If you present your ideas, teach classes, lead meetings, facilitate workshops, or communicate with an audience in some way, shape, or form, there’s a very good chance you’ll have some people in the audience that can’t see the visuals you’re sharing. Maybe they can’t see your slides or materials that well, or maybe they can’t see them at all.
The answer? Describing the visuals that you’re presenting. I know, I know… I’ve heard it before: “But my slides are so visual… there’s just no way to describe them” or “I don’t have time to describe things when I’m teaching… we’re already pressed for time as it is!” or even “If they can’t see the slides, they’ll have to get someone else to describe the visuals to them afterwards.”
It doesn’t have to be that way, though. There’s a lot we can do as “presenters” to ensure that people that can’t see the visuals we’re sharing can still understand what you’re communicating, follow along in real time with everyone else, and participate meaningfully in the discusion or other activities.
And that involves you naturally and seamlessly narrating descriptions and other cues into your work.
4 key principles with examples
Here’s some practical tips and examples that show how some small changes in the language you use can make a significant difference for people in the audience that benefit from your descriptions of the visuals.
Replace generic words with specific phrases
This, here, that, and those are generally tied to you highligting the visuals in some way. Be really specific about what you’re highlighting. Refer to its position, or its name, or its characteristics.
- Rather than saying “As you can see here” try “On the left side of the screen is…”
- Rather than saying “What’s the difference between these two?” try “There are 7 on the screen… what’s the difference between the one at the top and the second one down?”
- Rather than saying “For this equation, how would you approach solving it?” try “For this equation, 3y equals 2x + 19, how would you approach solving it?”
Describe the screenshots, photos, illustrations, charts or other visuals you’re using
Choose the right amount of description for the things we’re trying to communicate. It is very easy to describe the visuals in not enough detail, or in too much detail. There’s a balancing act here and it requires practice and judgement that develops over time. Ask yourself “Which details do they need to know to act on what I’m sharing?” and that’ll guide you in terms of how much description is too much or too little.
- Rather than saying “What does colour tell us from this photo?” try “This photo shows an 6 inch tall sculpture from Mayan history… what does the colour tell you?”
- Rather than saying “Here’s a video player interface” try “Here’s a typical video player — with a large play button in the middle of the video, and a row of controls for volume, play/pause, closed captions, a transcript, and button to go fullscreen.”
Spell things out for people
Someone that can’t see the visuals you’re sharing may not know how to spell that word you just said, or may not know the URLs you’re sharing. Spelling it out will help anyone that wants to research or follow up later.
- Rather than saying “Here’s a photo of a quokka” try “Here’s a photo of a quokka — that’s q u o k k a”
- Rather than saying “Here’s a link for more examples” try “You can find more examples at feather.ca — that’s f e a t h e r dot c a.”
Provide references while speaking so that people know they’re in the right place
A person may have a copy of your slides or other visuals and may be following along themselves to consume the slides on their computer while you’re presenting. This will allow them to read the alt text for any images that are in the presentation and more generally follow along.
- Work in references to slide numbers “Here on slide 42, we’ll look deeper into life, the universe, and everything.”
- Rather than asking “What about this one?” while pointing at question 4, try “What about question four?”
- Rather than saying “Let’s review this chart…” try “Let’s review the chart in Figure 3.45”
What’s next, and more resources
You shouldn’t expect to be proficient in doing this right away. It takes time, it takes practice, and it takes some effort. Doing so will help you be a better communicator, presenter, and leader. Give yourself time and opportunity.
Seek out feedback from people in your audiences that you know will rely on your descriptions. Ask them how you might best create a great learning experience for them. Ask them what has worked well for them in the past. Ask them how you can improve.
If you’re looking for more details and examples, check out the W3C’s Audio Content and Video Content. Even though you may be working in a live setting, the guidance here is still very useful as it gets you to think about how you’re planning to describe your work.