In our never ending quest to make presentations better, we’ve invited Dr. Carmen Simon(formerly Taran) to guest author a new series on Better PowerPoint. Dr. Simon is a cognitive scientist, a leader in the virtual presentation movement, and an internationally renowned public speaker. Dr. Simon is a founder of Rexi Media, a world wide presentation consulting firm. This is part two in a series based on her research published this year. Part One can be found here.
Part Two: Can you control what people remember from a PowerPoint presentation?
Last week, I mentioned the study on how much people remembered from an on-demand PowerPoint presentation of 20 slides after 48 hours. The answer: 4 slides. One of the remaining questions: can we control which slides? The study results showed that approximately 1,500 people remembered slides according to a pattern.
Here is the content included in the slides that people remembered more frequently:
- Slide 6: Don’t wear stripes because they dance around on the screen and are distracting. If you wear anything distracting in a webcast, people will remember that and nothing you say.
- Slide 7: Don’t wear white. It glows and it becomes the most noticeable thing on the video screen.
- Slide 8: Pastel shirts work well on video.
- Slide 9: Don’t wear black, it is too harsh and can suck up all the light.
The purpose of this week’s article is to show you how we can influence what people remember. Use these characteristics next time you create a PowerPoint presentation.
Concrete Visual Language. Participants in the study tended to remember the same slides even though those slides did not contain pictures. This may be because the text was highly visual, in the sense that it generated mental pictures (e.g., don’t wear white, black or stripes). This observation matches research from advertising, according to which high-imagery words are remembered a lot better than low-imagery or abstract words.1 This is great news because many presenters complain that they do not have time or money to find and purchase expensive images for all slides in their decks. If you have highly visual language, you can save on other resources.
Visual language is typically concrete language. In general, concrete words are easier to remember than abstract words because concrete labels can be encoded in two separate ways, one involving an image and the other involving a verbal code or meaning. Notice how in the example below, the concrete words would be a lot easier to remember than the abstract ones.
Figure 1. Concrete words are easier to remember than abstract ones because they are dually encoded: they have a verbal code and an image code.
Dare to insert text-based slides in your presentation, with the condition that people can “picture” that text without much mental effort.
Chunking. The frequently recalled slides could be “grouped” around the same topic (what to wear and what not to wear). People remembered these slides in the conditions where slides were shuffled, so the slides above did not appear in sequence. Slides with tight links are remembered more than slides with weak links. For your next presentation, wonder how easy it would be for viewers to identify a few groups (preferably no more than 3) in your presentation. Sometimes, the error that people make is to provide too many groups or not specify how slides relate to a certain group.
Color coordination can often help group slides together. Notice how in the example below, there are four sections, each indicated by its own color.
Figure 2. Color can help chunk various parts of a presentation
The cautionary part about using colors to group slides in a presentation is that memory works on a chaining mechanism. The recall of an item depends on its predecessors, and items that appear later in the chain (or in this case, slides that appear later in the presentation) depend on the accurate recall of previous items. While color helps with chunking, it may not provide a link that is strong enough between various items.
For your next presentation, ask this question: if I asked viewers to relate slides at the end to slides at the beginning, would they be able to easily form a connection? Often endings are rushed. Presenters run out of time and often there is more emphasis on particular content than on connections between different parts of the presentation. Keep in mind that connections between content parts are just as important to memory as discussing individual content parts. Each time you introduce a new content piece, ask and answer: how does it integrate with everything else?
Novelty. Participants in the study who identified themselves as novices in the topic of webcasting (the content for the presentations they were asked to remember), tended to remember more slides than those who considered themselves experts. This may be explained by looking at a psychological construct called schemas —cognitive frameworks that help us organize and interpret information around us. Schemas influence the way new information is processed and they guide our expectations of what should occur. When information deviates from existing schema, attention is enhanced, which may lead to better recall. Research in advertising hints at a similar fact: those viewers exposed to unfamiliar ads engage in more extensive processing and those exposed to familiar ads are less engaged and involved in more confirmation-based processing.
Sometimes experts “brush over” information, thinking they already know it and therefore not much is retained. A practical guideline is that if you want a presentation to attract attention, find out what your audience would consider novel. A thorough audience analysis can be revealing.
Repetition was another trait shared by the four most recalled slides. The word “wear” was repeated several times, such as in what to wear or not to wear (e.g., don’t wear stripes, black, or white; and wear pastels). Linking this to the idea of clustering, research suggests that during recall, words that are repeated along some dimension are recalled successively.2 Practically speaking, it may be beneficial for content designers to use similarity of items that are important in a presentation to be recalled. The example below shows how in a professional presentation, words such as RPM, Revenue, and Revolution are repeated on a few slides, making these terms more likely to be recalled later.
Figure 3. Example of repetition in a PowerPoint presentation
Negativity. Another characteristic of the four popular slides is that they contained negative information (e.g., “don’t wear stripes, don’t wear white, don’t wear black”). Several other researchers contend3 that negative information is more memorable in the sense that people tend to remember more details. This may be because the right fusiform gyrus, a region in the brain responsible for processing exemplar-specific details, displays higher activity during the successful encoding of negative objects. If recalling details is important to you, then expressing content in negative terms may be a solution to consider. If remembering the gist of the information is sufficient, then positive content is suitable.
Vanity. Slides that reported a high recall in the study were slides that offered advice that made the viewers “look good” (e.g. avoid wearing white, black or stripes in a webcast; wear pastels). In a society that craves portraying positive images, it is understandable that ego enhancing content attracts additional attention, which may translate into improved recall. Notice in the example below how the self-boosting messages (paired up with concrete words), may lead to attention and improved recall. We will quiz you next week to see if it worked.
Figure 4. Ego-boosting content leads to better recall
1Unnava, H. R., Burnkrant, R. E., & Erevelles, S. (1994). Effects of presentation order and communication modality on recall and attitude. Journal of Consumer Research, 21, 481–490.
2Howard,M.W., & Kahana, M. J. (2002). When does semantic similarity help episodic retrieval? Journal of Memory and Language, 46, 85–98.
3Kensinger, E. A., Garoff-Eaton, R. J., & Schacter, D. L. (2007). Effects of emotion on memory specificity: Memory trade-offs elicited by negative visually arousing stimuli. Journal of Memory and Language, 56, 575-591.