What you need to know before using a cartoon in your presentation

I was reviewing a technical presentation for a client. The topic was the latest dental procedures. Every few slides a cartoon popped up. Cartoons about people with bad teeth. The cartoons were tangentially relevant to the topic of the presentation – but didn’t help to promote the message of the presentation. When I asked the client why she had included the cartoons she said: “My presentation is soooo boring. I need something to keep the audience awake.”

Can you relate?

Philippa Leguen de LaCroix

Philippa Leguen de Lacroix

It’s a great temptation to do this. But is it justified? This list of pros and cons regarding using cartoons in your presentation by Philippa Leguen de Lacroix of Cornerstone Presentations will help you decide:

“Why you shouldn’t include a cartoon in your presentation

1. The cartoon can be a distraction

If the cartoon is at a tangent to the topic, it may remove your audience’s focus away from you and your message. You risk losing attention with each audience member going off into their own daydream provoked by the cartoon. For example, including this Dilbert strip in a presentation about creating better PowerPoint slides:


2. The complexity or subtle humour of the cartoon may be lost on the audience

In the case where half the audience laughs and the other half doesn’t: were they not amused or did they just not get it? In either case, you may have lost rapport with some of your audience members.

3. Your credibility may be undermined

If the cartoon is misunderstood, or is inappropriate to the subject matter, then there is a risk that your presentation won’t be taken seriously and that your credibility will be undermined.

The style of cartoon needs to be appropriate too. For example, adults are likely to prefer the Far Side to Mr Men.

Why you should include a cartoon in your presentation

1. You can reinforce your point

If the cartoon is “on-message” you will be reinforcing your point with an apt and powerful visual – this is priceless and highly likely to be retained by the audience.

2. The cartoon is a mind-break

A well placed cartoon can perform the role of a “mind break”. Mind breaks can be essential to keep your audience’s brains focused. By letting their grey matter have a rest now and again, you’ll be more likely to get them focusing again on your real content. The cartoon acts as a punctuation mark or breather for your audience – ensuring attention is refreshed when you start your next topic/message: this is more relevant when your content is particularly complex of course.

3. Cartoons are entertaining!

The role of comedy and humour can make a boring experience become a whole lot more fun. This will relax your audience, have a welcoming effect, which could make the presenter seem friendly and approachable – which would hopefully then result in a more productive meeting.

4. Communication and learning works best using a combination of images and narrative

Cartoons (and well designed presentations) fit this mold. Ideally an entire presentation follows a story, and this makes a presentation extremely powerful. It’s possible to go a step further and illustrate an entire presentation with a cartoon story (essentially all the slides would form a long comic strip). In this case, a well crafted narrative, with well built themes, and fleshed out characters and situation would be a powerful presentation.”

What would you add to Philippa’s list of pros and cons?

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  1. What about copyright? I didn’t think you could use a Dilbert cartoon (or others) without permission.

    • Hi Donna

      Yes, it’s important to make sure that you do have permission to use a cartoon. In the case of the Dilbert cartoon, they are provided as embeddable widgets that you can use on a website. Here are the terms of use:

      “Q: Do your terms of use allow me to use a Dilbert Widget on my site without paying a license fee?
      A: Absolutely, provided that it’s for your personal, non-commercial use.”

  2. Thanks. So is it a “personal, non-commercial use” if you’re being paid to speak?

    • Hmmm… you’d need to check out the terms of use in more detail – the link is http://dilbert.com/terms/.

  3. Hi Donna,

    As Olivia says, you must always get permission to use a cartoon.

    Typically this works in just the same way as a photo website (e.g istock). As always – you must read the small print!

    Generally speaking, they don’t want you to print the cartoon on t-shirts, mugs etc and make a profit – so speaking should be safe. However, if you’re fixed on using a cartoon and aren’t sure – ask the website directly or ask the cartoonist too if possible!


  4. Two issues: 1) the adverse impact of silliness; 2) copyright

    1) Sometimes, people insert cartoons or video clips no matter what the connection to the message just because they can. It can detract from the presentation if it undermines the importance of the subject matter. My rule is that if you are making a presentation you sould take your subject seriously, but not necessarily yourself. (Being a pompous ass quickly loses your audience, no matter how good your presentation.) People may remember the cartoon long after they have forgotten the real point of your presentation.

    2) In the united States, there is some disagreement about what constitutes “fair use” of copyrighted materials. Comes up most frequently when people are considering use of cartoons or video clips (or playing a movie). Some copyright owners (e.g., Hollywood studios) take the position that even if you are in a nonprofit, educational environment you can’t use anything without permission. Other folks (lawyers representing libraries, for example) take a different view.

    The best advice is to get permission. The costs vary from reasonable (e.g., Scott Adams) to unreasonable (anything from a TV network or major studio). If you choose to live dangerously, the risk varies with the size of the audience, the size of the sponsoring organiation, whether it is a nonprofit or for-profit organization, and whether the presentation (or some reference to it) will be on line. Because of this risk, many organizations are requiring presenters to remove all possibly copyrighted images from presentations, or prove that permission was given.

    • Hi Ted

      Thanks for your input – those are useful points, Olivia

  5. Apparently Scott Adams disagrees with you. http://dilbertblog.typepad.com/the_dilbert_blog/2007/04/is_copyright_vi.html
    In this case, you weren’t using the widget that he supplies for you to display his work on your site. Using his work in a business presentation that you are being paid to do is a copyright violation. It doesn’t fall under fair use because you are using the work in its entirety. Just as cutting and pasting your complete post or ebook into my presentation training materials would be, without your expressed permission.
    As much as I enjoy your blog, I think you are off the reservation on this one.

    • Slight misunderstanding here!
      Just to clarify – the Dilbert cartoon has NOT been used in any presentation of mine (or Olivia’s!). It’s purely an example on this blog. The widget code provided by dilbert.com was copied and it links back to the source.

  6. Understood, but I would think that the legal issues are something “you need to know before using a cartoon in your presentation”. The post is advocating copyright violation as a viable option for business presentations.

    I’m not slamming you for a major crime here, Phillipa, just pointing out that the issue is one that needs to be considered.

    • You’re absolutely right that a mention of copyright issues could have been included in the original blog post.

      We were examining the role that cartoons play in presentations from a science and communication point of view – rather than a legal one!

      As you point out, the title of the post leads the reader to believe that such an issue would be covered. Apologies for the omission – rest assured I agree whole heartedly that gaining permission for use of any work (photo, cartoon, text) is compulsory.


    • Although the substance of the post was written by Philippa, I was the one who titled it and given the title, I take on your point that the post should have addressed the copyright issue.



  1. Public Speaking Tips and Techniques [2010-02-06] - [...] Leguen de Lacroix weighs the pros and cons of using cartoons in your presentation. [...]