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How to Make Your Presentation Accessible

It is crucial you think about accessibility when presenting so your talk is as inclusive as possible. This step will take you through some of the main points to think about. To help you do that we have Dr Sarah Bearchell and the Lightyear Foundation.
A photograph of Sarah Bearchell
© Dr Sarah Bearchell

It is crucial you think about accessibility when presenting so your talk is as inclusive as possible. This step will take you through some of the main points to think about. To help you do that we have Dr Sarah Bearchell and the Lightyear Foundation.

Dr Sarah Bearchell is the STEM Lead for the Lightyear Foundation, a charity which works to improve access to science for disabled children. She also works as a freelance science writer and presenter. She is part of the Presenter Network.

Accessibility – Reaching Everyone

When doing a presentation, you want to reach everyone in your audience. After all, they have made the effort to come and see you, so you know they are interested in what you have to say!
There is not a single way to make a presentation “accessible”. Everyone has slightly different needs, so it helps to find out about your audience. Add a box to booking forms, so people can tell you about their needs. You must treat this information as confidential, but knowing a little about your audience will help you all have the best experience. If you cannot get specific information, you can still take some simple steps to improve your presentation.
Spoken Language
Think carefully about what you want to say. Ideas which are simple to you, might be difficult for others. Make sure you use simple language and clearly explain any specialist terms. If you are using slides, put each specialist term on a new slide.
Practise your talk. Remember to speak clearly and slowly enough to help understanding, but not so slow everyone falls asleep! Taking a short pause can be helpful to mark the sections of your talk and give your audience a chance to think about what you have said.
Watch your audience as you speak. This will help you to work out if they understand what you are talking about. If you think you have “lost” your audience, don’t be afraid to pause and explain more clearly.
Do you need a translator or a sign language interpreter? If possible, send them your talk before the event so they can prepare. There are now live caption services for events; look online for one in your language.
Make sure you face the audience and don’t walk around when you are talking. This helps anyone who reads lips. Staying still can be a real challenge, but you don’t need to turn into a statue either. Try to speak naturally while facing the front! Take time to practise if you need to. Does the venue have a microphone and hearing loop? You can often hire these if needed.
Hand-outs and Slides
You might need to provide braille or large print copies of slides and handouts. If this is not possible, send an electronic copy of your materials in advance. This way, the audience member can use their own screen-reader to prepare. If this is not possible, make them available for download after the event.
When making slides there are some good rules for any presentation:
  1. Use a plain background and contrasting text.
  2. Use a sans serif font, like Arial
  3. Align to the left (if you write left to right) and never justify the text
  4. Use bullet points with minimal text
  5. Do not hyphenate at the end of a line
  6. Use pictures, images really help with meaning
You can find further tips on AbilityNet
For handouts, you should also:
  1. Print in size 12 font or above
  2. Use large text or bold text to draw attention
  3. Do not use large amounts of text in capital letters
  4. Do not use italics or underlining (even in hyperlinks)
  5. Use short sentences of 15-20 words
  6. Keep language simple and explain all technical language
  7. Try to put the meaning of a paragraph in the first sentence. See the section on Spoken Language for examples.
Visual Aids
Images really help to show your meaning. Use graphs and data carefully and highlight your key information in a different high-contrast colour. This will help your audience see what you are talking about, even if your pointer is shaking with nerves!
A beautiful image of a very colourful nebula
Copyright NASA, ESA, and STSc
If you are going to talk about a nebula, show a picture. It will act like a shortcut for your audience because they won’t need to remember what the picture looks like.
Consider using props, especially if you are talking about an unusual item from your work. Can the audience handle the item afterwards? It will really help them to engage with your talk and you as a person. Lining props up on the table in front of you will help you to remember the order of ideas. It also helps to keep your audience interested in what is coming next.
Questions
Always allow time for questions at the end. This allows you to clear mix-ups and explore ideas. Invite audience members to come and speak to you directly or to email questions. They may be too nervous to ask in public.
Online Presentations
If you are making a video for online use, the guidelines above are still true, but here are some extras:
  1. Make sure your face is well-lit so viewers can read your lips
  2. Keep your background free of distractions but it does not have to be completely blank
  3. Keep any “action” out of the captions zone at the bottom of the screen
  4. Add captions to your video. There is an auto-caption tool on YouTube but it is not perfect. Make sure you check and edit. There are lots of helpful videos about this online.

Maximise Accessibility

Thinking about presentations you give are there elements you could improve from an accessibility point of view? What are they?

© Dr Sarah Bearchell
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