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Show Me! What Brain Research Says About Visuals in PowerPoint

Applies to: PowerPoint 2007, PowerPoint 2003

Author: Robert Lane and Dr. Stephen Kosslyn

Date Created: February 16th 2009
Last Updated: June 14th 2012

...Continued from Page 2

A Visual Example

Here’s a simple example of how visuals can speed learning and express meaning in ways that might be difficult or impossible to convey otherwise. Pretend that you will be visiting the UK and someone mentions the London Eye. In all likelihood, some of you reading this article know exactly what that phase means. Some have heard of it or even seen it. Some of you, however, don’t have a clue what a London Eye is. It could be a famous painting, a mysterious religion, or a popular brew in a local pub for all you know.

If I say you can ride it … that gives more information. If I say it looks like a Ferris wheel, perhaps that helps—or not. What if you live in a part of the world that doesn’t have Ferris wheels and you’ve never heard of one? I could say that it’s round, that it plays with physical forces like a bicycle wheel, that it has capsules. I could spend the next half hour trying to verbally ‘paint a picture’ inside your brain, but that painting, that visual story, probably will be incomplete—until I show you this thing.

In a fraction of a second, you dissect, code, and analyze the visual signals for meaning. “Hmm…it does kind of resemble a bicycle wheel, and those must be the capsules, and that’s what he meant by riding it. In a presentation context, of course, such visuals should be shown along with verbal descriptions and/or simple textual labels. Related visuals like these, when used in succession during a performance, are called a picture story (Lane, 2007).

Keep in mind, also, that this kind of mental meaning search is not unique to pictures. Similar methods guide the analysis of patterns and representations of data, such as graphs, tables, and diagrams (Kosslyn, 2006).

We also recommend another good practice: displaying content-bearing (not decorative) pictures full screen (allowing them to cover the entire slide pane), perhaps without adding text at all. Then fill in contextual details verbally. Most presenters using pictures do otherwise. They place a small image off to the side of text, as in the screenshot shown below. Ask youself, though, “Is that text really necessary? Can those facts be offered verbally instead?”

Here’s the issue. As noted previously, text and pictures are two very different forms of visual information, yet they compete for perceptual and cognitive resources when juxtaposed—you can focus on one or the other, but not both at the same time. Going back and forth between text and picture would be OK if reading a book at leisure, but in a speaking environment, time is more compressed. Viewers must try to read the text, look at the picture, and pay attention to the speaker’s words, all in a short timespan. Most of us fail to do all three and either: ignore the text and listen to the speaker, or try and read the text and miss the speaker’s words. Having the written text on the slide interferes with other forms of information gathering. See Kalyuga, Chandler, and Sweller, 2004, for an experiment in a corporate training context.

To avoid having the text conflict with the picture, or the text conflict with the speaker’s verbal stream, the solution is obvious. Simply dump the text and use a full screen visual. But make sure that your visual is the ‘picture that tells the story’.

References, visual examples, and additional resources are available here on the Aspire Web site.

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