During 2012, Dr. Carmen Simon carried out a major research study on memory – specifically, on how many slides people actually remember from a typical PowerPoint presentation. The study was based on significant changes in information processing and delivery that have taken place in the past decade:

  • An exponential increase in the amount of information delivered, and the time spent consuming it
  • A sense of being overwhelmed by the quantity of information available, while still craving more
  • The ubiquitous use of PowerPoint, or PowerPoint styles (landscape slides, templates, bullet points) to deliver information
  • Presentations that all look the same, making it very difficult for messages to stand out.

Over 1,500 participants were invited to view a short, online PowerPoint presentation of 20 slides. Participants were randomly assigned to one of the 26 conditions, which included different versions of the presentation. After 48 hours, they were asked to recall anything they could remember about the presentation. There were several key findings

  • Participants remembered on average 4 slides out of the 20.
  • Neutral images helped recall when compared with text only, but not to any great extent.
  • Participants remembered content according to a pattern, not just random slides.
  • Significant changes every fifth slide tended to aid recall.

What does this tell us? How can we use this information to improve our presentations? Carmen suggests that there a number of important clues.

The Magic Number Four – studies suggest that people can only hold about 4 or five items at a time in short term memory. The important thing is therefore to make sure that we point them at the right things to remember.

People remember the unusual. If everything in a presentation is equally intense (colour, graphics, in your face), or equally bland (text, indentations and bullet points), we have no control over what, if anything, people will remember.

Concrete visual language aids recall – the most remembered slides in the study were those about what colors to wear or not to wear when presenting online (don’t wear red, don’t wear black, white or stripes, but pastel colors are good). In these cases, pictures might help, but most people can picture the text anyway without much help.

Color co-ordinate your slidesColor co-ordinate your slides

Grouping your slides, “chunk” your presentation. Sometimes this can be done by the colour of the text or the background, or maybe by the use of a different set of images. Well thought out connections between different parts of a presentation are more important than just pushing more content.

People crave novelty – if you want a presentation to attract attention, find out what your audience would consider to be novel. People are more likely to remember what they find new and surprising, rather than what they find familiar. Where information differs from what we would expect, we sit up and take notice.

Repetition aids recallRepetition aids recall

Repetition and alliteration helps. The most memorable slides in the research all used the word “wear”. Using the same word, or finding three or four words that begin with the same letter to stress your key points will probably make the ideas stick in the mind.

People remember negative advice (what not to wear) better than neutral or positive content. However, at the same time, it played on their vanity – do this, or don’t do this in order to “look good”. Another frequently remembered slide suggested presenters should not lean back in their chairs as it made them appear short and fat. In a society that craves positive images, ego enhancing content attracts extra attention, and aids recall.

Ego-boosting contentEgo-boosting content

You can read a more detailed summary of Carmen’s research findings on Poll Everywhere –
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3.

You can also download a fully referenced paper on the research.

Want to learn more? Sign up now for an exclusive online seminar, What is Your 5th Element? on Tuesday 26 March.

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