Mike Heath

Use of Visual Aids in Public Speaking  

Visual aids such as videos, over-heads, charts and graphs, pictures, et cetera can be effective in enhancing the clarity of concepts in your speech as well as engaging the audience in your presentation. The use of visual aids can make the difference between a good speech and a great one. However, if used incorrectly, they may distract from and even reduce the effectiveness of your speech.
The first step to making good use of visual aids is to determine if they are appropriate for your speaking situation. In general, visual aids are more effective when used in front of smaller sized audiences. Though certain types of visual aids, such as videos or over-heads, may be useful for large audiences, the equipment necessary to employ them is not always readily available. The most important thing to consider is whether or not any visual aid you decide to use can be clearly seen by all members of the audience. In terms of choosing an appropriate visual aid, the ability of the entire audience to see it clearly is the primary limiting factor.

Once you have determined what equipment you have at your disposal and what types of visual aids you can successfully present to your audience size, you must determine what part or parts of your speech would most benefit from a visual aid. In general, speeches that include numerical data or series of statistics presented for comparison will benefit from the use of charts or graphs. A visual representation of numerical data always helps draw out any specific relationships, comparisons, and/or contrasts that support your thesis. A visual aid will help anytime you are describing a physical or mental process, a spatial relationship, or a complex system. For example, in describing the cell cycle, it would save time to visually represent each phase rather than try to explain them with words alone. The adage, "a picture tells a thousand words" can be used to your benefit. It would take much longer to describe the chromosome movement, the process from late-prophase through late anaphase and telophase, and leave your audience with a clear concept of the whole process without using visual aids. Videos are also useful for showing processes. Pictures can be useful when discussing a particular location, a rare species of animal, specific people, et cetera.

In addition to making different points in your speech clear, visual aids can also be used to add some dramatic effect or leave a distinct impression on the audience. For example, if you are giving a speech about the holocaust, photographs of what you are describing could leave an incredible impression. Or, consider how flat a speech on 20th century art would be if no examples were shown to the audience. On the other hand, it is important to keep in mind that not all speeches will benefit from the use of visual aids. Visual aids can also detract from your speech if they aren't useful in elucidating one of your points. For example, in a speech on Shakespeare's sonnets, a picture of the great bard will probably not advance your thesis.

After deciding where in your speech to use visual aids, you need to prepare the visual aid for the presentation. If you are using a video or an over-head, make sure that the equipment is ready for use and in the proper position and that tapes are rewound to the appropriate segments. Time spent during a speech dealing with a television or over-head projector, is not only wasted presentation time, but detracts from the flow of your speech and the effectiveness of the visual aid. Keep in mind also that videos should not be too long. If the video is long, the audience will likely lose interest in your speech or even lose sight of the points you were making.
In preparing visual aids that you make yourself, remember that they need to be clearly seen by all. If there is any writing incorporated on them, the words need to be very large and written in a dark color, preferably one that contrasts with the background. Writing on visual aids should be minimal. Spelling out definitions or quotes is not the best way to get that information across to your audience and will not make a very exciting visual aid. Additionally, make sure that your visual aids are not sloppily prepared.

Visual aids that lack a professional appearance will detract from your overall credibility as a speaker. If you are going to go through the effort of creating a visual aid, make sure your product is of a high enough quality that it will be effective in accomplishing its purpose. If you use a visual aid that includes hand-drawn pictures that the audience cannot decipher, it will not be effective.

If you wish to use visual aids that simply cannot be enlarged to a size that the entire audience can see, you may consider ways in which you can bring the visual aid closer to the audience. If you are speaking before a very small audience, you may consider walking out from where you are speaking and bringing the visual aid close enough for the audience to see it. When using a visual aid, be sure to keep talking and incorporate the aid into your speech by making specific reference to different parts of the visual.

Again, make sure that the entire audience gets a chance to see it.  If your visual aid is a picture or a poster, make sure that your hold it still and not off to the side. When you use your aid, bring it out only for the points to which it is relevant. If you leave it up during the entire speech it will likely distract the audience.
Visual aids don't have to be graphs, pictures, or videos. They can also be props. For example, for a speech on skiing, you may choose to bring in different pieces of the necessary equipment and perhaps wear a ski parka for effect. Not only will this contribute to a sense that your are involved with your topic, but it can serve as a constant reminder to the audience of what, in general, is the topic of your presentation. It is important to keep in mind, however, that visual aids are used to highlight parts of your speech, or add something to it. If your visual aids are too extreme or excessive, they will be more distracting than helpful.

Last, avoid the temptation to use handouts as visual aids during your speech. Handing out information during a speech will interrupt your flow. Additionally, the audience may focus their attention on your handout instead of on you and your presentation. You may consider using handouts if you would like to use a visual aid that you simply cannot enlarge enough for the entire audience to see. If you do use a handout, make sure there is an obvious point in the speech where you are making specific reference to the handout. Make sure there isn't anything on the handout that you do not cover. That way, the audience will not be distracted from your presentation by additional information.

The most important things to remember in using visual aids are: 1) that the visual aid contributes to the clarity or interest of your speech and supports one or more of your points in a non-distracting way, and 2) that the entire audience has a chance to clearly see the visual. If you can accomplish these two things, a visual aid will always be of benefit to your presentation.