Your audience is better off turning their backs

people turning back
The research is absolutely, unequivocally, 100 per cent clear. As humans, we cannot read and listen at the same time. Because of this simple fact, your audience will retain more of what you say if they turn their back on your slides, whether in the room or via Zoom.

Many of us already know that humans cannot read and listen at the same time. In other words, your spouse, partner or significant other is absolutely correct. You cannot be listening to what she or he is saying while also trying to read a text, even if your partner and the text are based on exactly the same subject.

The research is unequivocal. If you try attempt read the text while listening to your partner, you retain less than if you do either activity separately. You have to block out one or the other to get anything from either.

You cannot process written and spoken information simultaneously. Neither can your partner. Nor can any audience to which you present.

munich concise slide
Even a slide as simple as the one to the left overloads working memory. This slide was drawn from a research study conducted at Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich. I changed the words to gibberish, but it has the same number of lines, words and letters as a slide that Dr. Christoph Wecker’s research team used in their study of presentation effectiveness.

During this study, the audience retained more information when no slides were shown than when even these sparse slides were shown. The slide to the left was what the research team called a “concise” slide.

The study also used “regular” slides, similar to the slide below, which contained an average of thirty-five words each. Again, I changed the slides to gibberish, but regular slides significantly decreased what the audience heard and retained from the presentation. This led Dr. Wecker’s team to coin the phrase “the speech suppression effect of PowerPoint.”

So what does this mean to you?

munich regular slide
If you apply the six-by-six guideline (six words per line and six lines per slide), you are showing thirty-six words at a time, one more than the slides that led to “the speech suppression effect of PowerPoint.” You are making it more difficult for the audience to listen to what you’re saying.

More words and more information to process (i.e. graphs, charts and tables) makes it even worse. The audience hears even less of what you say. Ultimately, this makes your ideas even less memorable for the audience. In the interim, it’s confusing them.

They will get more from your presentation if they turn their back to the slides and listen, rather than trying to follow along as you deliver your slides.

This phenomenon is nothing new. We’ve known about the folly of asking an audience to read and listen for some time.

In 2007, research conducted by a team at the University of New South Wales motivated the lead researcher to say: “The use of the PowerPoint presentation has been a disaster. It should be ditched.”

If you need a visual because you simply cannot explain yourself without one, introduce it. When it’s no longer needed, remove it from view.

And carry on the conversation with the audience. Less presentation and more conversation is the key to improving your success.
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Turn standard presentations …
Into meaningful, memorable conversations with your audience


One Bucket Cover vF
One Bucket at a Time is designed to help you turn standard presentations into meaningful, memorable conversations with audiences.

For less than the cost of a single slide, you’ll gain insight into how audiences listen. You’ll learn how you can get more of what you say into the long-term memory of those in attendance, whether in the room or via Zoom.

You’ll learn to create presentations that tell a story with a clear beginning, middle and end. You’ll understand how to tell that story in a memorable way, delivering your ideas to the audience one bucket at a time. And you’ll gain insight into why answering questions is the magical topping to having your ideas understood and retained, long after your audience has left the room or signed off Zoom.

John Sweller, PhD, one of the world’s leading cognitive scientists, writes:

“The central theme of this book that a presentation should be a conversation is ingenious. Humans have evolved for hundreds of thousands of years to communicate by conversation. We are mentally structured to do so.

“For anyone seeking to set themselves and their ideas apart, this book is well worth the read. Eric Bergman’s techniques are a window to the future of this important human activity.”

One Bucket at a Time is available from Amazon, Kindle and Apple Books.
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