Have you ever had the experience of someone telling you something that’s quite interesting while also showing you something that’s quite interesting and you didn’t know where to focus? Should you look at the picture and understand it, or should you listen? Les Posen points to some new research that says this is a big problem with presentation software like PowerPoint and Keynote. Actually, Les doesn’t mention Keynote as a culprit because he loves Keynote, but I’m guessing you can make the same errors using any presentation software.
I understood the research to say that if we present two or more sources of information simultaneously we overload our audience’s minds and they get confused. I’m sure this is mainly the case when the speaker says one thing and the slide also has plenty of text to consume (probably saying the same thing). But I’m sure the problem exists is the information presented is rich and dense. It’s much less an issue, of course, if the slide just has a simple picture that didn’t require interpretation while the presenter spoke, but is there to evoke a feeling.
I witnessed a good example of how we can easily confuse our audience by overloading the audiences senses. Last weekend I attended the Narrative and Complexity workshop convened by David Boje and his colleagues in Las Vegas. As part of our time together we were invited to attend a presentation by one of David’s students. The PhD student presented a graph using PowerPoint that was complicated and took some time to understand. Unfortunately the graph was poorly labelled and while the student continued to present his ideas no one could concentrate on what he was saying. We were all stuck on the graph we didn’t understand. Eventually the audience became aggressive and attacked his presentation. Poor guy. It wasn’t a pretty sight.
I can understand why people provide lots of text on their slides. They believe they have some really important things to convey and they don’t want the audience to miss the key points (or should I say, the key notes and powerful points). It looks like our logical, rational minds fails us here because in an attempt to ensure we convey our points, our audiences get confused and miss the point. Perhaps there is a narrative alternative.
Would you put text on slides if we were telling a story? For me it doesn’t make much sense. What would you write? You wouldn’t attempt to summarise the story because it would ruin it for everyone. Including stories helps you break the habit of having too much text on your slides. You could use a combination (in any order) of these presentation patterns to effectively communicate your ideas:
- tell a story while showing a picture that evokes a feeling that supports the story
- show a graph while telling them what the graph means
- tell them ideas, concepts, opinions while showing simple graphics (like a single image covering the whole screen) that help them connect the ideas to a picture
- hand out the detailed information at the end of the presentation so people can read the facts etc.
You can see an example of one of my presentations that uses this approach.
About Shawn Callahan
Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on: