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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

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How Should Visuals Be Used?

How Should Visuals Be Used?

Be careful, though, because all picture-based visual stimuli are not created equal. Simply throwing random pictures onto slides to ‘pretty them up’ is not a good idea. Some researchers contend that including off-topic or irrelevant pictures and video clips in educational materials actually can have negative effects on learning. See Tversky and Morrison (2001), Mayer , Heiser, and Lonn (2001) and Mayer (2003).

The cognitive system is a fantastic relevance detector. It constantly tells the perceptual system, “Hey, spare me the fluff and give me only the facts I can use to make sense of what’s going on out there”. At the same time, pictures attract our attention like magnets. Can you see the dilemma? If irrelevant stock photos (such as those shown here) appear frequently on slides, purely for decorative reasons, the eyes respond automatically and then the brain has to turn around and say, “Why are you distracting me with that visual input? These pictures don’t relate at all to what the guy is saying.” Viewers are distracted for no good reason.

On the other hand, pictures can be powerful conveyors of meaning. Here are a few good practices:

Providing Detail: If showcasing a product, for example, have short video clips available that demonstrate its operations, along with pictures displaying various views, zooms, and environments. Obviously such imagery is especially helpful if the product is not available at the speaking location. Show and tell.

Shaping Emotions: You've been asked to give a talk about the dangers of tobacco use. A bullet list might do the job, but imagine the greater emotional impact provided by showing yellowed teeth, blackened lungs, and mouth cancers. Emotions can be powerful motivators and pictures tap directly into our emotions, at the deepest levels.

Laying Down Context: Grabbing a digital camera to document the environment and context surrounding your subject matter can be a priceless benefit to audience members. Try to capture what you see through your eyes or imagine in your mind and bring that world to your audiences.  They will relate to your topics and perspectives with greater ease.

Simplifying or Clarifying Complexity: Those of you who present technical information are well aware of how confusing your specialty may be to people in related fields, or sometimes even to experts in your own field. Showing pictures, video, and animations to make topics more concrete will help people connect the concepts you express verbally with experiences already stored in memory.

Giving Examples: The phrase, “Here, let me show you what I mean”, is one of the most potent set of words you can utter as a speaker. It rivets attention in expectation of visual relevance, something the brain appreciates very much. Whether it's warranted or not in this age of photoshopped illustrations, for most of us, seeing is believing.

Reducing Learning Times: Are you a teacher? Most of us are in one way or another, or we wouldn’t be up front talking to people in the first place. Showing a well-timed visual, or sequence of visuals, can deliver instant understanding in some situations, and therefore substantially reduce explanation time.

Enhancing Verbal Stories: You may be thinking, “OK, but why should I be so concerned about using imagery if I’m a good storyteller. Storytellers ‘paint images in people’s minds’, right? Yes and no. With words alone you can paint something in those minds, but exactly what will remain a mystery. Your listeners can attempt to see the image you are painting, but in doing so they must call upon the shadowy mental imagery currently stored in their heads, based upon past experiences. Their understanding, ultimately, may or may not look anything like what you see in your mind. Literally showing what you mean, in conjunction with telling a verbal story, is a much safer bet.

Improving Memory Recall: A picture can enhance the ability to remember concepts and details, and such effect tends to increase over time. One study showed that illustrated text was 9 percent more effective than text alone when comprehension was tested right away, but that it was 83 percent more effective when the test was delayed, thus implying the reader’s ability to remember the information better later, because of the illustration.


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