Top 10 Tips on Why Visuals Matter More in Today’s “Virtual” Reality

Who isn’t grappling with our new “virtual” reality? I know I am. Communicating is challenging enough when you’re in the office, face-to-face – let alone when you’re faced with only a computer screen and a voice.

There’s no question that our “new normal” takes visual storytelling to a whole new level. When working remotely, the only thing you may see is a presentation or slides. That means, if you’re not working to raise your PowerPoint game, it will certainly impact how you communicate in this environment. Why? The quality of your visuals (or slides) – and how they support your words – matters even more. Visuals are one of the most powerful ways to help people understand. Period.

Communications science tells us that visuals improve communication by activating a sensory channel. In other words, clear, simple visuals can reinforce messages and enhance understanding – while poor visuals can confuse your audience and ultimately, decrease the amount and quality of information they remember.

Here is my top ten list to make sure your visuals help – not hinder – your virtual communications. Spoiler alert:  It’s all about NOT starting with your slides.

  1. Resist the Urge to “Shuffle the Deck”. We know that you have hundreds of slides that are just waiting for their moment to shine again. And chances are that – while interesting to you (and maybe a few others) – these slides are not what you need for THIS presentation. Unfortunately, old habits die hard and you start to “shuffle the deck.” You piece together your presentation like a mixed-matched (ugly) quilt. And it ends up looking and sounding like a dump of what’s in your head. More importantly, it loses your audience. Resist the urge! Ask yourself what your audience needs and wants to hear – and start there.

  2. Strategy THEN Script THEN Slides. The best slides are linked to a clear strategy. Full stop. Again, consider your goal and your audience. Then, outline your presentation (and not in PowerPoint). Once you have an outline that is driven by a strategy, script your presentation. That’s right – write out exactly what your audience wants AND needs to hear. Notice we haven’t even discussed visuals yet? That’s because the messages need to drive your slides. Keep reading.

  3. Script Every Word. And We Mean EVERY Word. The precise words you choose, how you structure your messages, and the order in which you deliver them, all combine to make the difference between a presentation that’s easily followed, understood, and “bought into” – versus a rambling session that loses the audience at “hello.” Scripting provides a road map for clear slides. Your script helps create the right bullet points or determine the right visuals for your slides. As my colleague Penny Daniels talked about in her previous blog – your goal should always be to write as you talk. Keep it simple, short, and conversational. It’s easier to deliver and for your audience to process. Remember – they can’t go back and re-read what you’re saying.

  4. Follow “See-Say” as Much as Possible. “See-say” means that what your audience sees “echoes” what you say. If you follow this principle, it will help you resist the urge to put too much on the slide. How? Simple. Make the first words you want to say on each slide the same as the slide headline. (As a bonus, it will also help you smoothly transition from one slide to the other and stay on message.) For text slides, the bullets should follow your script, addressing the points you make from the top down. And be sure to say or reference everything that is on the slide. Otherwise, your audience gets stuck on what you didn’t say, and you lose them.

  5. Think Visually. This means don’t just use bulleted slides. Be creative. Whenever possible, use pictures, charts, or graphs to help your audience visualize your message. Research shows that our brain processes visuals much quicker than text. They get your audience to pay attention while helping them get the information into their long-term memory, so they retain what you’ve said. But that assumes that the visuals – especially charts and graphs – are well-marked and clear. And don’t forget to have a clear message in the title to give people context for what they’re seeing on the slide.

  6. Don’t Fear White Space! Whether you are using a visual or text – or a bit of both – keep it simple. Don’t feel obligated to fill the white space. Communications research shows that people process information better when there is a lot of white space around the words. Use it to your advantage and help your audience remember.

  7. Put Only What Your Audience Needs to Know on Your Slides. Remember – it’s not about how much information you send. It’s about how much information your audience receives. The same thing is true when creating effective visuals. Say only what you need to say and show only what you need to show. Help your audience process information.

  8. One Key Message Per Slide – Please! One key message per slide – PLEASE! Less is more. For text slides, practice the 3×4 guideline. This means no more than three bullets AND no more than three or four words per bullet. And no, this is not impossible. Remember, the words on the slide are not the point, YOU are. YOUR words. The slides just support your message and help your audience retain the key information – so keep your visuals focused.

  9. One Slide Per Minute – Really? We’ve all heard people say, “You have ten minutes on the agenda, so no more than ten slides for your presentation.” We’re not sure where that came from or why it won’t go away – but that old chestnut is just WRONG! What many people fail to realize is that it’s not the slides, it’s the script – the number of words you deliver – that ultimately determines how much time your presentation takes. You can have 10 slides or 50 slides – what matters is what works to move the message along. What your audience remembers IS what’s most important – NOT the number of slides.

  10. Pass the “Glance Test.” Now that you’ve done all this – take a step back and ask yourself:  Will my audience get the main message of the slide – whether text or graphic – by simply glancing at it? Imagine that someone in the audience gets distracted by their phone or turns to check quickly on their child playing in their office (it happens). If your visuals pass the “glance test,” this person should immediately be able to get the most important message by simply seeing the headline or visual (if appropriate) on the screen.

Slides ARE very important in helping audiences retain the information – as they see it and hear it at the same time. But they should clarify your messages, not compete with them. And overall, this is the biggest mistake people make when doing presentations. Bottom line: There is NO NEED TO OVERDO IT when it comes to visuals. Your slides don’t need to be complicated or flashy. They simply need to help your audience remember YOU and your MESSAGES – and maybe even more so in our new (yet hopefully temporary) “virtual” work reality.

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