Pictures play many important roles in visual communication. This is one role, however, you want to avoid at all cost. 

Including pictures in PowerPoint presentations can dramatically improve engagement, learning, later recall of details, and provide a host of other benefits. Unfortunately, not all pictures automatically have a positive impact. Using the wrong pictures can hurt effectiveness, not to mention making a speaker look like an idiot. The worst picture fail is using an image that falls into the image role category known as “cheesy association.”

PowerPoint pictures big and bold on slides

This mistake is so widespread in presentation environments these days that it’s one of the factors behind a general disdain for PowerPoint overall. The pictures here are prime culprits. Let’s say our speaker is talking about an upcoming merger or cooperative project and needs something to show with PowerPoint in the background. He thinks, “Hey, I’ll grab a stock photo of people shaking hands. That should visually communicate the idea of ‘cooperation,’ shouldn’t it?”

Umm … no. Unless he wants to look like a four-year old in front of his audience. Come to think of it, I’ve seen four-year-olds make better use of pictures. The “shaking hands” visual is cheesy. Yuk. It says absolutely nothing important at all. Everybody knows what shaking hands look like. They don’t need to see them on a PowerPoint slide. Better images might show the facilities, or actual people who work in the companies, along with how their skills will make the merger or cooperative project more successful.

A cheesy picture is not real. Showing a picture of a wolf howling in the wilderness DOES NOT help you express the idea of independence or entrepreneurial grit. Showing a guy in a suit crossing a finish line does not pep me up to think that we are going to be winners when we reach this month’s sales quotes. It only makes me want to role my eyes and think about what I’ll order later for lunch.

PowerPoint pictures big and bold on slides

As strange as it may sound, if you can’t think of something real and practical to show—something that truly helps express ideas—showing nothing at all is better. And I mean NOTHING AT ALL. Not bullet points.

To get a handle on how picture roles (the good ones) can help speakers more effectively express ideas visually, download the free Picture Roles Guide. Find many more examples in this blog or in the Visual Language Book Series.