A study conducted at the University of Munich has confirmed the results of two previous studies I’ve written about—a study from Purdue and another from the University of Barcelona.
And the news is truly bad for the 30 to 40 million slide-driven presentations, lectures, workshops, seminars, and training programs delivered worldwide each day.
If slides are your crutch, it’s bad news for you, too.
There is now absolutely no question that your audience misses large portions of what you say when you show your slides and talk at the same time.
The Munich study confirmed that “the retention of oral information was significantly lower in the condition with regular slides than in the condition without slides.”
Of course, if you believe that what the presenter says isn’t important, perhaps it makes no difference. But there is a critical question to ask of those who believe the presenter isn’t absolutely essential to every effective presentation: If what the presenter says isn’t important, why is she or he taking up our time in the first place?
In another objection to the research, some might ask: “If the audience loses a large portion of what’s said, isn’t there an offsetting gain by showing the slides?”
According to the researchers, the answer is no.
In other words, if you use what the researchers called “regular” slides in your presentation (like the one to the right), your audience is going to miss large portions of what you say, no matter how well you say it or how hard they struggle to absorb it.
Logically, this would apply even more to charts and graphs, which require more reading and more concentration to decipher than the regular slide shown here.
And there is no question that what you lose by asking your audience to read and listen at the same time is not regained in any way by showing your slides.
Regular Slides vs Concise Slides
The regular slide format contained a total of 12 slides: a title slide; a structural slide; and 10 additional slides. No slide in this series contained more than eight lines (excluding the heading) or six bullet points.
Conversely, concise slides used six slides to explain the same information: a title slide, a structural slide; and four additional slides. The researchers also used “black” slides between the regular slides. No slide in this series contained more than seven lines (excluding the heading) or five bullet points.
While their research confirmed that the “retention of oral information is higher with concise slides or without slides than with regular slides,” they could not state that the overall retention of concise slides was any better than not using slides at all.
The Bottom Line
In 5 Steps to Conquer ‘Death by PowerPoint’, the third step is: “Minimize visual aids.” I am 100 per cent confident that the research from Purdue, Barcelona and Munich supports the logic of that suggestion.
There are three things to keep in mind when minimizing visual aids, two of which were dealt with directly in the research.
First, to enhance your success, you must absolutely minimize the information on slides if you cannot overcome your PowerPoint addiction and eliminate them altogether (or only use one or two where needed). If your slides look like the regular slide shown here, turn off the projector, use your slides as notes (visible to you, but not to the audience), and talk to your audience.
Second, you must absolutely minimize the number of slides you use. As the researchers demonstrated, by cutting the number of content slides by 60 per cent, and by using blank slides between content slides, retention of information increased.
There is a simple test to determine this. If someone can read your slides and understand your presentation, you have too many slides and too much on each slide.
Third, don’t be afraid to use other visual aids. Whiteboards, flip charts, blackboards and pieces of paper are not only excellent visual aids, they are not slides. Each one is a different tool; each one has a different purpose.
Finally, don’t be afraid to turn off the projector and talk to your audience. If you believe that what you say is important, the research is clear:
Simply talking to your audience, while minimizing your visual aids, is absolutely the best way to be heard, understood and remembered.
According to a recent article in Symmetry magazine, a group of physicists working on the Large Hadron Collider project at Fermilab has banned the use of slides at biweekly meetings in favour of whiteboards.
The result of the ban? The physicists say the move has led to more “interaction and curiosity,” made it easier for the group to discuss the project’s “ongoing work and future goals,” and enhanced the connection between speaker and audience to improve decision-making.
Are there lessons here that can apply to others?
- As I’ve written before, Amazon and LinkedIn have banned slide-driven presentations at their meetings, resulting in enhanced productivity and improved decision-making.
- I have long believed that boards of directors should ban slideware presentations at their meetings to achieve the same results: save time and enhance the overall quality of decisions made.
- Most conference organizers I know would like to enhance engagement. It’s a bold move, but banning slides (not just PowerPoint, but Keynote, Prezi, SlideRocket, Haiku Deck and others) would force speakers to use a variety of tools that lead to greater engagement.
- A recent Gallup survey indicated that only 30 per cent of employees are engaged. Fewer than one in three! Care to make a wager on how most of those employees receive information from their leaders? What has an organization got to lose by banning slides at internal meetings?
- Planning a sales meeting? Why not ban slides? The sales force undoubtedly has knowledge to contribute. Like the physicists, if the sales force was more engaged, wouldn’t the group benefit from the collective experience of others?
It takes courage to implement a ban. But it appears that those organizations who do are gaining significant benefits as a result.
Two of the business world’s top CEOs—Jeff Bezos at Amazon and Jeff Weiner at LinkedIn—have eliminated slide-driven presentations from their meetings.
“All of our meetings are structured around six-page memos,” Bezos says, pointing out that this also eliminates bullet points. “When you have to write your ideas out in complete sentences and complete paragraphs, it forces a deeper clarity of thinking.”
Bezos believes that slides make it easy for the presenter but difficult for the audience. As a result, his meetings may start with up to 30 minutes of silence while everyone reads the documents.
The result of separating the written word from the spoken word? “It saves a lot of time,” he points out.
In a blog post, LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner points out that “at LinkedIn, we have essentially eliminated the presentation.” Information is sent 24 hours in advance, giving people an opportunity to review it. However, not everyone can find the time, so five to 10 minutes is set aside at the start of the meeting to give everyone time to review the written document.
"Once folks have completed the reading, it’s time to open it up for discussion,” Weiner writes. “There is no presentation.”
Are these leaders are on the right track? Absolutely. Cognitive science tells us that humans cannot read and listen at the same time. In fact, trying to do both is absolutely the least effective option and a virtual waste of time—terrible news for the “average” slide-driven presentation delivered in boardrooms, meeting rooms, training rooms and conference halls.
Organizations that wish to regain lost productivity, and to communicate most effectively to make the best decisions, should learn to separate the written word from the spoken word. There is a time to read and a time to discuss. For best results, those times should never, ever be the same time.
Let’s hope more leaders have the courage to follow suit.
When slides are used, the researchers concluded, the audience retains nearly 30 per cent less than if presenters eliminate PowerPoint and simply talk to their audience.
In other words, by simply turning off your projector and using your slides as notes, you can significantly enhance your communication effectiveness.
Two Styles of Lectures
The researchers conducted their study as part of a course entitled “Human Factors in Engineering” that was delivered to students from four majors—engineering, humanities, management and technology. The course was attended by both undergraduate and graduate students and was taught three times a week for 16 weeks.
There were two separate streams of classes for the course, which was based on the textbook Human Factors in Simple and Complex Systems.
For two lectures, two distinctly different delivery styles were used—one that showed slides during the lecture and one that did not.
Researchers then used a 20-question quiz to test students’ ability to recall information in four categories: oral information presented during lectures, graphic information presented during lectures, alphanumeric information from the lectures, and information presented orally with visual support.
The Negative Affect of Slides
The researchers’ first hypothesis was that PowerPoint would have a negative effect on what was said during the lecture—that it would be more difficult for the audience to listen to the presenter while slides are shown.
And there is no question this is true. Students who didn't see slides during the lecture scored 29 per cent higher on the quiz in recalling oral information, and achieved higher overall scores with the recall of all information. “The presence of PowerPoint negatively affected the recall of auditory information,” the researchers concluded, adding that “graphic scores reveal there was no notable gain when using PowerPoint to display graphic information.
“The same could be said for alphanumeric information. There was no notable gain for using PowerPoint vs. the chalkboard.”
Ever spent hours putting a slide together? According to this research, that effort was virtually a complete waste of time.
But the news gets even worse for habitual users of all slideware programs. In addition to testing lectures with and without slides, the researchers also tested those people who didn’t attend class at all during the two lectures in which the comparison was made. Unbelievably, those who didn’t attend either lecture “heard” more than those who attended the slide-driven lecture.
“The negative affect that PowerPoint has on the retention of auditory information is similar to not attending class and hearing the information at all,” the researchers wrote in their conclusions.
In other words, if you use slides, your audience is better off reading your slides and skipping the meeting, webinar, training session or conference at which those slides were presented. They’ll understand and retain more.
Fortunately, if understanding and retention are important to your business success, you can enhance both with one simple action:
Turn off the projector, or close the deck, and simply talk to your audience.
I had a fascinating experience last fall that underscored everything I’ve believed about how using slides kills interactivity and audience engagement—and that by simply shutting off the projector you can reverse those negative outcomes.
The title of my presentation was: Cognitive Science + Common Sense = Effective Presentations. Once I showed a short video during the first part of my presentation—to demonstrate that humans cannot read and listen at the same time—I shut the projector off.
During the lull between my presentation and the next one, the speaker (we’ll call her Shauna) started up the projector, attached her laptop, and began loading her presentation.
Watching this on-screen, one of the participants commented: “Wow, look at all the slides! Didn’t you hear anything Eric said during the past hour?”
He said it quietly and politely, but his point was well made. Shauna looked a little lost, so I walked over and quietly said to her: “If you need your slides as notes, use them. But shut the projector off.”
She did shut it off and, shortly after she started her presentation, an interesting thing happened. The group began asking questions. And they didn’t just ask questions, they fired them at her.
“I’ve just changed jobs,” one person said. “What information do I need from my previous employer? Is there anything different I need from my current employer?”
“I’ve just been laid off,” another said. “How will that affect my path to becoming licensed? Can I get an extension if I need it?”
On it went. Shauna was easily asked more than 50 or 60 questions, which helped audience members shape the licensing information to their particular circumstance, which is when communication actually works.
After the presentation, I asked Shauna if this was more questions than she normally receives. “Definitely,” she replied. “In fact, it’s more questions in one evening than I’ve received in the dozens of times I’ve delivered this presentation combined.”
I also talked to a few aspiring engineers at the end of the evening. They told me they got great value from the presentation. They already knew the path to licensure. The interaction gave them the opportunity to relate that path to their specific circumstances.
And that is when face-to-face communication actually works.
So, if you want to improve your next presentation, why not learn from Shauna’s experience? Shut off the projector and use your slides as your notes.
Create an interactive exchange that has structure for you, but ultimately provides more value to them.
After all, aren’t they the most important people in the room?
I recently came across an interesting article in the Small Wars Journal, in which military commander Ben Zweibelson expresses his belief that because the “military has become addicted to the benefits of PowerPoint,” decision-makers have become blinded to “the many negative impacts on organizational learning, creativity, and critical thinking” of slide-driven briefings.
There are a number of reasons why Zweibelson believes that PowerPoint negatively impacts decision-making:
- PowerPoint-driven briefings focus on the “What” versus the “Why”
- PowerPoint-driven briefings kill productivity
- PowerPoint-driven briefings emphasize quantity over quality
￼Zweibelson uses a bicycle metaphor to make this point. Imagine that your briefing is focused on the strategic benefits of using bicycles during war. PowerPoint-driven briefings focus on each individual part of the bicycle—the seat, the gears, the wheels, the tires, the spokes, the handlebars. Information is categorized into small, isolated packets.
Because of its linear nature, PowerPoint encourages decision-makers to focus on data, rather than how that data could and should be interrelated, even though interrelationships are critical to effective decision-making.
Ideally, decision-making should focus on why. In other words, the bicycle needs to be assembled and consideration given to where or why (or if) it should be ridden, and could be used strategically in battle. The interrelationships of the various parts should be the primary consideration when people sit down to make decisions.
Instead, Zweibelson writes that PowerPoint presentations are used to standardize briefings into “uniform and repetitive procedures that codify organizational perspective into ‘group think.’ We follow the slides, and conform to the slide requirements. Next slide, please.”
Zweibelson points out that modern military briefings (and indeed the vast majority of presentations to all decision-making groups) consist of densely packed slides. More often than not, the person conducting the briefing reads from the slides while offering little additional information of value.
He recommends that decision-makers ask the presenter to turn off the slide projector as soon as this situation manifests itself. “If the presenter is unable to articulate their thoughts or convey much of anything,” Zweibelson writes, “you might determine that the slideshow is the actual briefer, while the human has become the willing presentation aid.”
We’ve all witnessed the same issue with printed presentation decks.
When everyone gets together, the conversation focuses on the “what” in the deck, not “why” it’s important to the organization. If you want to change this, put the decks away; they should never form the basis for any meeting.
Painstakingly (and painfully!) plodding through decks may very well be the ultimate productivity sin of the 21st century.
Quantity over Quality
In any presentation—whether briefing a group of decision-makers or delivering a keynote to 1,000 or more—there is always more information than time.
The challenge is to apply critical thinking skills to bring precisely the right information to create understanding and facilitate effective decision-making. However, as Zweibelson points out, PowerPoint-driven briefings always attempt to cram “ten pounds of dirt into a five pound bag,” which “does little to improve organizational learning” or facilitate effective decision-making.
Zweibelson makes some interesting recommendations to enhance critical thinking, improve productivity and facilitate decision-making:
- Presenters should be limited to a maximum of three slides, yet the length of the meeting should be maintained. Group discussion will identify critical issues that require attention.
- The projector should be turned off and presentation decks should be put away.
- Other briefing aids should be encouraged and staff should be challenged to conduct briefings with no PowerPoint whatsoever.
- And, in a radical departure, he even recommends removing chairs and tables. “We become programmed to behave in certain ways because we are conditioned to sit and be silent while a briefer spoon-feeds us information while the same information is projected,” he writes. “Why? What happens when everyone is no longer seated for a briefing?”
Copyright © Eric Bergman All Rights Reserved
College and university students who have noticed that there's a direct link between the amount of PowerPoint the professor uses and the likelihood that they’ll be completely bored in class should take heart. They’re not alone.
This phenomenon occurs because of how the human mind processes information to learn.
The cognitive research in this area is quite clear. As human beings, when we try to read and listen at the same time, we actually understand less than if we do either one separately. Working memory is overloaded. We can’t keep up, so we give up.
This is relatively easy to prove. The next time you're watching your favourite all-news channel, try listening to what the news anchor is saying while reading what's scrolling across the bottom. Even if both are about the same story, it won't take more than five seconds to realize you have to block out one or the other to get anything meaningful out of the exercise.
So how can students make the best of a bad situation, especially when the professor is unaware that using slides in class is unsupported by cognitive research? Two ways, really.
The first is for students to adjust their behaviour by better understanding how they process information, and using that knowledge to adapt in class. The second is to find ways to change the professor’s behaviour so that he or she uses fewer slides in class (if any at all), and puts significantly less on each slide.
Adjusting Student Behaviour
If slides are posted online in advance, read them before class and set them aside. Do not bring them to class.
In class, focus on listening to the professor and taking notes. Ignore the projected slides, no matter how many times the professor refers to them.
If the class format allows, ask questions—even if it's to slow the professor down to finish absorbing an idea.
If the professor doesn't post slides online, ask if pictures can be taken of the slides projected in class. If it’s ok, pull out a smartphone, snap the picture, ignore what's on the screen, listen to the professor, and take notes.
If photos can’t be taken, find a partner and work in pairs. One person listens and takes notes. The other writes down what's on the slides. Copy and swap after class.
Adjusting Professor Behaviour
When it comes to changing the behaviour of professors, there are a couple things that can be done.
Those professors who use minimal PowerPoint or no PowerPoint should be praised, as should the rare professor (one in a hundred?) who uses PowerPoint well, but students might consider being frank about the use of PowerPoint on class evaluations.
If there were too many slides, say so. If the slides got in the way of learning, say so. If there were so many slides that the value of going to class is in question, say so.
And keep saying so until professors and administrators get the point. Education is far too expensive for students—and far too competitive for the institutions—to settle for glazed eyes in class, especially when those glazed eyes are created in the name of “that’s the way it’s done” or “everyone uses it.”
The person you want to talk to at the party is the person who has something interesting to say; someone with interesting and relevant stories to tell. A good conversationalist provides a bit of information, looks for acknowledgement (via a nod or uh-huh), and provides a bit more. This occurs one short idea at a time. Pauses occur frequently. The person talking thinks before talking. The people listening get the opportunity to think about what was just said.
If the listener has a question, the good conversationalist will immediately allow him or her to ask. If the listener has something to contribute to the conversation, based on his or her experience, the good conversationalist allows that contribution and builds upon it.
If a picture needs to be drawn, it will be drawn. Hopefully, the person drawing will not use one of the host's linen napkins, but the picture will be drawn for everyone to see at a rate at which everyone can participate. Six months from that date, everyone involved in the conversation would be able to look at the picture and remember specific elements of what was discussed.
This conversation will tap into the fact that human beings cannot think and listen at the same time. When the good conversationalist provides food for thought, he or she allows the receiver to think by stopping—by pausing. In that silence, the receiver is given the opportunity to move the idea from working memory to long-term memory, thereby finding a position for it within his or her existing cognitive framework.
The good conversationalist also knows that people won't remember what was said. Instead, they will remember what they thought about what was said. Conversationalists know how to use silence to influence when people think and what they think about, in order to communicate effectively.
I leave this thought with three questions: How many modern presentations resemble the person talking nonstop, versus the conversation?
Why can't all presentations be like conversations? And wouldn't the world be a better place if they were?