Public speaking is an oral, aural and visual art. That means speakers must think about their visuals as much as their voice. In the business, we call elements like your slides and props “speaker support” and it is so important to emphasise that second word. Graphics are there to support you; they are not there to form the foundation or focus of your presentation. Put them into context – your speech and your speaking skills must come first.
All that said, of course speaker support is important. A memorable plot or a well-judged graphic, sometimes referred to as a slide even though they are entirely digital now, can make your speech memorable and ensure the audience takes home the message you’re trying to convey. Think of graphics like salt: a little makes the dish taste better; too much ruins it.
But how many graphics are too many? The truth is, there’s no single answer to that question. Some speeches require more than others. It can depend on the skill of the presenter, too, and on the quality of their visuals. The only useful rule of thumb is to make sure whatever graphics you have visually emphasise what you’re saying out loud.
Say something first: introduce a concept orally and then bring up a graphic to emphasise that delivery. This makes you look like the most important person in the room! If, on the other hand, you display a graphic before you talk about the concept it illustrates you look less confident – as if you need the prompt. Try to avoid looking like a schoolteacher, too – don’t work through a set of bullet points you bring up at the start of your talk. Unless you absolutely need a graphic or a bullet point on a slide, delete it and do without. Keep everything to a minimum.
Think, too, about the design of the graphics – not just their content. Do not cram your slides full of details. Keep them brief and concise, and make sure there’s lots of white space. In other words, the slides need to be easy on the eye, with lots of margin around the text and pictures. Likewise, the text needs to be big enough to see a long way off. Good design is crucial to leading the audience’s eyes around your slide, so think about how to direct their attention to the important content. Think about font point sizes, too: use 44 for a title and absolutely nothing less than 32 for anything else.
The visual element of a slide is so important: they are not just small essays. Some speakers print out their graphics and use them as handouts, which encourages to think of them as documents that the audience should refer to. This is not what they are! The best graphic is inseperable from of your speech – indeed, incomprehensible without it. Its mix of images and words should be designed to complement what you’re saying, not replicate it – so without the speech it shouldn’t make any sense.
You want your audience to be listening, not reading. We speak at around 150 words per minute – and read at around 350 without speed-reading techniques. Bear that in mind when you prepare your speaker support.. Some people proudly parrot the ‘one slide per minute’ rule, but break that down – do you really want your audience to read twenty slides in twenty minutes? How will they ever have any time to pause and listen to what you are saying?
When you write your speech, think about its main points; then use those to plan your speaker support: whether graphic or prop, they’ll have best effect when they’re used sparingly. Start with the words, not the PowerPoint – and don’t over-salt your speech.