Six Tips for Making Your Presentations Accessible
In this post, A11iance Advocate Maxwell Ivey shares tips on making your presentations accessible to everyone — whether you’re at a live or virtual event.
For the last five years, I’ve spoken at events across the country to share my story and grow my business. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat in a conference room wishing I had access to all of the information a speaker was sharing on screen.
Usually, I get around this by making friends with someone I meet at breakfast or by striking up a conversation with one of the people sitting next to me. But their descriptions can never truly make up for seeing the slides myself.
As I prepare for my next talk, the team at AudioEye asked me to share tips on how people and organizations can make their presentations accessible to everyone.
I decided to cover a few areas: what to do before and after an event, best practices for the live presentation, and ways to make video and audio content accessible. And although I am a screen reader user, I’ll also share tips for my visually impaired friends who use screen magnification devices and for people who have hearing impairments.
1. First Impressions Count
As speakers, we spend a lot of time on our introductions. We want to make an immediate connection with our audience. And for better or worse, one of the first things people respond to is your appearance on stage — whether you’re speaking live or as part of a virtual panel.
With this in mind, speakers should describe themselves at the beginning of their presentation. I know this will make some people cringe. Personally, I got a good laugh at myself the first time I had to do this when meeting with a group of people with various disabilities.
For a laugh (and hopefully a helpful prompt), here’s mine:
I’m a 56-year-old Caucasian man from Houston, Texas. I stand 6 foot 5 and am a very large man. My eyes are dark brown and my hair is some shade of brown. I’m not sure as the color depends on whatever they happen to have on sale at Walmart when it’s time to dye it again. I have retinitis pigmentosa and at this point have only limited light perception. I’m wearing a bright blue button-down shirt with my lucky Jerry Garcia tie that is a mix of red, blue, and purple. And I’m recording from a traditional leather chair in my office bedroom.
2. Share Your Slides In Advance
Another best practice is to make your presentation available before the live event. However, it’s important to make sure that any PDFs or other documents you share are accessible. If a PDF is not accessible, it can be hard for screen reader users to follow along. And the more slides you have, the more tedious it becomes to read each file.
Another common mistake is to take photos of text and add them to your slides. For people who cannot perceive images visually, they either have to rely on the image’s alt text (and if you’re going to transcribe the entire image, you might as well just add it as plain text) or run it through an OCR scanner.
Remember to also set the reading order of your slides, so screen readers know the correct order to read text on a slide. By default, screen readers will read objects on a slide in the order they were added — which is not necessarily the logical reading order.
3. Make Links Accessible
Most speakers share links because they want you to visit their website or subscribe to their mailing list. Typically, these links are shared during the presentation — and also placed next to the speaker’s name, topic, and biography on the conference’s website.
Speakers should refrain from using QR codes unless they also mention the URL you need to visit to receive the information or take advantage of any special offer. If the URL is long, they should offer to send it to attendees in an email reply.
If a QR code is shared during a presentation, it should be large and preferably the only image on the screen at that time to make it easier for everyone — including people with low vision — to locate and target it with their phone’s camera.
4. Keep Your Slides Simple
During your presentation, be mindful of how quickly you go through each slide. I know you work hard to keep your presentation snappy, but slower can sometimes be better. Leaving each slide on screen for a few extra beats can help everyone absorb all of the information.
You should also be careful about using animations or fancy transitions. Not only can animation be problematic for some disabilities, but it also cuts into time that could otherwise be spent reading the slide.
Finally, consider the text on each slide. You want to start by choosing a simple font that leaves plenty of space around each letter. This is because people using screen magnification devices can enlarge the text without the letters blending into each other.
As a general best practice, you should also limit how much text is on each slide. If jamming that final word onto a slide makes you feel like a juggler in the circus, then leave it out.
5. Consider Captions and Live Transcriptions
Do you have closed captioning for videos and audio? If you are presenting virtually, do you offer a live transcription service for the deaf and hard of hearing? Have you considered hiring or requesting volunteer sign language interpreters? If a transcription service is used, those files should be made available online as soon as they are ready.
For the visually impaired, have you considered an audio description for video presentations? You could hire a company that specializes in this work, or you could assign people to narrate live. I know many events depend heavily on volunteers in general, but I think this could still be managed.
A professionally trained narrator reading from a prepared script is ideal, but this isn’t always possible.
6. Add Context to Each Image
When adding images to your slide deck, be sure to add image alt text so that screen reader users can follow along. And when writing alt text, try to anticipate what details are most important to share. What information do they need to know?
If the audience won’t have access to your slides in advance, you should also consider describing the contents of each slide as you present. This may mean using fewer images or having fewer slides, but it will be worth it to reach everyone in attendance. After all, you have no way of knowing which person in the audience might be the one to propel your business forward.
It reminds me of my days working games at my family’s carnival. My dad said you have to call everyone into your game, because you don’t know how much money someone has in their pocket or whether they’re willing to spend it.
You could also record short audio descriptions of your slides, so you don’t have to remember to introduce them.
Accessibility Is Good Business
As someone who has presented at plenty of conferences, I know that the event organizer is always in a position to request — or even require — their speakers to be inclusive.
When agreeing to give a talk, I almost always have to sign an agreement that I will submit my slides in advance. If I fail to do so, then I risk being dropped from the event.
Like most speakers, I enjoy talking to people — especially in person. I’m not going to take a chance on getting bumped. Besides the joy of being in front of a crowd, every talk is an opportunity to further my business. Whether they pay me a fee or provide my expenses; or whether I attract new clients through networking, I don’t want to miss those opportunities.
So, this post is as much for organizers as it is for the speakers and their teams. Just like how closed captioning on TV shows is so common that we’ve come to expect it, the same could happen with speaking events. The great thing is that by making presentations more inclusive of people of all abilities, you create a better environment for everyone.
Speakers will discover parts of their presentations that could be improved by making their slides and other media more accessible. Audiences will be kept more alert by the inclusion of audio descriptions on all video content.
In fact, this could allow for a change in the way you arrange seating. I went to the American Foundation for the Blind’s leadership conference last year. Because they account for audio descriptions, the main conference room set aside for keynotes was arranged with round tables where we could speak to each other naturally facing across the table. It made networking so much easier.
Making your event accessible means more people with disabilities can attend and add to the event. They can learn from your speakers and share their own unique thoughts during the Q&A sessions or when networking.
So, let’s make it our mission to work together to create accessible and inclusive conferences, lectures, and meetings.
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