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Tuesday, March 05, 2019

When To Use Visuals in Your Report, Presentation, or Informational Social Media

What’s the quickest way to “Death By PowerPoint”?  Put together a presentation that consists only of bullet points.  Conversely, a presentation or report that consists only of visuals may seem superficial and confusing.  So, when should you use visuals? How should they be placed for maximum impact and effectiveness?

Lime or Bird? You decide.... Mexico City 2019 (photo credit: Susan Nash)
 What Is a Visual?

Generally speaking, a visual is anything that is pictoral, graphic, or semiotic.  A visual can be composed of text (a sign, etc.).  Generally speaking, visuals are graphics that may include diagrams, drawings, photographs, charts, graphs, figures, and more.

According to Patrick Cavenaugh, visual elements within a report or presentation are highly effective because they both capture the viewer’s attention and then direct or guide it. The visual architecture creates a process that then continues to arouse interest and direct attention from visual stimulus to visual stimulus (Cavanaugh, 2011).

 Video on using visuals:

When to Use a Visual

Think of your overall goal or objective in writing your report or creating your presentation.  Then, consider your audience.  What will they relate to? What will they expect?  What will resonate with their values and beliefs?

Keep in mind the following purposes of visuals:

* Instruct or persuade
* Draw attention to something immediately important
* Provide information quickly
* Engage the audience
* Keep the audience focused
* Provide accurate information concisely

Then, as you organize the content, think of the sequencing and space out the visual elements in order to maintain an optimized pace and to keep attention focused.

Roses before the storm in Mexico City. Photo credit: Susan Nash
 Audience Perspective

As you prepare your visuals, and determine where to place them, it is useful to keep in mind the following questions that your audience will have as they approach the material.

*Why is the visual here?
*What does it tell me?
* Which aspect of the visual is most important?
* Where, exactly, should I focus?
* What do these numbers or statistics mean?
* What should I be thinking or doing?
* Where does the graphic begin? Where does the information end?

How Visuals Work

Make the abstract concrete.  Your audience can more easily relate the content to their own experience.

Analyze relationships.  If the visuals appear on the same page, or next to each other, it is fairly easy to discuss how they relate to each other.  The relationships can be grasped at a glance with skillful use of design, color, pattern, and placement.

Facilitate comparisons. With visuals, it is easy to discuss to things, particularly when you locate them side by side.

Emphasize key points.  You can make key points clear using visuals.

Transcend language barriers.  It is possible to create visuals that can be communicated across language and cultural differences.

A memorial for a man who drowned in the Arkansas River, Tulsa, Oklahoma (photo credit: Susan Nash)
 What Types of Visuals to Consider

Tables.  Tables display data (as number or words) in rows and columns for comparison. 

Photographs.  Photographs can help document a place, person, or thing, and they can help emphasize the application of a concept in real life. Be sure to give proper attribution to the graphics you use, and to obtain permission.  If you use graphics that have a Creative Commons license, be sure to give it the correct attribution.

Graphs.  Graphs translate numbers into shapes, shades, and patterns by plotting two or more data sets on a coordinate system.

Maps.  Maps or grids are very helpful when discussing locations, demographics, and even the results of data mining (for example, for marketing).

Charts.  Charts depict relationships without the use of a coordinate system by using circles, rectangles, arrows, connecting lines, and other design elements.

Graphs.  Graphic illustrations are pictorial devices for helping readers visualize what something looks like, how it's done, how it happens, or where it's located. 

Maintaining Effectiveness With Visuals
After you’ve analyzed your goals and objectives, and have determined where and when to use visuals, be sure to let another person take a look at your presentation or report.  Peer review can be quite helpful – they can help you gain insight into how diverse learning styles and preferences can be accommodated by using visuals. You can also get an idea if your visuals are of the appropriate complexity.


Cavanaugh, P. (2011) Visual cognition. Vision Research. 51 (13): 1538-51. 

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