Presentation images: Are you making these mistakes?

There’s a disturbing trend – the use of irrelevant images in presentations.

Stock photo sites have made it easy to find stunning images. The problem is the images often have nothing to do with the subject of the presentation!

My partner, Tony, calls it “Visual Musak”. At best, the images become background wallpaper to the presentation. At worst the images are visually distracting.

Here’s a checklist of ways you might be misusing images in your presentation:

1. Teaming a random word with an image

Pulling one word out of a sentence and teaming it with an image is only useful when that word is a key part of your presentation. Random words don’t deserve that prominence. For example, danah boyd began her talk at SXSW with this phrase:

“I was asked to come and talk to you, to give you some sort of provocation, inviting you to think deeply.”

At the same time she showed this image:

danah boyd slide

But the presentation was not about provocation – it just happened to be the word she used in that sentence. (Note: the critical thinking in danah’s presentations is exceptional and I admire her greatly – but her slides, though interesting to look at, don’t enhance her presentations in a meaningful way).

2. Clever metaphors/references in your presentation

The search engines on online photo sites make it easy to find clever images to illustrate your metaphors. For example, here’s a slide from a slideshare presentation on K12 education:


As far as I can tell this photo is a reference to the ‘Penguin Effect”, a term coined in an academic paper about technology adoption. Most of the top google results are related to this academic paper and there’s no entry in Wikipedia. Few people in a lay audience are going to get this reference.

Your audience should be able to understand your metaphor or reference just by looking at the image. If not, it’s just interesting wallpaper or worse – it will take the focus away from what you’re saying as audience members try and discern the connection.

3. Image is just too stunning/interesting

Then there are images that are just too good. Even is they’re related to your point, the quality of the image may distract from your presentation. Here’s an example from Hubspot’s SXSW presentation:

inbound marketing

It’s a great image and I can see how it relates to the message, but it also sends me off into a little daydream (how exactly does a little girl manage to out leverage a big guy on a seesaw). Once again, I’ve missed what the presenter says next.

And there’s the temptation with great images to reuse them, as did Hubspot in another presentation:


And this time there’s very little relevance to the point.

Avoid these traps. Use an image only when it helps make your point understandable or memorable.

What examples of visual musak have you seen?

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  1. Great post, Olivia. I see these mistakes made time and time and again, and presenters often don’t understand what it is that they’re doing wrong.

    There’s only one point that I would disagree with – “Your audience should be able to understand your metaphor or reference just by looking at the image. If not, it’s just interesting wallpaper or worse – it will take the focus away from what you’re saying as audience members try and discern the connection.”

    I do agree that all audience members should be able to understand the metaphor of reference (i.e., it shouldn’t be so obscure that they’ve never heard of it), but I don’t think they should ‘get it’ immediately from looking at the image. At m62, we practise Visual Cognitive Dissonance, projecting slides that don’t make sense so that the audience listen to the presenter for an explanation. More can be found on this here:

    Completely agree on the use of images though. Especially having a ‘little daydream’ when confronted with the final image – I challenge an audience *not* to!

    • Hi Jessica

      You raise a really interesting point which has forced me to think a little bit harder about the point I’m making! Because I do agree with m62’s approach of sometimes creating slides that don’t make sense without an explanation from the presenter (and have written posts about it here and here).

      However, if the slide is an image of a metaphor – I think a distinction can be made. Just like a joke that needs explaining is no longer funny, a metaphor that needs explaining is not working as a metaphor.

      Thank you again for making me think harder!

  2. Too stunning images, never thought of that…
    Great advice as always!

    • Thanks Sandrina, Olivia

  3. Thanks for your feedback on one of the slides in my presentation.

    Though I see your point (in terms of the image pulling you into a dream-like state), it goes pretty well with the accompanying commentary of how inbound marketing helps small businesses compete against big ones.

    Not sure how to measure the negative impact (in terms of distraction) vs. positive impact (conveys the core message and is captivating) — but definitely something I’ll be thinking about.

    • Hi Dharmesh

      I agree that the image does go well with the commentary. And yes, it’s a tricky balance to make. What I found fascinating was the same image being used again in a context that didn’t make so much sense. That’s the major trap to avoid when faced with the seductive power of a stunning image.


  4. I agree with your caution against “too stunning images”.

    You can use text to make sure people “get” an image: i.e., circle the penguin dipping his toes in the water and put in the word “early adopter” in a hand-writing font.

    • Hi Jan

      Adding text to an image is a great way of making it clearer. And I like the idea of using a hand-writing font. Even better would be to use your own handwriting (I think there are sites where you can get your own handwriting turned into a font) or to write it at the time using a tablet. I saw this done with great effect by Dan Roam at SXSW – I’ll write a post on that soon).


  5. Good points here. Thanks.

    The ENTIRE Presentation must be in sync.

    If there are disconnects, the audience gets mixed messages.

    If they receive mixed messages, they’ll never ‘Get It!’

    If they don’t ‘Get It!’, the presenter didn’t do their job.

    • Hi Fred

      To begin with I thought you meant ‘in sync’ to mean the synchronizing between words and images which would make sense within the context of this post, but I just clicked through to your blog and see that your latest post is about the synchronization between words and nonverbal communication. So I’m not sure what sense of the word you were intending in this comment.

      I’ll comment on both possible meanings:

      Synchronization between words and images

      I think it’s generally useful for words and images to correlate in an understandable way. But there could be a situation which calls for something different. So I wouldn’t use the ‘must’ in context – there are very few absolute rules in presenting.

      Synchronization between words and nonverbal communication
      I’ve found that it’s perfectly possible for a presenter to show signs of nervousness and yet deliver a strong message. Sure there are situations where a disconnect between the words and nonverbal communication might send a mixed message eg: smiling while talking how sad you are about your father dying, but those situations are not as frequent as often made out. For more on this see my post about Albert Mehrabian’s research.

      Also most people are nervous about public speaking and to tell them that they must not show any signs of nervousness or they’ll be sending a mixed message will just make them more nervous. For more on this see my post There’s no such thing as a perfect presentation.


  6. Thanks for the post.

    I am more than happy to see the bulleted slides disappear, but the danger is simply that we transfer the mistakes we made with text slides to image slides.

    We also assume that everyone can “read” an image. An image always only tells the one story I want it to tell. An image needs context. Only inside the frame of context will it reveal its message.

    In my presentation classes I have one exercise, where I show a pretty straight forward (?) image I took of a building and masses of criss crossed rusty metal beams in front.

    I get eight out of ten different answers, when I ask my students what that image has to do with giving a talk, from structure to chaos.

    Nice side effect: the building is a famous German church, but hardly anyone recognizes it as they all focus on meaning and the beams. There are so many lessons in one image :)

    Think about what your message is:
    Do you want to stun your audience? Surprise them? Make them think?

    How fast do you want your image to be? Clichéd pictures are winners then. Everyone gets a small zen stone pile as “structure”. On the other hand, how many more zen stone piles can we bear to see?

    There are a few basic relationships between text and images, I call this text-image semantics, there are other, more scientific names.

    Text explains picture. Picture explains text. Text and image say the same thing. Text contradicts image.

    If the relationship is a plain 1:1, it is boring. If the relationship is too “strange”, the audience needs time to get it. Pictures can send you on a wild ride, that is maybe not always what you want in your talk.

    As I see it, *you* need to be the text. You need to be the guide. I am a little worried about the trend with full-blown image slides and one line of text in huge typeface.

    The biggest danger I personally see is the trap of text ridden slides turning into a set of cheesy holiday postcards. Greetings from home.

    Then there is the trap of using too much stock photography. Not another Slideshare”Henry”style-presentation please, with smiling business faces and the business handshake.

    Then there are copyright issues.

    And the list goes on and on.

    Image slides work great, don’t get me wrong here, but most people need to learn how to use them, and read them.

    And then there is the human touch. How digital do you want your talk to be? I am a geek girl, I am a photographer by heart, and still — a series of beautiful images can send you as fast asleep as the old style text slides.

    I currently encourage my students to create their own (imperfect) drawings and add them to their slides, simply to add some glitch and grittiness.

    And we have seen some stunning results that make people laugh and keep them interested. One art student had her six-year old son to the drawings. Huge success.

    On the other hand: I have seen business talks using sweet doodles and their content was rather aggressive, to say the least.

    So, as always. I believe the job is to get the balance right, and be sincere, and keep a talk as human as possible, and audience centered, and the rest will follow.

    And sometimes no slide is still the best slide of all.

    Words are marvellous images, too, actually.

    Sorry this became so long. But you certainly struck a note there.

    Anke (from Germany)

    • Wow, Anke, so many great points.

      I particularly like your thoughts on what you’ve called “text-image semantics”. Would you like to write a guest post to elaborate on your thoughts on that? I think it would be really useful to get us thinking more deeply about how we use images and their relationship to what we’re saying.

      I love the combination of digital slide with drawing. It combines slick with gritty. Cliff Atkinson does this really well in his webinars, and Dan Roam’s presentation at SXSW also combined the two to great effect. I’ll probably write my next post on that.

      Thank you so much for contributing your thoughts to my blog. You’ve made it richer.


  7. Thanks for going public about this trend. It’s all too appealing as a presenter to use arresting images, because it makes the presentation more memorable. However, it could be memorable more for the images than for the content, which is not what we want.

    Is this in any way a backlash against the ‘textiness’ of the basic powerpoint slide design? The people who err on the side of ‘too cool’ images are usually those people who think the most and try the hardest to deliver thought provoking and edgy presentations.

    It’s a challenge to strike a balance between images whose novelty reinforces the content and those whose novelty overwhelms the content.

    In this connection, are you aware of, a new style of presentation software?


    • Hi Lynn

      I think you’ve expressed the balance we have to seek in a nutshell.

      Presentations which are a series of arresting or pretty images are an inevitable overshoot as people experiment with images for their presentations.

      I’m aware of prezi, and I see it as being really useful for certain types of presentations where it makes logical and contextual sense to zoom in on specific parts of a canvas. But for other presentations it could be gimmicky and just as vulnrable to the various types of abuses that we see with other presentation software.


  8. Hi Olivia,

    thank you for inviting me to do a guest post, I hope you see me blushing from the other side of the planet…

    I’d love to share some ideas and samples, I’ll get in touch with you about when would be good time, as I am somewhat tied to the desk right now. With full time teaching you never seem to make it to actually writing anything anymore, it seems.

    One interesting point about image slides is how “international” they really are.

    I am just turning one of my German presentations into an English one, and there are quite a few images that simply have to go because the connotations and metaphors won’t translate.

    All in all, I think Garr Reynold’s Zen Design comes just in time to give people really helpful ideas and tools.


    • Hi Anke

      Delighted that you’d like to do a guest post and I totally understand about your time constraints. Don’t let it become a burden. It can be whenever suits you.

      That’s an interesting point about images not “translating” well. It would be easy to assume that the images can stay the same, and all you need to do is change any words. But I guess it’s a bit like jokes, which can be very culture-specific.


  9. hi olivia,
    I agree with your comments. In the advertising world, and I suspect elsewhere, visuals that stole attention from the speaker where termed ‘vampire’. As I suggest in a recent post, Beware Vampires, this is what the leader’s wives are doing in the UK election campaign!

    • Hi Michael
      Welcome to the comments section :-).

      Vampire visuals is a great term – thanks for introducing me to it.


  10. Thought provoking post Olivia. Perhaps what we are seeing is the swing away from Death by PowerPoint to Puzzled by Pictures. Recent presentation books extoll the virtues of using images – but the authors are graphic designers who spent their time considering the relevance of image to message to idea.

    I think the basics of getting back to what is the core of your message need to be examined. Practice using metaphors and understanding what is a metaphor can be an important new step in creating visually rich presentations. I love watching movies and advertisements to observe what are the symbols or metaphors being used to convey a message.

    Warwick John Fahy
    Author, The One Minute Presenter

    Short article and links on metaphors at:

    • Hi Warwick

      I love the “Puzzled by Pictures” phrase. So true!



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