Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Can text-based slides be memorable in PowerPoint presentations?

Guest Blogger: Dr. Carmen Simon, Rexi Media 

I have recently conducted a memory study based on a basic question: how many slides do people remember from an on-demand, text-only PowerPoint deck of 20 slides? 1,540 people participated in the study: they were randomly assigned to 26 groups, viewed 20 slides, and after two days, they received one question: “What do you remember?”

Here are two of the findings and what you can do about them for your next presentation (especially if you create decks to post on Slideshare).

One of the findings from this study was that participants remembered an average of 4 slides from a deck of 20 slides. Even though this number seems low, there is good news associated with it:
  1. People still remember content from text-only slides, which means that text can still be a strong design element if we don’t abuse it.
  2. There was a correlation between some slides that were made to stand out (were distinct) and the recall rate—which means, even though recalling 4 slides may be low, at least we can influence which four slides people may remember.
Let’s address these two findings in combination.

The phrase “Death by PowerPoint” has been created mainly because of an overwhelming volume of text-intensive slides one after another after another after another. I remember conducting a Haiku contest once, where I asked participants to write a Haiku about PowerPoint. Someone cleverly wrote:

“Slide 1, Slide 2, Slide 3, Slide 4, Slide 5, Slide 6, Slide 7, Slide 8 …”

The picture below exemplifies this Haiku. One of the problems with this design is its predictability. From an evolutionary perspective, the brain is designed to not miss anything. Once it figures out the pattern, it also figures out that it’s okay to check an e-mail or two because it will not miss anything. This type of file invites multitasking (or rather task switching), and memory is impacted negatively because attention is disrupted; and attention is an important ingredient to memory—it is harder to remember that which you did not pay attention to in the first place.

Also, it is difficult to remember these types of slides, because there is so much sameness—nothing stands out.
Figure 1. Text-only deck, easily forgettable because it is predictable and marked by too much sameness.
Don’t think that adding images to all the slides is going to greatly impact recall. The presentation design in the example below is equally bad because the flow becomes predictable: what is the chance that after seeing 7 picture-slides, the next slide is also going to be a picture? Unlike the previous visual, the deck below is marked by too much variety. The brain needs a certain degree of sameness before it perceives something that stands out.
Figure 2. Picture-only deck, easily forgettable because it is marked by too much variety
So far, we’ve seen that the brain needs a certain degree of sameness before it perceives differences. Going in and out of a pattern also avoids predictability. We can link these observations with the idea of using text in PowerPoint slides. Just because text has been abused in the past, it does not mean that it cannot be resurrected. Using text as a memorable element can be done in several ways:
  1. Let’s say you’re presenting mostly a document, and text provides the meat of your presentation (some audiences and presenters crave this format because they believe that content volume = credibility). You can break the pattern of text-based slides with an image that summarizes the main point of the preceding slides. Your deck might look something like this:
    Figure 3. Breaking the pattern in a text-only deck with something that is the opposite of established sameness may increase recall.
  2. If your style is more visual and you are not afraid to use images on most slides, then text can help you break the picture pattern (the substance comes from images and text is a deviation). Your deck might look like this:
    Figure 4. Using text to break the pattern in a picture-based deck may also increase recall

  3. The idea is to break the pattern. Unfortunately, some presenters either have no pattern (there is too much variety in their presentations) or there is to too much sameness.

    While the visuals above have been created just to provide examples, the ones below are extracted from real business presentation files. (They have been made very small so that we don’t reveal the owners, but you can get the idea of the two issues identified: too much variety or too much sameness.)
    Figure 5. Too much variety

    Figure 6. Too much sameness
    Even though people do not remember much from a PowerPoint presentation, can you influence which slides they remember? In our study, whenever something went off the pattern every 5th slide, those slides were recalled more than any other slides in the deck.

    So the conclusion is: dare to break the pattern, dare to deviate from the normal routine in your deck. Presentations are the one area where deviant behavior is acceptable because it may impact recall.

    Before your next presentation, ask yourself: what is my 5th element?

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