Why accessibility in presentation design is important
By Lyndon Nicholson
Perfecting your script and nailing your slide designs; these are the most important things to consider when preparing to deliver a presentation. But are they?
No matter how good your slides look, their impact will be completely lost if some members of your audience are unable to properly see them. Likewise, the power of your speech will be lessened if it is difficult to understand.
Creating your presentation with accessibility in mind is hugely important. Ensuring as many people as possible are able to comprehend what you are saying and showing will increase your engagement. It will spread your message further.
Accessibility: Not all audiences are alike
It’s often very easy to forget about your audience. When writing your speech and crafting your slides, it’s easy to overlook the most important part of the process. That is, how your audience will respond. Hold off on considering if they’ll think it is good or bad, and focus on whether they’ll actually be able to understand you.
Someone with visual impairment may struggle to make out the information on your slides. Also, a person with hearing difficulties may miss out on that killer speech. Although there are many other kinds of disabilities and special requirements to keep in mind (a few of which I’ll mention later), those are the two to begin thinking about.
“By making a presentation accessible you’re taking away the barriers that can get between your messages and the minds of your audience. Thinking about the clarity of your presentation for people with sight loss is a great way to ensure that those with a less than perfect view of the screen, those with dyslexia or other conditions, or even those who are just getting a bit fatigued, will stay engaged and receptive to the information you are imparting.”
Graeme K Whippy MBE, Strategic Accessibility Lead,
The Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB)
Accessibility is your responsibility
To put it plainly, failing to consider accessibility in presentation design isn’t the best of approaches. Not every member of your audience will be able to see as well as you do, nor hear as clearly as you can. Ignoring the potential requirements of your audience may make you appear thoughtless.
It’s a cause close to my heart. Visual impairment can take many forms, and as a glasses wearer even I have encountered problems in the past. If I have at times struggled to clearly see what the presenter was trying to communicate, imagine the problems faced by people with total sight loss, hearing loss, and other communication obstacles.
Catering for people with sight problems
The World Health Organisation estimates that more than 314 million people in the world are visually impaired. There is, therefore, a very good chance that someone sitting out there beyond your lectern will be affected.
With those people in mind, think about these crucial design features:
Font size and type
This might seem like a no-brainer, that smaller text on the screen will be harder to read. However, there is more to consider when editing your slide text.
Fortunately increasing the ease of reading is achieved by doing something I’ve been promoting for years. Essentially, keep the size of your text as large as your overall design aesthetic will allow (basically so it doesn’t look weird) while keeping text in general to a bare minimum.
Use no more than three or four lines of text, and keep sentences as short and as punchy as possible. Also, using standard upper and lowercase characters in your sentences are easier to read for audience members with visual impairment, as opposed to using all caps.
In terms of font, the World Blind Union also agree with my own preferred choices. Employ san serif fonts such as Verdana, Arial and Helvetica, as these use clearer, cleaner lines to form characters and are easier to read from far away.
They also recommend only using one font type per slide, and never employing italics which can be confusing. Should you wish to make a word or header stand out, increase its size or make it bold.
Contrast and colours
Contrast is a very important thing to consider, especially where your text is concerned. You might have followed my advice above and created a well laid-out slide. But will all members of your audience be able to read it?
There are two kinds of contrast; colour and brightness. Colour contrast is when two different colours complement each other and stand out. Brightness contrast is when one item, usually text, is placed on a background which is either much lighter or much darker, causing it to, again, stand out.
Many combinations of colours work well together in terms of contrast, such as yellow and blue. However, it’s important to remember than one very common form of visual impairment is colour blindness. Whereas red and green contrast well against each other, they are also the colours most commonly confused by colour blind individuals.
Therefore it is safest to use a brightness contrast, which typically involves playing with dark and light. The simplest and most accessible form of brightness contrast is white text on a black background.
It might seem that black text on a white background was best, as that is the traditional manner text is displayed. However, many people with visual impairments have a sensitivity to glare – just what a large, bright white screen would produce. Glare can completely override any text on the screen, rendering your slides unreadable.
Don’t believe us? Try it yourself by inverting the colours of your computer screen when on a web page or in a document with a predominantly white background. The strain is taken off your eyes and the text, now black, seems to pop.
Fortunately, you don’t have to settle for black and white to make your slides accessible. White text on a blue background also works very well. Just keep in mind how bright the background of your slides are.
If your slide deck features more than just text and images, read on. Visually complex elements, such as graphs, charts, icons, and even animations, can be troublesome for those with sight problems.
For graphs and charts, follow my advice about text and keep things as simple as possible. This is good design advice anyway, but cut out all the pie charts and bar graphs and try expressing that data in easier to digest ways.
Is revenue up 6%? Instead of showing a collection of intricate graphs with very little difference between them, simply place a large and attention-grabbing ‘6%’ on the slide.
Overuse of animation can be confusing for some people, especially those with low vision. Complicated transitions between slides should be ditched in favour of smoother and more predictable changes to boost your presentation accessibility. If you love the PowerPoint transition where the slide turns into a paper aeroplane and flies off, you’re out of luck. You also have awful taste.
The use of video within your presentation should also be considered. Depending on what type of video it is you’re displaying, moving images can be very difficult to comprehend, more so if the video uses extremes of lightness and dark.
If video is integral to your presentation, how does it sound? Can what is happening on the screen be explained with a voice-over, either as part of the video clip itself, or by you?
Colour vision deficiency, or CVD, is the technical term of colour blindness and can affect a huge number of people. Organisation Colour Blindness Awareness state that 8% of men are currently living with a form of CVD. As are up to 0.5% of women. Although most usually a genetic condition, colour blindness can develop in later life and alongside illnesses such as diabetes.
Not everyone who has a form of CVD will even be aware of it. Trying this free online test will help identify if you do have colour issues.
People with CVD are, ironically, most affected by the current trend of replacing text with striking visuals in presentations – the biggest thing I champion in terms of design. More often than not those visuals will rely on colour variance to denote information; such as a chart with different colours.
The troublesome pair
Two colours that are often used in charts and graphs are red and green – with red meaning a problem or a drop in numbers, and green meaning growth. However, red and green are the two colours hardest to differentiate for people with certain forms of CVD.
Fortunately CVD affects only the perception of hue – not the lightness or darkness of a colour. So, just as with my previous section describing contrast, you should consider how your visuals could change to help with colour blindness.
As the image shows, on one side is a standard graph using standard red and green colours to demonstrate difference. On the right, however, is the same graph, with the same colours, but with their brightness changed. Now that the red is darker, and the green very light, it is easier to tell the two apart.
A very effective way of checking to see if the colours you have chosen for your visuals can be perceived by all is by going grey. By converting the slides to grayscale before finalising your designs, you’ll be able to see what colours get lost to the background and what differences vanish.
As you can see, with colour removed the two graphs look very different. On the corrected right side version the altered brightness means the contrast between the two has been boosted.
This is easily done in PowerPoint by going to File, Print, then selecting Grayscale. You can view your presentation in preview mode and make a note of all the hard to see colours. Go back in and make changes, altering the brightness and contrast of the colours.
Catering to people with hearing problems
With your slides successfully checked and edited to make them as accessible as possible, now think about what you’re saying. The World Health Organisation estimates that even more people in the world have hearing problems than sight issues, with more than 466 million living with hearing loss.
“We advocate that every presentation should be accessible to everyone in the audience; regardless of disability or communication needs. Considering the accessibility of a presentation can increase the quality of content and audience engagement for everyone – and will enable you both to convey your message coherently and succinctly.”
Russell Cooke, Community Engagement Manager
As with vision problems, hearing loss exists on a wide spectrum, from people who are completely deaf, to those who struggle to hear quieter sounds. Chances are, there will be someone in the audience of your presentation who will have problems hearing you. So what do you do?
Speeches given in larger venues with lots of attendees typical rely on microphones and PA systems. This is a great help, as amplified voices – correctly levelled and monitored – are clearer and easier to understand. But not all presenting situations will offer a microphone.
Often you’ll be expected to rely on the power of your voice alone. From presentations delivered to smaller groups, to those given around the table of the boardroom. With no option to amplify what you’re saying, you should think around how best to ensure you’re understood by those people in your audience who may struggle to hear you.
Where subtitles on TV shows can help deaf people follow the story, so on-screen captions will help them understand your presentation. I recently attended Microsoft Future Decoded in London and was interested to see that all the presentations given by the speakers featured real-time captions. Essentially, as the speaker spoke, their words appeared on screen helping everyone follow along.
Microsoft released their Live Captions feature in Office 365 earlier in 2019, and it works very well with PowerPoint. Presenters running their slide deck on PowerPoint can set it to display the live captions on the same screen, showing every word that is spoken.
This is a great way to present, as the software’s AI will pick up speech as it hears it – unlike showing words from a script. That means, should you go ‘off book’ and improvise, the captions will relay that, too.
I was hugely impressed. At a rough estimate I’d say the live captions were correct, showing exactly the words spoken by the presenter, 99% of the time. There was the occasional ‘miss hear’. Perhaps when the speaker spoke too quickly, but certainly nothing that distracted from the flow of the presentation.
The technology is improving, however, and already Microsoft’s AI will learn from the text content of your presentation and match words it thinks are correct. Voice-recognition experts Google can also boast of successes with their own presentation app, Google Slides. That too will show on-screen live captions as you speak.
Another way to ensure both sight and hearing impaired people have understood your presentation is to allow them to ask questions. A question and answer session at the end offers audience members the chance to seek clarification on a point they may have struggled to fully comprehend.
This doesn’t necessarily need to be done the traditional way of raising hands and passing microphones, as social media can help. Those who might find putting a question into words might prefer tweeting or texting you. By displaying your phone number or social media @ names throughout the presentation, your audience can send questions while you speak, and then you answer them when ready (it’s also a great way of boosting your social following).
Filming your presentation
Another way to increase accessibility and engagement is to film your presentation. Editing together a video of you speaking with your slides in glorious full-screen, then uploading to YouTube or social channels, gives people the opportunity to watch it back later at their leisure.
Was something not fully clear on the day? Having the presentation captured online will allow your audience to revisit it and seek clarification. Those with sight problems will have full control over their own screen. This lets them alter contrast and brightness to suit their needs. Those with hearing problems will appreciate the clean, crisp audio and captions.
Using a service like YouTube will allow presenters to add captions to their video. This will correct potential mistakes made by the Live Captions used on the day. Creating a video is also a sound way to preserve your presentation and open it to a wider audience.
Other audiences to consider
While this article has focused predominantly on hearing and sight issues, there are many other accessibility issues to consider when preparing to deliver a presentation.
Acknowledgement of neurodiversity is becoming increasingly important. It covers thinking about audience members who might be living with the likes of dyslexia and those on the Autism spectrum.
Mental health issues like depression and ADHD should also be taken into consideration, as they too are conditions that affect a person’s ability to understand and retain information.
A blanket fix that will help your presentation’s accessibility for those living with the above conditions is to keep things as clean and as simple as possible. Never bombard your audience with information, no matter how au fait with the subject matter you believe they might be.
Slides that pass quickly, complicated graphics, and a speech uttered far too quickly will render your presentation less impactful. Slow things down and simplify your message.
This is especially useful thinking where dyslexia is concerned. The Dyslexia Association estimate that about 10% of the adult population are affected by dyslexia – that’s a potential one in ten in your audience. Certainly not a statistic to ignore.
As you might imagine, large amounts of text will be the thing that most disengage dyslexic people from your presentation. Blocks of text on a slide isn’t fun for anyone. Especially while the presenter continues to speak, expecting the audience to simultaneously read.
Most people will either subconsciously decide one over the other – to read or to listen. However, a dyslexic person would shut down, taking in neither.
Interestingly, the same presentation design choices that can cause accessibility difficulty for hard of seeing individuals, also influence dyslexic people. Therefore keep text to an absolute minimum, and also consider your line spacing. A dyslexic person’s main area of problem is text seeming to blur into one, making it completely unreadable. Use a healthy line spacing to keep lines of text easily discernible, and take heed my advice about fonts.
Glare also needs to be dealt with to help dyslexic people stay engaged. Bright white screens on which black text is emblazoned can be hard to read. Consider making the move to darker backgrounds with lighter colour text. This will help dyslexic people in your audience soak up the words far easier.
Checking your presentation
Any presenter worth their salt will rigorously check over every aspect of their presentation before standing up to deliver it. However, these final checks might concentrate on spelling, fact-checking, placement of images and timing of transitions. This usually takes place on a computer screen, which is typically where the presentation won’t be shown.
If you plan to project your slides with a projector, test it on a projector. This is especially important when considering the accessibility of your presentation as things might look slightly different than you intended.
Take my advice where colour blindness is concerned by editing the brightness levels? Now check how they appear when not displayed on a back-lit monitor. The colour temperature of the projector’s bulb can cause differences, as can the colour of the projection screen itself.
Testing on a projector will also give you an added appreciation of size. That can often be hard to judge when designing on a computer screen. The final presentation will likely be projected much larger, so check it to see how the font size and text spacing appear when enlarged.
If something doesn’t seem right, or you think a tweak here and a change of layout here will help, now is the time to do it.
Microsoft’s Accessibility Checker
I really enjoy building my, and my client’s, presentations in PowerPoint. I’ve always found it to be the most capable and versatile of the slide deck apps. One great feature that PowerPoint boasts, relative to this article, is the Microsoft Accessibility Checker.
This built-in feature, which you’ll find in most other Office 365 apps, can be used to scan your presentation and highlight any accessibility concerns. It will show where contrast between text and background is poor and where text is too closely placed together. Also, it will highlight if the colours you’ve chosen are difficult to discern.
What makes the Accessibility Checker really useful is that it will then make suggestions to fix the error. I’ve found this helpful in the past, especially where colour contrast is concerned – not something most people will automatically consider.
If you’re using PowerPoint for your presentation, the Accessibility Checker can be found under the Review tab. Tap it, and click Check Accessibility to start the scan. PowerPoint will then present your results, and make suggestions to improve anything.
You can also set it to also run in the background, by checking the box next to ‘Keep accessibility checker running while I work’. This adds a small button to the status bar at the bottom of the screen, and keeps you on track by continually monitoring your work.
A download for everyone
Finally, think about handouts. A standard presentation handout will be an in-print version of all your slides and speaker notes. Audience members will often request these after speeches I’ve made, so having a handout of some form is often very useful.
Directing your audience to your website to download their own version of a handout could be even more effective. It would ensure everyone understood your presentation.
One version of your online handout could strip all the colour from the slides, leaving only the data. Another should be made available with larger text in inverted colours, making it easy to read for people with sight problems. And, as I mentioned above, create a video or audio version of the presentation, hitting all those important accessibility bases.
The small amount of extra work you, or your presentation design agency, will put into the downloads will be worth it in the long run. Your impact will be greater, and being fully understood by everyone won’t be left up to chance, as it may have been previously.
Accessibility is never a bad thing
Never think of checking your presentation for accessibility as a step in the wrong direction. Any process that forces you to look back over what you’ve created and consider your potential audience is good. You will be ensuring as many people as possible can gain insight from your presentation. You’ll also be making design and technical improvements which will reflect positively on you.
If you’re currently building a PowerPoint presentation and need some help to ensure it ticks those accessibility boxes, come and talk to me today.