Speaking Visually: Eight Roles Pictures Play in Presentation

By Robert Lane and Andre Vlcek

Including pictures in presentations is a simple and powerful way of expanding your expressive potential as a speaker. Pictures communicate at levels beyond the descriptive possibilities of words and bathe the brain in much desired visual stimulation. At the same time, not all pictures are created equally. Choosing the right images, and using them in the right ways, can greatly impact your effectiveness.

Getting Their Attention

Johnny changed the slide … and you could hear a pin drop. No question about it. The picture he showed was powerful. It said more than words or text possibly could express. His audience didn’t know that the difference between 30 and 40 mph can mean life or death. Hit a child at 30 mph and there is an 80% chance they will live. Hit them at 40 mph and there is an 80% chance they will die. “How many times do we speed in residential areas?” he asked his audience.

Eight Roles Pictures Play in Presentation

Figure 1: Courtesy of Jo h nny Male

Johnny and some 70 other instructors in Maine display that picture regularly—along with many other concrete, simple, descriptive visuals—while teaching the Maine Driving Dynamics classes. He explains why. “If we just stand up there lecturing, flashing bullet points full of crash statistics and road rules, people drift quickly and we lose their attention. But let me tell you …when we use a lot of pictures, graphics, and video, coupled with occasional stories here and there, that’s when we’ve got them. They get the message.”

Johnny is not alone in his excitement for visual expression. He’s part of an attitude revolution that’s sweeping a new generation of PowerPoint presenters as they set aside text-heavy slides in favor of picture-based content. For them, visual displays do more than just add color. Slides literally "speak visually", filling in details that are difficult, if not impossible, to communicate via spoken words or bullet points alone.

Most will tell you, however, that this transition to visual communication doesn’t happen by accident. Many struggle with the idea of retiring bullets points. It’s easy, after all, just to type words on slides, but how do we translate our thoughts into visually rich displays—especially while dealing with abstract concepts? What are the rules of the game? And for that matter, what does any given picture mean and how is it best used?

The Magic of Picture Roles

Let’s address those questions by looking at a few ways pictures help presenters visually express ideas. Over the years, we’ve observed at least 20 different ways people take advantage of pictures in presentation, what are called picture roles. These roles are marvelous. They can jumpstart creativity and at the same time provide templates for picture use. In this article, we’ll explore eight roles in particular, but you also may wish to read full descriptions of all twenty roles by downloading the free Picture Roles Guide available on the Aspire site.


The most basic picture role is also the one most commonly used: adding decoration to a slide. In Figure 2, the gentleman in the upper left corner is decorative. He isn’t lending any significance to the slide’s message. He isn’t clarifying the data in any way, providing context, or adding meaning. His sole purpose is to stand there looking business-like, giving a touch of decorative flare to an otherwise rather bland and typical slide. If he were removed, nothing about the slide’s message would change at all.

Eight Roles Pictures Play in Presentation

Figure 2

Applying pictures in this way, for purely decorative effect, is popular among novice visual communicators, but it’s actually the weakest of all the roles. Decorative pictures essentially are visual fluff—expendable and potentially distracting. They are problematic if used excessively.

That’s because our brain is wired to seek out and categorize visual stimuli. Numerous studies have shown that pictures inherently, and automatically, attract attention, especially pictures of people, animals, or anything that implies possible danger. Presenters who throw pictures onto slides randomly, for no purpose other than to fill space or look pretty, risk unduly distracting viewers and leaving them with a subconscious sense of, “Why are these pictures here? They don’t mean anything.” It’s kind of like yelling “FIRE” over and over when there are no flames. Eventually, audience members assume all your visuals are meaningless and try to ignore them—a behavior you definitely don’t want.


A more significant yet still basic use of pictures is providing context. A teacher, for example, might display the slide shown in Figure 3 as a way of introducing a physics lesson about forces.

Eight Roles Pictures Play in Presentation

Figure 3

Next, she applies animations to mimic a ball spinning and arching across the screen, eventually freezing its motion as shown in Figure 4.

Eight Roles Pictures Play in Presentation

Figure 4

She then displays a set of arrows (Figure 5) which can be turned on and off in any order and explains that these arrows represent potential physical forces acting on the ball at this instant. Students and teacher debate which forces really are there until everyone eventually understands the correct answer.

Eight Roles Pictures Play in Presentation

Figure 5

Here, the baseball diamond picture in the background is mostly decorative, granted, and therefore technically can be deleted without dramatically changing the overall lesson plan. On the other hand, that picture is more than JUST decorative. The teacher’s decision to start with it immediately grounds the abstract lesson in a real-life context her students probably already know well. Removing the picture will take away a certain amount of depth (situational context) and possibly decrease understanding.

These kinds of context-providing pictures tend to be helpful, rather than distracting like purely decorative imagery. Try to find scenes that frame whatever information you’ll be discussing verbally. As a general rule, insert large background photos that fill the entire slide pane.


Pictures contribute more substantially when they are actual content—when their absence would destroy the slide’s substance or meaning. Pictures acting as examples (of what is said verbally) are the most common form of content imagery. Interactive speakers often gather numerous example-type pictures into sections, for quick access to individual images as needed.

Paul Franklin, for example, is a lecturer of dentistry at the University of Leeds, UK. The screenshot in Figure 6 shows one of his hyperlink-based switchboards that jumps to specific example pictures and illustrations on demand.

Eight Roles Pictures Play in Presentation

Figure 6 - Courtesy Dr. Paul Franklin, University of Leeds

He can click any thumbnail to reveal the appropriate full-sized example image (Figure 7).

Eight Roles Pictures Play in Presentation

Figure 7 - Courtesy Dr. Paul Franklin, University of Leeds

Being able to show visual examples this way, while simultaneously describing the concepts and equipment verbally, helps his students better understand the lesson plan.

Example-type pictures might represent available products, show aspects of past projects that have been completed, give customers design ideas, help students distinguish correct situations from misconceptions, and so forth. If you can see a situation in your mind—and want others to see that information as well, without actually being physically present—that’s a perfect picture example waiting to happen. Grab a camera and take pictures, or find images from other sources.

When inserting pictures as examples, it’s a good idea to have the visuals appear as large as possible on slides, and they should contain only a single focus each—a single product, completed project, outcome, or whatever. That way, viewers can focus on each example in turn and not waste time trying to decipher which aspects of a complex picture might be relevant to what you are saying at the moment.

Reduced Learning Time

Australia’s Dr. Bryan Mendelson is one of the world’s foremost authorities on facial reconstruction. His surgical techniques and perspectives have revolutionized the way we think about facial operations. Needless to say, his expertise is coveted and aspiring plastic surgeons seek him out for the richness of his knowledge base.

Eight Roles Pictures Play in Presentation

Figure 8 - Courtesy Dr. Bryan Mendelson

Fortunately for them, Bryan is more than just an excellent surgeon. He’s also an accomplished teacher and presenter—and a stunningly good visual communicator. His slides are packed full of pictures and realistic illustrations that depict anatomical features and surgical best practices.

Eight Roles Pictures Play in Presentation

Figure 9 - Courtesy Dr. Bryan Mendelson

Displaying such imagery during lectures and teaching sessions not only fixates the attention of audience members, it dramatically reduces their learning time, especially during discussions of sophisticated procedures. Listening to one of Bryan’s talks creates the impression of being right there in the operating room, helping with the surgery. You see what he see’s and get a visual tour of what he knows. His slides are like biological road maps that quickly guide students and peers through the mysterious workings of skin, bones, tendons, and nerves.

The good news is, you can emulate the same time-saving techniques with strategic use of your own pictures. All you have to do is think to yourself, “How can I show them what I am saying verbally?” When people see real imagery that dynamically expands upon verbal descriptions, they grasp concepts much more quickly compared to listening (only) to someone talk or listening while looking at bullet points.

Comparison Contrast

Another simple, yet valuable, use of content images involves comparing one image to another—to highlight differences, growth, contrasts, projected outcomes, or any other shift from one position to another. Such comparisons can take several forms.

Eight Roles Pictures Play in Presentation

Figure 10

We like to show one image full-screen, such as the "before" remodeling picture in Figure 10, and then follow with a full-screen "after" image (Figure 11). Viewers see only one picture at a time; the contrast between the two occurs sharply—one and then the other.

Eight Roles Pictures Play in Presentation

Figure 11

Another option is to place two images side-by-side on the same slide so that people can see contrasts immediately (Figure 12), or opt for a modified side-by-side model where the first example is visible initially, followed by fading in the second image shortly thereafter. Similarly, you might choose to contrast several alternative proposals by displaying a single original picture, accompanied by various alternative options. Be creative and explore different possibilities. Showing contrasting images is easy, and the impacts of doing so can be dramatic.

Eight Roles Pictures Play in Presentation

Figure 12 - Courtesy Dr. Bryan Mendelson


If you wish to explain abstract ideas with pictures, creating an analogy probably is your best bet. An analogy is something known that helps clarify something unknown. If a person is familiar with the “known” scenario, they will be able to apply it to the unknown situation through comparison.

With a little creativity, you will be able to create visual analogies for just about any idea. The general formula is, “To give you a sense of what I mean, think about this … “ with the "this" being the analogy.

Here’s an example of how we apply visual analogy on a regular basis:

While introducing learners to interactive presentation techniques during workshop sessions, we navigate around within a massive PowerPoint-based platform that contains many thousands of slides. Viewers often take one look at that navigation process and think, “Are you kidding? You think I’m going to get up in front of an audience and spontaneously jump around like that? You gotta be crazy.” Basically, the thought of making similar on-the-spot decisions, while already scared to death behind the podium, is too scary and unknown. They can’t yet imagine themselves in such a position.

We say, “OK. You’re right. This probably does look a little scary right now, but it really isn’t. Presenting this way is just about as easy as tying your shoes. Here’s why.”

About that time, we show the picture in Figure 13—a standard Microsoft stock photo, by the way.

Eight Roles Pictures Play in Presentation

Figure 13

We continue by saying, “The reason all of us can tie our shoes so quickly and easily, without even thinking about the process, is because we’ve repeated the procedures countless times and our actions have become automated. The same thing happens while driving a car (Figure 14).

Eight Roles Pictures Play in Presentation

Figure 14

Or pursuing a favorite sport (Figure 15).

Eight Roles Pictures Play in Presentation

Figure 15

“Automated responses allow us to perform otherwise complex activities with very little thought or effort. The exact same mechanisms are at work during interactive presentation. You eventually become so familiar and comfortable with the way your slides are organized and linked that presenting dynamically—even moving around within thousands of available slides—seems pretty simple. It’s not scary at all.”

Stock photos often work well for visual analogy applications. Just make sure that the images chosen represent concrete, well-known situations that truly do clarify the unknown information you are presenting.

Demonstrating a Process

Stringing together a series of pictures that gradually walk viewers through the steps of a process, from beginning to end, is a great approach. This kind of incremental picture progression is called a picture story.

Eight Roles Pictures Play in Presentation

Figure 16

Let’s say you are a moving and transportation company specializing in corporate relocation. Your services probably follow relatively predictable steps, such as selling the prospect’s existing house, locating and securing another residence, physically moving the family, exploring school options, and so forth. Each of these steps can be illustrated with appropriate pictures, perhaps even photos you or your company have produced directly, depicting real situations (as opposed to mere stock photography).

Eight Roles Pictures Play in Presentation

Figure 17

Process pictures usually help tell a story, one image at a time. While showing each picture, the presenter fills in extra detail verbally, as needed.

Providing Visual Cues Back to the Speaker

Finally, think about this: So far we’ve focused on pictures that are for the audience’s consumption, but pictures can aid the presenter in multiple ways as well. The small images in Figure 18 are screenshots, a special kind of "picture" your computer takes of itself. A screenshot is a representation of your computer screen, what it happens to be displaying when the image is made.

Eight Roles Pictures Play in Presentation

Figure 18

Here, we have incorporated screenshots into this slide’s navigation element. The presenter can look at the navigation thumbnails and see instant visual cues for the content that will open once a link is clicked (Clicking the small green and orange thumbnail in Figure 18 opens the separate linked slide show shown in Figure 19). Screenshot images on slides help a presenter stay oriented, remember upcoming content, find links, gauge timing, and much more. We as presenters benefit greatly from our own visual communication directed back at us!

Eight Roles Pictures Play in Presentation

Figure 19

Photo of Robert Lane

Robert Lane is a US-based presentation consultant specializing in visually interactive communication theory and is the author of Relational Presentation: A Visually Interactive Approach. His Web site, www.aspirecommunications.com, features free demonstration video clips, tutorials, guides, and other resources that further explain the concepts discussed in this article. Contact him at: rlane@aspirecommunications.com. References, visual examples, and additional resources are available on the Aspire Web site.

Photo of Andre Vicek

Andre Vlcek is an Australian-based sales consultant and Managing Director of Sales Psychology Australia. He and Robert are co-authoring the forthcoming book Selling Visually with PowerPoint. Contact him at andre@salespsychology.com.au for more information about designing and building advanced selling strategies for sales teams.

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