Creating your visual aids

Understanding visual and verbal channels

hear no evil see no evil speak no evil monkeys

Before you even start creating visual aids, it is worth taking a bit of time to consider how they are going to be used. How many of us have been to presentations where the presenter just printed off all the slides and gave them to you as a hand-out? The presentation becomes a ‘supervised reading’ event. What is the point of that? Why do you need a presenter if all the information is there – couldn’t he just have emailed it out? Instead we start reading from the slides, and we can read 7 times faster than the presenter can say the things she wants to say, so we start ignoring the speaker and praying for slide to move on, and the session to end.

We talk elsewhere about the importance of creating useful handouts, but for now it is suffice to say that:

a good PowerPoint should make a poor hand-out, and a good hand-out should make a poor PowerPoint

When we’re speaking with slides we are communicating over two channels. Cliff Atkinson, in his book ‘Beyond Bullet Points’ labels them as the visual and verbal channels.


The Visual Channel

is affected most prominently by our slides, but it’s also made up of our setting, clothes, image, facial expressions and all that type of ‘invisible’ visible stuff. The visual channel is the one that the audience reacts to first and most powerfully – and so makes up a big part of their impression of us and their reaction to our speech.


The Verbal Channel

is made up of the words we say and the way that we say them. Think first of the tone and style of your speaking, as these can immediately make your audience ‘tune in’ (or get them to ‘turn off’). But it’s also the way you explain and describe. Do you meander through the material or go off on a tangent and forget where you were? Or do you use your words to provide succinct, structured explanations which are easy to follow and completely relevant? Which would you prefer?

Here’s a quick test

Read the following set of words out loud:

Green Red Blue

Purple Blue Purple

Now read this next set of words out loud:

Blue Purple Red

Green Purple Green

Did you take longer to read the second set of words than the first? Most people do, because our brains are confused by two conflicting messages: the words say one colour, but show us another. The posh name for this is Cognitive Dissonance.

We always believe our eyes over our ears. Visual/Verbal contradictions can cancel out hours of hard work. To make sure your verbal messages are accepted, make sure all of your visuals compliment them.

Some common examples:

  • dull and dreary slides full of cliches in a presentation about innovation and change;
  • a speaker who says ‘work has to be fun’ as if he’s been sentenced to death;
  • a terrible data slide with too small text and unreadable numbers, prefaced by the words – ‘as is obvious from this graph…’

With so many contradictions and conflicting messages, why should anyone take you seriously?

If you want to use the visual and verbal channels effectively, think about it this way:

Use the visual for emphasis – the verbal for explanation.

Most of all, make sure both channels are giving out the same message: that you are competent, your presentation is well-structured, and your audience needs to remember this one key message. When there’s no contradiction between the two, your audience will listen, understand and be more likely to remember what you said. How much do you want your audience to remember?

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