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Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Paper: Using Visual Aids

The purpose of this guide is to provide advice on how to develop and organize a research paper in the social sciences.

Using Visual Aids

Giving a presentation can be stressful under the best of circumstances. However, the effective use of presentation software to organize and structure the content of your work can help ease your anxiety. Here are a few things to keep in mind.

Tips for Using Presentation Software Effectively:

  1. State no more than three or four main points on a slide. Slides that have too many words on them are a big turn-off. Remember that the slides are intended to supplement and enhance what you are saying, not to replace it.
  2. Give your audience time to take notes. Pausing briefly before moving to the next slide also gives you the opportunity to collect your thoughts before continuing to the next point.
  3. Don't read from the slides! Audiences really hate this. Summarize or explain what's on a slide. Only selectively read direct quotes or statements when you want to highlight something important or emphasize a significant issue.
  4. Make sure your audience can see the screen. Think about where are you standing. Do not stand in front of the screen. If there is no angle where everyone can see, then move around before moving to the next slide [for example, point to something for emphasis].
  5. Don't overcrowd your slides with too much detail. Using color, pictures, and graphs can make your slides more interesting, but be aware of the fact that certain color combinations can be very hard to read from a distance. It may look fine on a computer screen but projected in a large format can be overwhelming to the eye.
  6. Remember that PowerPoint or Prezi may look great, but if the technology goes wrong, it's a good idea to print out a handout as a backup just in case. If the audience is too large to do this, ensure that your notes are sufficiently detailed so that you can talk in detail about your topic.
  7. I know you may be tempted to spend more time on producing graphics than on the actual talk but remember: if your talk is poor, no amount of fancy graphics will save it!

NOTE:  The use funny cartoons, silly pictures, or other graphics can help your audience feel more comfortable and engaged by adding some humor to your presentation. However, don't over do it! Under most circumstances, there will be a level of professionalism expected in how you present your work. This doesn't mean that your presentation should be bland and tedious, but funny graphics are no substitute for good content and overdoing it can distract to the point of annoying your audience [think of it as the person who tells the same joke over and over].

Text Guidelines for Presentation Slides

  • Use the same colors and fonts throughout; select graphic images in the same style
  • Keep the background consistent and subtle
  • Be sure text contrasts well with the background
  • Generally use no more than six words per a line
  • Generally use no more than six lines per a slide
  • Avoid long sentences unless it is a important quotation
  • Larger font indicates more important information
  • Font size generally ranges from 18 to 48 point
  • Fancy or cursive fonts can be hard to read
  • Words in all capital letters are hard to read
  • Avoid abbreviations and acronyms
  • Limit punctuation marks


Handouts are a great idea if your audience isn't too big, but you don't want to spend a lot of time distributing handouts or having audience members distracting each other while they pass around a pile of handouts. If you do use handouts, think about whether you want to distribute them before or after your presentation. It is always good idea to include space on the handout for people to take notes and to include a list of references and your contact information so that people can review them later or contact you if needed. You could also include some follow-up questions for discussion in your handouts [they can be referred to after the presentation to prompt questions from the audience or spark a discussion].

Using the Whiteboard

If there is a whiteboard behind you, put your name and contact information on the whiteboard. However, do this before your talk begins because writing on a board is time-consuming and you will have to turn your back on the audience and break your eye contact, which is never a good idea. Use alternative visual aids wherever possible. If you really must use a whiteboard, come prepared with the right pens [black or dark blue] and write in large, legible handwriting so that people can read it from a distance. And of course, remember to write things off to the side so you don't block people's view while you're speaking!

Know the Space

If possible, know the room from the front before you have to give your presentation. The front of a classroom or auditorium feels different from where you are normally used to sitting. Also, check the lighting so you avoid fiddling with the lights before your presentation. It is also useful to sit at the very back to get a sense of how loud you should talk and how big you should write if you write anything on a whiteboard behind you.

Appersona, Jennifer M.,  Eric L. Lawsa, and James A. Scepansky. “An Assessment of Student Preferences for PowerPoint Presentation Structure in Undergraduate Courses.” Computers and Education 50 (January 2008): 148-153; Bedford, Erin. Preparing Presentations With PowerPoint. GradHacker Blog. Inside Higher Education; Kountouzi, Barbara. PowerPoint DO's and DON'T's. Biomedical Library. University of Pennsylvania; Creating and Using Overheads. Kosslyn, Stephen M., Rogier A. Kievit, Alexandra G. Russell, and Jennifer M. Shephard. “PowerPoint presentation Flaws and Failures: A Psychological Analysis.” Frontiers in Psychology 3 (July 2012): Article 230; Writing@CSU. Colorado State University; Designing an Effective PowerPoint Presentation: Quick Guide. The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University; Giving an Oral Presentation. Academic Skills Centre. University of Canberra; Inoue-Smitha, Yukiko and Shuyan Wang. “College-based Case Studies in Using PowerPoint Effectively.”  Cogent Education 3 (2016 ): 1-15.