A recent study on memory asked a very basic question applied to a very basic PowerPoint presentation: October Blog 1- Pic 1How many slides does a viewer remember, on average, from a text-only, standalone PowerPoint presentation containing 20 slides? This study then allowed us to answer the bigger question: how much do people really remember from a presentation.


We learned that four is the magic number. Participants remembered an average of 4 slides from a 20-slide, standalone, text-only PowerPoint presentation (the same number of memorable slides applied when text was combined with neutral graphics).

Researchers studying the limitations of memory capacity suggest that people form clusters of no more than three or four items to recall. What does this mean to you? When you consider how many points to cover in your next presentation, consider no more than 4 points.

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Figure 1: For a memorable presentation, cover no more than 4 points in your next presentation

Where do business presenters err when it comes to the magic number 4? In two areas: 1) presenters tend to cover more than 4 points or 2) If they do cover up to 4 points, the items are not tied by a unified message. When you don’t have a unified message, it will be difficult for people to remember even the 4 points. Why? Because memory often works on a concept called spreading activation. This means that once an item is active in your mind (say bread), it tends to trigger related concepts (say butter). Thinking of bread is more likely to activate the image of butter than the image of a chain saw. As you analyze your four items, does one topic naturally lead to another?

For example, let’s say you were presenting 3 use cases to your boss: how your software impacted clients from Finance, Transportation, and Retail. The boss will remember the 3 points better if you built a picture of how the 3 items are linked by the impact of connection speeds (let’s say the 3 names appeared written across an Ethernet cable, which was plugged into a computer with your logo on it. This way, there is a message that ties all items together.

Understanding presentation tips like the Magic Number 4 not only enhance your presentations, but also help you control what  your audience remembers! Discover more effective skills by attending the one-day Rexi Media workshop in San Francisco on November 13.

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