Why do all those PowerPoint presentations suck?

The cognitive psychology behind how we learn.

We’ve all sat through it: the droning PowerPoint presentation where someone is reading slides to us, full of text, charts and graphics.

Or maybe the presentation filled with cute graphics, photos and clip art.

I’m currently reading “Jacked Up” by Bill Lane. Lane was the speechwriter for Jack Welch, the CEO of GE from 1981–2001. He writes about how Welch was maniacal about presentations, and was ruthless in making sure his employees communicated with clarity, focus and exhaustive preparation.

Now, a bulletproof content strategy and keen awareness of one’s audience are one thing. But what about how our brain receives the information we are presented? It turns out there are some specific rules we can follow when making a presentation that can improve how people receive and retain information.

Ruth Colvin Clark and Richard E. Mayer’s book “E-Learning and the Science of Instruction” outlines many of these rules. The rules are based on extensive evidence-based research. Cognitively, in an instructional setting, the human brain takes in information in three distinct ways:

  • Reading words
  • Hearing spoken words
  • Looking at images

Different combinations of these three channels help us to learn more effectively, while some actually hinder us from remembering information. Let’s look at some of the principles Clark and Mayer describe.

The multimedia principle: use words and graphics rather than words alone

The contiguity principle: align words to corresponding graphics

The modality principle: present words as audio narration rather than on-screen text

The redundancy principle: explain visuals with words in audio or text, not both

The general notion is that the brain gets overloaded if the three channels it uses to receive information are not harmonious.

Let’s consider the PowerPoint slide that has three massive paragraphs of text. The presenter pulls up the slide, and begins talking over it, trying to explain to you the details. Your brain is trying to read the words — which would take you a few seconds to read on your own anyway. But your brain is also doing its best to process what the presenter is saying. As a result, the modality principle shows us that both sets of information get cancelled out, and your brain does a poor job of retaining any of the information.

The modality principle

How about the presentation with funny clip art and cute pictures of puppies? Well, the multimedia principle suggests that the use of graphics are good: a visual representation of ideas and concepts can reinforce learning in the brain. What is the presentation about? Is it a presentation to veterinarians about puppies? If so, the puppy photo might be appropriate, based on the contiguity principle. Is the presentation about a B2B marketing strategy for a software platform? Well, then the puppy photo might not be the most effective. They might just come away thinking, “that sure was a cute presentation!” without remembering all the details of your marketing approach. Images that are at odds with written or spoken words can actually cancel out the message you’re trying to get across.

The contiguity principle

The next time you’re putting together a PowerPoint presentation, think about the three ways the brain takes in information: reading words, hearing spoken words and looking at images, and see if you can’t eliminate some of the confusion between them. Not only will your colleagues appreciate it, but there’s a much better chance they’ll retain more of your presentation.