There’s a disturbing trend – the use of irrelevant images in presentations.

Stock photo sites have made it easy to find stunning images. The problem is the images often have nothing to do with the subject of the presentation!

My partner, Tony, calls it “Visual Musak”. At best, the images become background wallpaper to the presentation. At worst the images are visually distracting.

Here’s a checklist of ways you might be misusing images in your presentation:

1. Teaming a random word with an image

Pulling one word out of a sentence and teaming it with an image is only useful when that word is a key part of your presentation. Random words don’t deserve that prominence. For example, danah boyd began her talk at SXSW with this phrase:

“I was asked to come and talk to you, to give you some sort of provocation, inviting you to think deeply.”

At the same time she showed this image:

danah boyd slide

But the presentation was not about provocation – it just happened to be the word she used in that sentence. (Note: the critical thinking in danah’s presentations is exceptional and I admire her greatly – but her slides, though interesting to look at, don’t enhance her presentations in a meaningful way).

2. Clever metaphors/references in your presentation

The search engines on online photo sites make it easy to find clever images to illustrate your metaphors. For example, here’s a slide from a slideshare presentation on K12 education:


As far as I can tell this photo is a reference to the ‘Penguin Effect”, a term coined in an academic paper about technology adoption. Most of the top google results are related to this academic paper and there’s no entry in Wikipedia. Few people in a lay audience are going to get this reference.

Your audience should be able to understand your metaphor or reference just by looking at the image. If not, it’s just interesting wallpaper or worse – it will take the focus away from what you’re saying as audience members try and discern the connection.

3. Image is just too stunning/interesting

Then there are images that are just too good. Even is they’re related to your point, the quality of the image may distract from your presentation. Here’s an example from Hubspot’s SXSW presentation:

inbound marketing

It’s a great image and I can see how it relates to the message, but it also sends me off into a little daydream (how exactly does a little girl manage to out leverage a big guy on a seesaw). Once again, I’ve missed what the presenter says next.

And there’s the temptation with great images to reuse them, as did Hubspot in another presentation:


And this time there’s very little relevance to the point.

Avoid these traps. Use an image only when it helps make your point understandable or memorable.

What examples of visual musak have you seen?

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