Figure 1 Meaningless graphic


Published 7/1/2007
Carolyn Rogers

Punch up your presentations with graphics

Choosing the right visuals will ensure that audiences pay attention and remember your presentation.

All graphics are not created equal—especially when it comes to your PowerPoint presentation.

When used correctly, visual graphics can be extremely powerful—driving your point home better than any 20-minute lecture. But when they’re misused, graphics can create clutter in your presentation and distract the audience from your message.

So how do you know if your visual is “good” or “bad?”

According to John F. Raffensperger, PhD, author of Death by PowerPoint, graphics come in the following four categories:

  • Meaningless
  • Tangentially meaningful
  • Illustrative
  • Visual evidence

Avoid meaningless graphics
Meaningless graphics add nothing to your presentation and may, in fact, detract from your message.

“These graphics are like noise—like a cell phone ringing during your speech,” Dr. Raffensperger says. “They take up visual space and cognitive capacity and compete for attention with the real data.”

A common example of a meaningless graphic is placing an image of the speaker next to a quote (Figure 1). In this case, the picture draws the audience’s attention away from what you’re saying and to the image.

Whenever you include a graphic element, ask yourself, “Can I really do without this?” If the answer is yes, leave the image out.

Use tangentially meaningful graphics sparingly
You’ll know that your graphic is tangentially meaningful if it conveys peripheral information, but adds nothing of substance to your presentation.

Placing a university or practice logo in every slide of your presentation is one example of a tangentially meaningful graphic (Figure 2).

“The image loses its meaning when it’s used on every slide,” Dr. Raffensperger says. “Logos are most effective when placed in the first and last slides to help convey who is affiliated with the presentation. If you must include a logo on every slide, make it small and unobtrusive.”

Overall, “use tangentially meaningful graphics sparingly,” he advises.

Figure 1 Meaningless graphic
Figure 2 Tangentially meaningful
Figure 3 Illustrative graphic
Figure 4 Visual evidence

Focus on illustrative graphics
If most of your graphic elements are illustrative, you’re on the right track. An illustrative graphic directly relates to the text of your presentation and helps to emphasize your point or subject matter (Figures 3 and 4).

Let’s assume that at one point in your presentation, you plan to raise questions or address problems. The accompanying slide might contain the image of a man with question marks floating above his head. This image conveys the slide’s intent—it’s meant to raise questions.

Or perhaps you want to share tips on how to improve patient-physician communication. Consider using an image of a smiling doctor standing at a patient’s bedside, listening intently as the patient asks a question. Because this image illustrates the intent of the slide, it reinforces your message.

So how do you find graphics that relate directly to your point?

“First, read the text on your slide,” Dr. Raffensperger says. “Then use your imagination, and try to think of a picture that describes or relates to the text.”

The best: “Visual evidence”
The most powerful type of graphic is visual evidence.

“With visual evidence, the graphic itself contains the real information,” Dr. Raffensperger says. “In this case, a picture really is worth a thousand words.”

Although visual evidence graphics are the most powerful, they’re also the most difficult to find or create.

To further illustrate what he means by “visual evidence,” Dr. Raffensperger suggests thinking of the word “evidence” in its legal sense.

“A graphic used in a legal proceeding must be authoritative and convincing,” he explains. “When attempting to convict someone of a crime, an attorney could use a clip art ‘screen bean’ character holding a gun and get a few laughs from the jury. But he’s much more likely to get a conviction if he shows a few frames of grainy video.”

How will you know if your graphic is, in fact, visual evidence?

When you can say to the audience: “Let me show you what I mean.”

This is the second in a series of articles on “Putting the ‘power’ in PowerPoint.” To read the first installment, visit the AAOS Now Web site at

Carolyn Rogers is a staff writer for AAOS Now. She can be reached at