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Using Visuals in Presentations

Carefully-chosen visuals strengthen presentations. | Boston Atlantic Photography

Modern computer slide presentations, of which PowerPoint is the most familiar, are great tools, especially when used to their full potential. Compelling presentations support, illuminate, or deepen a presenter’s comments.

Principles for a good presentation

Start with a clear idea of the core messages and select the right images and data to support those points. Resist the temptation to cut and paste blocks of text and graphs from an academic paper. Instead, focus on compelling images that reinforce spoken messages. Use your personal experiences of interest or boredom to reflect on what makes a good or a poor presentation.

Before you start

Ask three key questions:

  1. Audience: Who is the audience? Are the presentation images comprehensible, appropriate, and engaging for that audience?
  2. Messages: What are the core messages? Focus on 3 core messages starting with the "big point" you wish to make.
  3. Medium: Is a PowerPoint presentation really the best way to communicate with this audience? Don't feel obligated to use slides just because colleagues do. Sometimes, slides are too formal for conversations with smaller groups, for example.

Designing a presentation

…learn from others’ presentations. … assume that the way colleagues present is the best model - look for wider ideas.
…relate to the audience. Use stories or examples that fit with the audience's experience or interests. Test analogies and stories with non-scientists, perhaps family or friends, in advance. …assume the audience will understand technical information. Metaphors often more clearly illustrate key messages than technical information.
…use the minimum number of slides necessary. Ask “Do I absolutely need this slide, or can I find a compelling way to deliver this information verbally instead?” …do not try to force everything in. Focus on the essentials.
…include audience participation. Enable and encourage conversations within the audience. …avoid depending on the traditional didactic format of lecture and questions; this does not enable optimal learning.
…save a PDF copy of the slideshow to offer as a hand out, sharing via email or on a website. At the beginning of the presentation, let the audience know copies will be available. …provide hand outs before a presentation - people can become distracted by these and read them instead of listening.

Text and Visuals

…see what others are doing. The online guide and principles for choosing effective climate change visuals is applicable across science communication. …feel overwhelmed.
…keep text to a minimum. Focus on key themes and augment verbal comments with images. Provide sources or references in smaller text that does not dominate images. …cut and paste blocks of text from a report or paper into slides. Avoid bullet points.
…use images. A well-chosen image can deepen engagement and understanding. …avoid multiple images where one will do. Multiple graphs, in particular, are problematic unless making a direct comparison.
…try to include people in images; Authenticity is important. Use images of real people and real situations, especially personal photographs. Tell stories about personal photos. …avoid generic images; posed or faked situations do not encourage trust.
…use graphs and charts sparingly. They can enhance a presentation if they are easily read and understood. …assume graphs are easily understood. Without clear headings, labels, and context, graphs can often confuse more than they enlighten.
…use relevant and engaging videos, or short snippets of videos. These break up a presentation and can be used to illustrate a point. Test the video playback at the presentation site before giving the presentation. …use clips any longer than three or four minutes. Stick to 30 seconds or one minute unless it’s critical to show more. Otherwise, people tend to lose interest.

Low-tech options

Consider using hands-on examples and non-technical props with verbal descriptions. For example:


Further inspiration

Consider looking into the International Science & Engineering Visualization Challeng. Each year, the the National Science Foundation and Popular Science recognize science visualization achievements. Look at past winners, award categories, and evaluation criteria for ideas on how to better represent research visually.

Another excellent example of the power of images to convey a complex scientific issue is photographer James Balog’s use of time-lapse photography to show melting glaciers. Balog combined that time-lapse imagery with personal stories in a TED talk that has received over 800,000 views.

A panel discussed “Using Visuals for Science Communication" as part of the 2016 Communicating Science seminar at the AAAS Annual Meeting. Speakers Alberto Cuadra of AAAS/Science, Matt Hansen of the University of Maryland, Laura Rickard of the University of Maine, and moderator Bonnie Berkowitz of The Washington Post, considered guiding principles for creating effective science visuals.


A panel also discussed “Visualizing Science” at the 2013 Communicating Science Seminar at the AAAS Annual Meeting. Science communication consultant Dennis Meredith, Erik Olsen of The New York Times, and Yael Fitzpatrick of AAAS/Science, considered best practices for visualizing science.