Support

Verbal, visual, or none of the above

Graham Neil, Presentation Consultant,

Wildly Inspiring or simply just tiring?

Picture the scene. President George W. Bush has to address the nation. He has to inform every citizen that together we can fight any war anywhere, and win anything, no matter the peril, no matter the cost, because together we will triumph. As the president's speech reaches its conclusion, he also tells us that we will achieve all of these goals and more, as long as we all vote for him on November 2nd.

And there it is...the punch line...the "pay off", the meaning of his presentation, speech and address. We can do anything as long as we buy Republic.

Yet whilst we are being sold, and his strategically selected words stir our emotions, raise our spirits, and make us believe that everything we're been told is true. There's not a visual, not a flip board, not a Windows Media Player, or even a bullet point for that matter, anywhere in sight. Just one man addressing a nation relying on the strength of his speech, and the depth of his carefully prepared content, to carry him through.

Now imagine you are presenting your product at a conference or forum, as you stand on stage to give your address what do you do? Do you rally the troops? Or do they simply lay down their arms and go AWOL?

In the world of communication bigger does not mean better

Sadly more often than not presenters tend to have a moment of panic as they create their presentations and at some point, probably around slide 25, they ask themselves the fateful question. "Isn't this boring? Shouldn't I make it a little more snazzy?"

But unlike a weapons inspector looking for anything of even minor destruction, presenters have an arsenal of goodies that can be detonated all over the stage and screen. And the problem with explosives, unless handled correctly, is their tendency to blow up in your face.

Presidents have always seemed to understand that their audience wants to listen to what they have to say not be distracted by fireworks or frantic animation. And as a presenter, you must understand that your audience comes to see you, not your slide show, and that you yourself should be center stage.

The problems with visual aids are that they are much like grenades, they even sound similar. If you haven't really thought through what you are doing, and you pull the pin you have to do something. You can either run and hide, or throw it and hope. If you throw it high and far enough, it can make a big impact. If you hold onto it for too long, then it will bow up in your face and you'll be lucky to survive.

Blown to pieces

At a recent conference, I listened to a gentleman who is by all reports and accounts something of an entrepreneurial genius. In his opening, I have to say that simply listening to him speak commanded such authority and displayed such obvious knowledge that I couldn't help but feel that this man could easily don a robe, throw on some slippers, and start his own religion. Such was the power of his words. And yet as he moved beyond his opening, he had decided to address his audience with the aid of a slide presentation.

As he reached slide four, he no longer presented to his audience, he was talking to his slide show. He was standing beside it pointing at it, clicking his remote whilst still looking at his visual aids and turning only briefly in moments to see his actual audience no longer sitting to attention, but most definitely looking for some R&R.

What was he doing? Visuals are for the audience, not the presenter. He had broken the first golden rule of Visual Aids.
  • Never face your visuals while talking or, worse yet, read them to your audience.
But sadly, the pin was pulled. The slides though professionally designed, used a transition, a very slow fading technique, and were packed with content. Interesting enough for the first few slides, but now every new slide seemed to be accompanied by the sound of another pin. As each automated bullet came in from the left, there was a natural obligation to talk about each as each slide was built, and the presentation hit a monotonously slow pace. So too was golden rule number two and three successfully taken out.
  • Limit each slide to one major concept. One purpose of a visual is to simplify complex data. If listeners have to study the visual to understand it, the visual misses the target.
  • The types of builds and transitions you decide to use will affect the pace of your presentation dramatically.
And then it came, just as it does in those moments when you think to yourself things cannot get any worse, they almost inevitably do, for If the sound of a grenade or two was my greatest fear before, nothing quite prepared me for the next slide. A full page of text.

Bang went golden rule number four.
  • Never project a full page of text on screen. Mail the document, distribute it before or at the end of the presentation, print it out for handouts, but never project it on screen.
Click went the remote. The next slide reminding us of all the golden rules destroyed now brought a new twist. The so-called "shopping list". Single words bullet onto the screen one at a time. Was there no end to this barrage of heavy fire?
  • Words are not visual. Images are. Using singular bullet points or topics quickly become "shopping lists".

A word to the wise

What had happened to our promising presentation messiah? The audience in just the space of 30 minutes had gone from a group with religious faith, to a cult contemplating mass suicide.

It takes no leap of faith to understand why. The presenter forgot some of the most important rules in using visual aids. Visual aids can be a powerful ally to any presenter, but
  • Never use visual aids to serve as notes to jog your memory.
  • Never use visual aids to fill in time.
  • Never use visual aids to give your hands something to do, such as point or holding a remote mouse.
  • Never use visual aids to hide any fears that you have about presenting.

Fire in the hole...or focused on your role?

Audiences are not conditioned. They are a collection of differing individuals who wish to listen and be attentive to a presenter, but they do so in differing degrees.

Using visual aids is one method to help lift the attention of your audience members who are struggling to keep up. They are also a way to communicate visually what you are describing verbally. Used well they can simplify the most complex of systems, products, or models, so that everyone can clearly understand and know your point.

When the president addresses the nation he is usually only communicating one concise point. He must have your focus and know that during that time he must make you understand his message, be it complex or simple, for a businessman, a teenager, or a child.

In your presentations you must often communicate several key points, with each addressing their own set of values. And whilst standing at a podium and addressing your audience without any visual aids is a brave decision, using visual aids to break down your points for everyone to understand is often the difference between a few members of your audience understanding your presentation and all of them.

Visual aids are an important aspect of any presentation. They do not have to be used as a weapon to bombard your audience, so that they become more focused on their effects than value.

If you are presenting at a conference or event soon, where several speakers give a presentation, you can win the vote of confidence from your audience, without needing to throw a single grenade or fire a single bullet on screen. And not use visual aids to let the possibility of what you can do dictate that which you should do.
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