Guidelines for Effective Use of Maps and Graphics at Professional Meetings


Structure your presentation around the graphics.  A carefully prepared set of graphics can serve as lecture text, notes, reminders, and as an aid to keeping the presentation on schedule.

Prepare your presentation beforehand.  Hours of intellectual work can be ruined for the lack of only five minutes spent checking the order of slides or making sure that you do not have too many graphics to show in the time available. 

Be wary of less common presentation software if you do not plan on bringing your own computer with needed software installed. Most venues have PowerPoint software installed. However, be careful to save your presentation in an earlier version if you have recently acquired the latest upgrade. The latest version may not be installed on computers at the meeting. Also, be wary of exotic fonts since they may not be available on a different computer at the meeting. Text in unusual fonts can be converted to a raster image if needed.

Backup your presentation on a flash drive and bring it with you even if you are bringing your own computer. Also bring a couple of different connection cables to attach your computer to the video projector. If you are using a Mac computer be sure to try your presentation before the meeting on a PC since there are small font differences between the two systems that can cause text to wrap onto a following line. The same caution also applies for presentations created on a PC since a Mac computer might be used at the meeting.

Be sure to rehearse and time yourself. Be sure to allow time to point out anything important or to introduce your audience to a map of your study area. Bring a laser pointer if you want to draw attention to an item on the screen. Sometimes the projected image may be too high to point at with your hand and walking from the podium to point at the screen can waste considerable time.

Make use of the speaker preparation room.  Arrive for your session early enough to check the room size and the projector.  Make sure you understand how to focus the projector and advance the slides.  Plan on a forward only sequence.  Do not go backwards - duplicate a slide you wish to refer back to and place the copy in sequence in the presentation.

Make sure the session chair or technical staff are aware that you are present and what your needs are for the presentation so that they can help change slides, hook up a microphone, or dim the lights at the right time.

Begin your presentation with a slide showing your paper title, name, affiliation, collaborators and acknowledgments.  This serves to kick off the presentation, allows you to get into your pace, and is a handy way of keeping the audience aware of which paper they are hearing.



Text slides should have contrasting foreground and background.  Complex logos and figures added to text slides can distract from the text.

Use a minimum 14 point type (there are 72 points to the inch), with no more than seven "items" or bullets per slide.  Use condensed form, not full sentences, for bullets.

Do not use more than two fonts or colors on a slide.  Use bold type, italics, underlining or color to draw the audience's attention to ideas you want to highlight.

Color can add interest and attractiveness, but avoid garish colors, disappearing colors (e.g., yellow over white) and colors at opposite ends of the spectrum which "jump" (e.g., red on green).  Also, be aware that a portion of the males in the audience may have red/green/brown color blindness.  These colors should not be placed on top of each other because they will not stand out, but depending on their intensity, will blend into each other (e.g., a red dot on a green background will not be seen). You can find appropriate color combinations on the ColorBrewer web site.

Include a text slide after the first title slide that outlines the structure of your presentation.  Use the old maxim - say what you are going to say, say it, then tell the audience what you said.  Finish your presentation with a conclusion or summary slide.  Try to end your presentation by fitting your work into the big picture.

If a graphic is important enough to use, leave it on the screen long enough for the audience to read it.  Do not remove the graphic and talk to a blank screen.

Your graphics represent a significant investment in your time and effort. Take the time to use them correctly and effectively.



Tables are a major source of presentation complaints.  Use only a few rows and columns.  Label all columns with meaningful, readable labels.  Include measurement units where necessary, such as degrees Celsius, meters, people per square kilometers, etc.  Metric units are preferred.  Use color, italics, underline or bold face to highlight numbers of importance, especially if you want to draw the audience's attention to them while you are talking.

The table should not fill the whole display area.  Leave large gaps at the edges to allow for low screens and obstructed views.

If you cannot understand your graphic - neither will your audience.  Keep it simple and sparse.  If necessary use two simple tables or two slides rather than one complex one.

Is the table really necessary at all?  Perhaps the data could be better presented as a chart or graph.  With little extra effort, there will be a massive improvement in clarity.


Charts and Histograms

Make sure that charts are simple and readable.  Axes should be labeled and units should be included.  Use the 3D effect included with many presentation graphics packages sparingly.  The best chart is simple, delivers its main point quickly, and is not overbearing.  A sparse but well constructed chart looks professional and efficient.  A gaudy overdone chart does not communicate well.

Even if the chart makes a clear point, repeat the point in clear English on the graphic.  A little overstatement never hurts.



Place no more than four simultaneous symbols, values or lines on a graph. Make each line or symbol clearly distinguishable from the rest and label it prominently.  Label axes, include an appropriate number of reference ticks and label their values in a logical manner, e.g., 0, 10, 20, 30 not 0.001, 5.397, 6.256, etc.

Make the lines sufficiently bold as to be visible from a distance.  Use color if possible.  Avoid cross hatching and diagonal shading on graphs. Too little shading always works better than too much shading.



If a map exists that meets your specifications, use it!  Do not use home drawn graphics if superior professional maps already exist.  You can still add emphasis or highlight a feature with color.  Do not violate map copyrights.  However, USGS and all Federal government maps are public domain and may be copied freely.

Consult a cartographer.  S/he may be able to point you to software/clip art or presentation tools, and may be willing to critique your graphics, if asked.

Typically, maps should include scales, graticules, projections, sources, dates, titles and legends.  Consult a cartography text for design guidelines.

Remember that geographers are expected to know maps.  Try to avoid blunders like out-of-date reference maps, typos in place names, or mislabeled projections or scales.



Don't put yourself in the position of having to apologize for poor graphics.  Common sense and attention given to the topics covered in these guidelines will assist greatly in creating a professional presentation.


Thanks to Dennis Fitzsimons for updating these guidelines.