What does it mean to provide descriptions of visual content?
In spoken presentations, all audience members should be able to perceive and understand all of the content. Oftentimes, presenters will use slide decks, images, websites, and demonstrations to visually illustrate their points. While this is great for many audience members, presenters should always keep in mind that not everyone in their audience may be able to see the content.
When you give a spoken presentation to an audience (whether in-person, virtually, or in a recorded video) and you will be showing visual content, you should make an effort to describe that content verbally so that everyone can access your content, including people who are blind or low vision. This means you should verbally describe any important visual information (including images displaying data) that would make your presentation confusing or hard to follow if your audience members were unable to see it. It’s helpful to practice describing your images as part of your presentation to maintain flow and style.
This guidance applies to any situation where you are providing verbal information to an audience and are simultaneously showing visual content, including in-person and remote/online instruction, public presentations, and video recordings.
Why is this practice important?
The people who benefit from this practice include viewers who are blind or low vision, people who can see but have reading disabilities, and people who, for a variety of reasons, are unable to keep 100% of their visual attention on the presentation. Additionally, if the presentation is recorded on video, this practice can benefit people viewing the presentation on a device with a small screen like a mobile phone.
Accessibility means that people with a range of physical and mental abilities are able to access the meaning of your content. Without this practice, your visual content is inaccessible to the populations mentioned above.
Additionally, this practice is an excellent learning tool for your audience members. When done well, it reduces the cognitive load placed on your audience members because it reduces the need for them to split their attention between the two simultaneous streams of content (visual and verbal) that they are receiving. By engaging in this practice, you may also find yourself becoming a more thorough and precise speaker who uses appropriate terminology more consistently in your presentations.
How should I describe visual content?
First, identify which visual content is meaningful in your presentation. Decorative images like slide borders or a photo that is only provided because it is visually attractive are not meaningful and do not need to be described. Meaningful visual content usually includes things like text and diagrams.
For slide decks, read the text of the slides aloud. You do not have to read every piece of text exactly as it appears, but you should ensure that any information displayed on the slides is communicated verbally. Include any relevant information about the hierarchy or relationship between pieces of information on the slides.
The example slide image below could be described as follows: “The basics of video accessibility require you to consider the accessibility of both the visual and auditory components of your video. For visual elements, ensure that you provide adequate color contrast and verbal descriptions of visual content. For auditory elements, provide captions so that individuals who are Deaf or hard of hearing can access your audio content.”
For diagrams, graphs, or maps, which can contain a large amount of complex information, identify only the necessary information that you want your viewers to glean from the image. For example, “This graph shows a positive correlation between money spent at the movie theater and hours spent consuming media.” or “This map shows the route taken by Vasco da Gama, in which he departed south from Portugal, sailed around the Cape of Good Hope located on the southernmost tip of Africa, then hugged the east African coastline halfway up the continent before sailing northeastward toward India.”
Verbalizing a map or diagram in this way may feel unnatural at first, but it comes much more easily with practice. The first few times you do this, it may be helpful to script out or jot down a few bullet points ahead of recording the video. You may find that this method of description actually benefits many of your viewers (not just those with disabilities) by demonstrating and reinforcing the use of proper terminology in the context of analyzing a visual artifact.
Ultimately, you are the subject matter expert and you know why you included each visual aid in your presentation. Just ask yourself: if I was listening to this presentation from another room and couldn’t see anything that was being shown, which parts of this presentation would be confusing? One helpful strategy is to ask someone to listen to your presentation without looking at your visual materials and let them tell you which parts were hard to follow without seeing the visual aids.