Don’t Sabotage Your Presentation with Bad Visuals 2

Ever wondered why they’re called ‘visual aids’? It’s because they’re supposed to aid the audience in absorbing the message the presenter is giving verbally. And if you do them right, they can also aid you, the presenter, in staying on track.

But many slide decks fulfill neither of these two functions. Here are the two most common mistakes I see:


1. Too many words. W-a-a-ay too many words!
2. Spreadsheets. Preserve us from the spreadsheet visual aid!

1. Whenever I see a whole paragraph of text filling up a slide, it immediately makes me start thinking of what I’ll make for tonight’s dinner, or what I’ll wear to the event tomorrow, or – well – pretty much anything but the business at hand. And to make matters worse, the presenter can’t possibly remember all those words, so he or she usually turns around, back to the audience, and reads them! Enough said.

2. Many years ago I was booked to deliver a presentation skills workshop at a major corporation. I asked the director who booked me what she hoped to get out of the workshop, and I still remember her reply, word for word: “Helen, I hope never again to see an Excel spreadsheet used as a visual aid!”

When you slap up all those figures, you can be sure that at no time will everybody be concentration on the figure you are discussing. There’s just too much competition for their attention. Enough said.

So what can you do instead? Here are a couple of tips that will serve you, and your audience, well.

Ditch the spreadsheet

  • Product or service mix is best shown in a pie chart, where the size of the slices will immediately show the relationships before you even attach numbers to them.
  • Financial results or comparative lengths of time can jump right off the screen if you show them with bar charts.
  • Progress of an element over time (such as sales or profits) can be shown with a simple graph line, and you can even show two different coloured graph lines for comparison.

Use words graphically

Quite often the topic of my presentations is writing, so I can’t avoid putting words on my slides. Here are my guidelines for word-based slides:

  • Never put whole paragraphs on the screen. Just don’t. Please.
  • Use word charts — heading plus bullets. I know, I know, but sometimes they’re the most effective way of getting the message across.
  • Each bullet should be just a phrase, not a complete sentence. They’ll get the full message by listening to you as you expand on the point.
  • Loosely follow the 6 x 6 guideline: no more than 6 words to a line and 6 lines to a slide. Remember, I said loosely. The odd word over that is fine, but if you have more than, say, four or five bullets, consider breaking them up into two slides.

I’ve recently begun to add interest to word-based slides by simply inserting an appropriate visual. For example, if you’re going to talk about a series of steps, add a photo of someone walking up some steps. You can put the image on the right side and your bullets on the left — the other guidelines about bullets still apply.

Bonus tip

Make use of the ‘build’ or ‘reveal’ function. If you put up a slide with a number of bullets, people will read them all at once instead of listening to you. Instead, reveal them one at a time as you are speaking about them.

Visual aids can make or break your presentation, so it’s well worth the time and effort it takes to make them do their job.

This concludes my five-part series on presentations, and I hope you’ve found it helpful. Need help with a big presentation coming up? Consider my Presentation Panic Intervention. Even if you’re not in a panic, I can help you create a compelling message and present it with pizzazz! Drop me a line at and let’s chat about it.

2 thoughts on “Don’t Sabotage Your Presentation with Bad Visuals

  • Robin Taub

    It’s hard to strike that balance of having just enough on the slide to help you present and avoid memorizing everything but not too much where it’s just information overload.

    • HelenW Post author

      The key is knowing your stuff, Robin. When you have the information about your subject at your fingertips, just a few words on the screen will remind you of what you want to say. Too much and the words will be fighting with you for your audience’s attention.

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