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Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Paper: Using Visual Aids

Using Visual Aids

Giving a class presentation can be stressful under the best of circumstances. However, the effective use of presentation software to organize and structure the content of your work can help ease your anxiety. Here are a few things to keep in mind.

Using Presentation Software Effectively

  1. State no more than three main points on a slide. Slides that have too many words on them are ineffective because audience members feel they have to hurry and read everything before you move to the next slide. This means they're more focused on finishing reading the slide than what you are saying. Remember that the slides are intended to supplement and enhance what you are saying, not to replace it.
  2. Give your audience time to take notes. Pausing briefly before moving to the next slide also gives you the opportunity to collect your thoughts before continuing to the next point. As noted above, this is important if a slide has a lot of information or the content is especially important.
  3. Don't read from the slides! Audience members really, really hate this. Summarize or explain what's on a slide. Only selectively read direct quotes or statements when you want to highlight something important or to emphasize a significant issue.
  4. Make sure your audience can see the screen. Think about where are you standing. Do not stand in front of the screen. If there is no angle where everyone can see, then move around before moving to the next slide [for example, point to something for emphasis].
  5. Don't overcrowd your slides with too much detail. Using bright colors, pictures, and graphics can make your slides more interesting, but be aware of the fact that certain color combinations can be very hard to read from a distance. It may look fine on a computer screen, but projected in a large format, it can be overwhelming to the eye.
  6. Remember that PowerPoint or Prezi may look great, but if the technology goes wrong, it's a good idea to print out a handout as a backup just in case. If the audience is too large to do this, ensure that your notes are sufficiently detailed so that you can talk about your topic with out relying on the slides.
  7. I know you may be tempted to spend more time on producing creative graphics than on the actual talk, but remember: if your talk is poor, no amount of fancy graphics will save it!

Visual Guidelines for Presentation Slides

Pictures or other illustrations are used for the following reasons:

  • Illustrative -- provides a visual representation of a specific element of the presentation [e.g., "This graph shows population growth in the neighborhood over the last ten years...."].
  • Complementary -- adds new information or context to the subject matter of the presentation [e.g., "This photograph of newly installed benches shows how more parents are gathering to socialize in the courtyard before school lets out...."].
  • Explanatory -- not only represents an element of the presentation, but it offers explanatory information about that element or it provides a specific example [e.g., "This photograph of a vacant lot shows how trash accumulates in the open spaces of low income neighborhoods that the city's waste management department often ignores...."].
  • Decorative -- no direct relation to the content of the presentation but does provide an attractive or engaging visual element [usually not referred to during a presentation unless the audience reacts to it in some way]. However, do not overuse decorative graphics because it can be distracting.

NOTE:  The use of funny cartoons, silly pictures, or other attention-grabbing graphics can help your audience feel more comfortable and engaged by adding some humor to your presentation. However, don't over do it! Under most circumstances, there will be a level of professionalism expected in how you present your work. This doesn't mean that your presentation should be bland and tedious, but always keep in mind that funny graphics are no substitute for good content; overdoing it can distract to the point of annoying your audience [think of this as a person who tells the same joke over and over again].

Text Guidelines for Presentation Slides

Below are basic guidelines to remember when composing your presentation slides. Most of this is common sense, but cutting and pasting text, moving things around, and revising content over time can create errors, so keep these general guidelines in mind when reviewing the final draft of your presentation.

  • Use the same text colors and fonts throughout; display graphic images in the same style
  • Keep the background consistent and subtle
  • Be sure text contrasts well with the background
  • Generally use no more than six words per a line
  • Generally use no more than six lines per a slide
  • Avoid long sentences unless it is an important quotation
  • Larger font or bolded text indicates more important information
  • Font size generally ranges from 18 to 48 point
  • Fancy or cursive fonts can be hard to read
  • Words in all capital letters are hard to read
  • Avoid abbreviations and acronyms
  • Limit punctuation marks

NOTE:  Strategies to highlight a particular point during your presentation include capitalizing text, bolding text, or using a bright [but readable] color to contrast against the regular text. It's also appropriate to use italics to convey a direct quote. However, follow the general rule that less is more; use short declarative statements or as few words as possible to convey the meaning of what you are saying. Unlike research papers, presentation slides do not have to adhere to strict sentence grammar and paragraph rules.


Handouts are a great idea if your audience isn't too big, but you don't want to spend a lot of time distributing them or having audience members distracting each other while they pass around a pile of materials. If you do use handouts, think about whether you want to distribute them before or after your presentation. If possible, arrive early so you can place a copy on each chair. Another strategy to save paper is to leave a card on each seat listing the web site where the audience can access the content online. Use a link management platform like to shorten long URLs.

It is always good idea to include space on the handout for people to take notes, a list of references, and your contact information so people can review them later or contact you if needed. You could also include some follow-up questions for discussion in your handouts [they can be referred to after the presentation to prompt questions from the audience or to spark a discussion]. Finally, if your handout is more than one double-sided page, staple them together before distributing so audience members aren't distracting themselves with trying to count whether they've got all the pages.

Using the Whiteboard

If there is a whiteboard behind you, put your name and contact information on the whiteboard. However, do this before your talk begins because writing on a board is time-consuming and you will have to turn your back on the audience and break your eye contact, which is never a good idea. If you must use a whiteboard at other points during the presentation, come prepared with the right pens [black or dark blue] and write words in large, legible handwriting so that people can read it from a distance [it is best to print rather than using cursive]. And, of course, remember to write things off to the side so you don't block people's view of what you just wrote while you're speaking!

Know the Space

If possible, know the room from the front before you have to give your presentation. The front of a classroom or auditorium feels different from where you are normally used to sitting as a student. Also, if necessary, check the lighting so you avoid fiddling with the lights before your presentation. If available, it's best to darken the lighting above you, but keep the lights lit above the audience; the contrast helps your audience read the slides by eliminating glare. It is also useful to have someone sit at the very back of the room to give you get a sense of how loud you should talk and how big you should write if you write anything on a whiteboard behind you.

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