Three traps when using images in your presentation

My post Presentation Images: Are you making these mistakes? sparked many wise comments. German presentation trainer, Anke Troeder wrote about combining words and images in your presentation, and I invited her to elaborate on that comment. Here’s the article she wrote:

We should give up the false belief that any image says more than a thousand words. We are so convinced that an image trumps words that we fool ourselves into believing that everyone will get what we mean, no matter what image we choose. Trust me. Nobody gets what we mean until we tell them what we mean.

Image traps

Here are three typical misconstructions I come across daily in my presentation classes at a small college in northern Germany.

1. Images can mean different things to different people

Presentation imageWhen we start talking about images I show my students this image and ask them what meaning it might have in the context of presenting? Here are some of the answers I get:

  • Chaos
  • Structure
  • It means nothing to me
  • Too much information on slides is bad.

The answers may vary depending on what we talked about before. So don’t make the assumption that each member of your audience will take the same meaning from an image.

2. Images can evoke unexpected reactions

Presentation imageThe student who used this image was trying to convince people to eat more broccoli. The headline says: “A heart for Broccoli”. The image started a discussion that the speaker hadn’t expected:

  • This is creepy.
  • It looks like an alien insect.
  • I don’t like it.
  • It makes me feel uneasy.
  • It’s too dark.
  • That isn’t Broccoli. It’s Romanesco.

Every image carries emotions. Make sure it carries the ones you want. Cold black-and-white-and-green colors won’t help when you’re after warm and friendly.

3. What’s clear to you may not be clear to your audience

Presentation imageWith this slide the speaker wanted to show that broccoli contains twice the amount of Vitamin C than your average lemon.

It worked, but only after a while. We needed quite a few verbal explanations.

The numbers misled us too. What would have worked faster? An image with two or three lemons? On which side? Or a bowl of real lemons? Just a sentence? A metaphor? Broccoli is like a box of vitamin pills?

Sometimes cliches work best

Presentation imageI usually encourage my students to think sideways and out of the box, and I must admit I am getting a little nervous when I see another pile of zen stones used to advertise another wellness business.

But as for structure and direction or the idea of highlighting the way for your audience, I find nothing works better or faster than these photos of stones that my father collected for me.

The lessons ahead for us: Don’t produce eye candy. Make your visuals mean something. Make them relevant. Make them talk or sing out loud or let them whisper. But most importantly, make them mean exactly what you want them to mean.

For more great writing visit Anke’s blog at teachandtrain.de [there’s more to life than slides].

More about Anke:

Anke TroederI am 49 and I am a lecturer for Public Speaking at a small college in Germany. Once or twice a year I coach our students for investor competitions. I am a TED translator when I find the time. I believe that a good talk is pretty much common sense: some passion, some relevance, and words and images that breathe light. I also believe that perfection is overrated.

Related Posts with Thumbnails
If you enjoyed this post, make sure you subscribe to my RSS feed!

11 Comments

  1. Can I add an Amen?

    … but assuming the audience understands things the same way you do isn’t JUST to do with images. It’s a problem for any kind of analogy, and an image (used in this way) is just a special kind of analogy… a visual one. Not only that, but it’s a particularly impotent one because it can be so very effective. The reactions cited above, while they no doubt show the risks, they also illustrate the emotional connection and thus the potential power if the image.

    We often spend time thinking about whether or not an audience will ‘get’ a verbal analogy we are thinking of putting into a presentation, and once we start thinking of images as analogies the ways to decide whether or not to use any given image becomes more obvious.

    Well, they do to me, at least! :)

  2. Simon, thank you for your kind comment.

    You are absolutely right, images are analogies, narratives, they tell stories, and yes, they are powerful. Choosing the best/the right image is simply one more skill for presenters to think about. I think it is an important skill: You give the image the meaning you need to, the context, the frame.

    Of course there are also situations when you will do just the opposite: When you use an image to surprise and puzzle your audience, or lead it astray on purpose. But that is a different story, respectively a different post :)

  3. One of the dangers of analogies – whether they are verbal or visual – is using one where the issue is so simple to understand that the analogy becomes patronising. These types of visual analogies (handshake, globe, loudspeaker etc) also become cliches.
    Olivia

  4. Good Points here, but . . .

    YOU supply the text rather than have it on the slide.

    Pick images that clearly have a message most will understand.

    A well picked image + You supplying text = They Get IT!

  5. Fred, you are so right when you say that the presenter should provide the context
    That is what we are there for. We are the context.

    But what is happening right now is that many presenters rely on their audience to simply “get” it through the images they provide.

    This post simply means to show that sometimes things can wrong when you least expect it, and that there is no such thing as “a clear message”, as every word, every image carries connotations that we, as presenters, may not always be aware of. That is one of the beauties of images and words. They certainly lead a life of their own.

    Some images are easier than others. Some need more time to sink in. Some simpy won’t work. Some deserve more respect than a quick “Look”, and a “Next slide”.

    These are the things we need to consider, I feel, as we are moving from text ridden to image slide and beyond.

    • Anke and Steve:

      Your point about people ‘seeing’ and interpreting images differently is well taken.

      Everything must be in sync, and easily understood.

      KISS – Always. Keep It Simple!

      Thanks!

  6. Fred, you are so right when you say that the presenter should provide the context
    That is what we are there for. We are the context.

    But what is happening right now is that many presenters rely on their audience to simply “get” it through the images they provide.

    This post simply means to show that sometimes things can wrong when you least expect it, and that there is no such thing as “a clear message”, as every word, every image carries connotations that we, as presenters, may not always be aware of. That is one of the beauties of images and words. They certainly lead a life of their own.

    Some images are easier than others. Some need more time to sink in. Some simpy won’t work. Some deserve more respect than a quick “Look”, and a “Next slide”.

    These are the things we need to consider, I feel, as we are moving from text ridden to image slide and beyond.

  7. Thank you for all your comments. I’ve had several experiences this past week watching presentations where images have confused rather than clarified. This is most common when using images as metaphors. Lesson – if the metaphor is not crystal clear (test this on a few people before your presentation) take a few seconds to explain it. On the other hand, beware of laboring a simple metaphor!

    Olivia

  8. People need to be careful not to switch from an infinite supply of bullet point slides (the “old boring way”) to present data using always pictures. Selecting the right picture and the right text to support your ideas takes time and requires effort from the person building the slides, so it can create the right effect on the audience. A slide with the wrong picture, the wrong resolution, or the wrong proportion is as bad as a long boring bullet slide.

    • Hi Francisco

      Yes – there’s a real danger of people going straight from incomprehensible bullet-points to incomprehensible pictures.
      Olivia

  9. Different cultures also see colors differently as well.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Here and there « teachandtrain.de - [...] at speakingaboutpresenting.com my guest post on image traps is out. Olivia did a fantastic job of editing and cutting …
  2. Here and there | teachandtrain.de - [...] at speakingaboutpresenting.com my guest post on image traps is out. Olivia did a fantastic job of editing and cutting …