Oregon State Bar Bulletin — JANUARY 2003

20 rules to apply when making presentations
By David J. Dempsey

Believe nothing of what you hear and only half of what you see.

Visual aids are very beneficial, but they have drawbacks: they may be inappropriate for a particular audience or setting; they may appear cluttered, confusing or unprofessional; or the speaker may not have mastered the crucial techniques of using visual aids effectively.

Follow the guidelines discussed below when creating and using a visual aid. Plan for the unexpected, because if anything can go wrong with a visual aid during a presentation, it usually will.

1. Ensure that the visual aid is visible.
Far too frequently, visual aids are hard to see. The lettering or the graphs are so small that even the speaker standing right next to the visual aid strains to read them. Other times, the speaker displays an object that is difficult to see. Make your visual aid visible from every vantage point, and if you cannot, either use a different visual aid or none at all.

2. Design the aid with an audience and room focus.
Understand the room setup beforehand, including the size of the audience, how the seating will be arranged and the distance from where you will speak to the farthest point where an audience member will be sitting … and all other details essential to the effective use of a visual aid. You will be unable to select or create the proper visual aid without this vital information.

3. Highlight only key concepts.
Speakers frequently attempt to use a visual aid to present every point in their presentations, and that can result in confusion and clutter. Focus on the key points that you want to reinforce with an audience or a jury. Use numbering, lettering or bulleting to facilitate easy understanding of the visual aid. Limit the number of lines per page, as too many lines make a visual aid difficult to read.

When the eyes say one thing, and the tongue another, a practiced man relies on the language of the first.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson

4. Design horizontally.
Your audience members are accustomed to reading material horizontally across the page from left to right, not vertically from top to bottom. You should, therefore, design your visual aid so that as you reveal a point, the audience will begin to review it on the left side of the page and read to the right side of the page.

5. Limit the number of visual aids.
If you use multiple visual aids, their impact may be diminished. Use one or two clear, concise visual aids, and you will be far more likely to leave a lasting impression with your audience members or jurors.

6. Select appropriate lettering and fonts.
Use crisp, easy-to-read lettering, and use no more than two font styles per page. Artistic, cursive text is frequently illegible. The size of the lettering will be dictated by the size of the audience. A visual aid that may be appropriate for a courtroom setting, where only 12 people will view it in close proximity, may be useless at a luncheon meeting with 100 people. If your handwriting is hard to read, consider enlisting a member of the audience or a paralegal to assist you. Using an assistant will also help you maintain your focus on the audience.

7. Use vibrant colors.
Audiences today are accustomed to vivid colors and striking images as a result of their exposure to television, movies and the Internet. A colorful visual aid has more impact than one that is black and white. You can use colors to highlight key points, to focus an audience’s attention, and to show contrasts. However, too many colors become distracting, so use no more than two or three colors per visual aid.

8. Cautiously embrace technology.
The elaborate multimedia and computer-aided visual aids available to speakers today are incredible. When they work and are used correctly, they can amaze an audience. But they have several disadvantages, not the least of which is that they frequently do not work. When a visual aid involves technology, the likelihood of problems increases significantly. You must be extremely comfortable with computer electronics and know how to set up your system and resolve the inevitable problems that arise, including devising an alternate plan. Master this technology before attempting to use it with an audience so that using it seems effortless. In addition, do not allow your message to be overwhelmed by the wizardry of computer technology.

9. Use only professional visual aids.
If you do not have the time, the resources or the expertise to create visual aids that are professional in appearance, retain the services of someone who is capable of doing so — or do not use a visual aid. A visual aid that is created in a sloppy fashion damages your professional image.

10. Practice your presentation using the visual aid.
Both inexperienced and professional speakers have had presentations undermined by unexpected problems with their visual aids. Practice your presentation with the visual aid so that you can use it effortlessly in front of the audience or jury. Practice flipping the pages, revealing information, writing on the transparencies or white board and changing slides. Use the visual aid exactly as you intend to use it during the presentation in order to become entirely comfortable with it.

11. Practice in the room where you will speak.
While it is not always feasible, your confidence will be greatly enhanced if you are able to practice using the visual aid in the room where you will make your presentation. For example, if you practice your opening statement or closing argument in the courtroom where the case will be tried, you can move about the room and view the visual aid from the jury box, the witness stand or the judge’s bench. Determine whether there is any glare; whether the visual aid is visible from every angle to the jury, the judge and the witness; and whether the electrical sockets are accessible.

My task is, before all, to make you see.
—Joseph Conrad

12. Arrange your accessories.
For every presentation, you should create a checklist of all the additional accessories you will need to use the visual aid. Your checklist should include items such as nonpermanent markers, masking tape, pointers, extension cords and even additional light bulbs for your overhead projector. Decide where you will place your visual aid accessories when you speak. If you are using a pen, a marker, a laser pointer, a remote control or another instrument during the presentation, use it and then set it down immediately when you are finished. Do not twirl it, bounce it, spin it, wring it or use it in any other manner that will distract the audience members or jurors.

13. Arrange for transportation of the visual aid.
Before the day of the presentation, arrange how your visual aid will be transported. You should not be concerned about having to lug a heavy or cumbersome visual aid around the building right before you speak or be stressed over whether or not your visual aid will arrive on time. Investigate the room where you will be presenting. Can you set up the visual aid well before the audience or jury begins to filter into the room? Will it be necessary to retain the help of an assistant from your office, the courtroom or a local college to help you with transporting and setting up the aid? Answer these questions early to eliminate last-minute scrambling.

14. Protect the visual aid.
If the visual aid is a photograph, poster or chart, make sure that it is kept in a location that is dry and flat so it is not damaged. One speaker spent an entire speech using one hand to hold down a poster that was constantly rolling up because it had been stored in a tube for two weeks before the presentation. He was tethered to the visual aid, unable to move about or gesture at will. These are challenges you should avoid.

Ideally, have your visual aid in place, tested and ready to go before the audience arrives; otherwise, be prepared to set up quickly when it is time for your presentation. The audience is immediately forming conclusions about you – even before you begin to speak – so it is important to appear well prepared and confident, not flustered and disheveled.

15. Focus on the audience, not the visual aid.
A visual aid should strengthen the message but never become the focus of a presentation. Unfortunately, we often become mesmerized with our visual aids, staring at them instead of connecting with the audience. Just as speakers often talk to their notes, many talk to their visual aids. Your focus should be on the audience.

16. Reveal only when ready.
Do not display any part of your visual aid until you are prepared to do so. Showing all five points of your presentation on the overhead projector before you begin to speak diminishes the impact, eliminates suspense and may cause the audience members to lose interest in your message. Control the timing and flow of your presentation to hold the audience’s attention.

17. Use the visual aid Instead of notes.
Your visual aid can serve as an excellent substitute for notes. You can quickly refer to the visual aid to prompt yourself in the presentation and ensure that your presentation flows in the manner you planned. This will allow you to move away from the lectern, which will result in a more natural, conversational presentation.

18. Point or gesture to the visual aid with the closest hand.
Since your audience members are accustomed to reading from left to right, stand to the left side of the visual aid, and point or gesture toward it with your left hand. Do not position yourself or point to the visual aid in any manner that will cause you to turn your back on the audience.

19. Allow the audience members or jurors to study the visual aid.
Before removing a visual aid or moving ahead in the presentation, observe the audience members or jurors. Are they studying the visual aid? Are they taking notes? Is the material depicted on the visual aid so complex that it deserves extra time? Remember that what is very familiar to you (because of your detailed preparation) may be foreign and confusing to members of your audience or jury. Allow enough time for them to study and absorb the message of the visual aid.

20. Remove the visual aid when the point has been made.
When you are finished referring to a visual aid remove it — turn off the projector, darken the screen or flip the chart. If you do not do this, the audience will often continue to focus on the visual aid and the point you have already made rather than your next point. This is especially true if the visual aid is vibrant and captivating.

Expert presenters agree that visual aids are an enormously powerful vehicle to drive home your points, but using them effectively requires patience and practice. When the success of your presentation depends on the effective use of a visual aid, leave nothing to chance. Early, detailed and careful preparation will help ensure that the visual aid is your ally in front of every jury and audience.

David J. Dempsey is a practicing trial attorney and a general partner in the Atlanta, Ga., firm of Coleman & Dempsey. He is also an adjunct professor teaching public speaking at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta and an award-winning speaker. This article has been excerpted from 'Legally Speaking: 40 Powerful Presentation Principles Lawyers Need to Know,' by David J. Dempsey, J.D. For more information about the book or additional public speaking tips, visit www. legallyspeakingonline.com.

© 2003 David J. Dempsey

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