University of Hawai'i Maui Community College Speech Department

Avoid Visual Distractions

Don't make your Visual Aids visual distractions.
Avoid the following visual aid blunders.

The Illegible Image:
Images not clearly seen by the entire audience add confusion and distraction. If you have to say "I know you can't read this but.....," why include the visual at all? The more eagle-eyed viewers may take exception to this attack on their literacy while others are attempting to see what is on the screen. While straining to read the visual, they cannot be expected to be paying full attention to what is being said.

One popular rule of thumb is the "8H" rule of legibility. In a nutshell, if you can read an image from eight times its height, odds are your audience will be able to read it when projected. As an example.... You have a flip chart which is 2 feet high. If you can read the chart from 16 feet away, that chart will probably be legible when converted to a slide or overhead transparency. 35 millimeter slides are about an inch in height. If you can read a slide from 8 inches distance, that slide will be legible under most presentation conditions.

The Useless Image:
Images should be designed to please the mind as well as the eye of the viewer. If an image has no specific place or purpose in a presentation other than "it is pretty", it should probably be removed.

The Distracting Image:
Images should be designed to aid your audience's understanding of your topic. If an image has no specific place or purpose in a presentation other than "it is my visual aid," it should be removed. If the visual aid that you have chosen seems fine as a small visual, but when it is projected on the wall or into a big screen TV it becomes a hysterical distraction then you shouldn't use it. Some visual aids are so distracting that the audience can't stop looking at your visual aid and they forget about you and your speech. Click here for an anoying example of a visual distraction.

The Overly Complex Image:
More images with fewer ideas on each are better than a few images which are complicated or difficult to understand. A single idea or set of facts per image, timed to the speaker's pace will add punch and emphasis to each important idea assuring maximum retention.

Most people are easily bored, and one generally accepted rule of thumb states that if an image remains on the screen longer than 7 to 10 seconds, you begin to lose viewer attention.

Closely related to the previous deadly sin, "chartjunk" is a phrase coined to identify confusing elements which really have no place on the image. Many presenters insist on having a glaring colored logo in the corner of every image. While a common element can add continuity to a presentation, blazing logos and distracting objects can detract from the message. And after all, isn't the message what it's all about?

A first cousin to chartjunk, "chartoons" are overly cute attempts to make a presentation appear more professional by adding lots of distracting, tacky, aggravating symbols and such. These usually appear right after a presenter has discovered a clip art library.

Ransom Note Design:
Just because you have access to 35 fonts does not mean that you are required to use them. A single font throughout an entire presentation is usually quite sufficient. Use bold, italic, underline, quotations and/or color changes to emphasize or subdue key points or words.

Calico or Crazy Quilt Graphics:
Keep the colors to a minimum. A single background color throughout a presentation lends an air of continuity. You can separate broad sections of a presentation by changing background colors, but keep the changes to a minimum. Unless your purpose is to shock or grab serious attention, try to keep all background colors within the same color family.

Mixed visual metaphors:
You should not mix your metaphors when you speak, so please don't mix them in your graphics without specific purpose. You would not use warm colors in a slide whose subject was ice hockey unless you wanted to emphasize the warm comfortable temperature of the stadium.

By keeping these suggestions in mind throughout the design and development process, you can dramatically improve the quality of your presentation. The production process will go more smoothly, the budget will not be broken, and your nerves can take a well deserved rest.

Click here for tips on using visual aids.

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Page Designer: Ron St. John
Copyright 2002 - Ka Leo Kumu
Last Revised: January 16, 2002