It has become trendy in recent years to criticize or even eliminate slide presentations from professional meetings. Just because some high profile people have made the decision to abandon PowerPoint does not change what the research says: Most people are visual learners; visual communication has huge ROI; and thoughtful slide presentations are remarkably effective.
Over the course of the next three blogs, I’ll be discussing three trends in public speaking that you should probably reconsider, or even avoid. In this first blog, I discuss how calls to end PowerPoint are wrongheaded.
Calls to End PowerPoint and other Visual Aid Software are Wrongheaded
Keeping up with trends in the marketplace is essential, but it is just as essential to make sure we do not mistake the “new” or the “different” for the better. Trends can signal permanent new directions, or, more likely, they can signal temporary fads. If a billionaire or celebrity says it or does it, then it must be the best practice, right? Often, the answer is no.
I’ll give you an example. A few years ago, it was reported that Jeff Bezos banned PowerPoint from Amazon meetings. Instead of slide decks, he enforced a system of written, six-page briefs. In this format, meetings begin with a silent, half-hour reading of the briefing document. Then everyone is equally informed before the discussion begins.
I actually love this idea, and I do similar exercises with my own students. Like a study hall, an obligatory silent read in a group setting ensures people will not get distracted from the most relevant content to be discussed.
But I am concerned about the way people have interpreted Bezos’s move. The decision was hailed as a master stroke of leadership. It was called “arguably the smartest management move he’s ever made.” Another popular article asked, “if it works for Jeff Bezos, why can’t it work for you?” The tone of the reactions strikes me as almost sycophantic, as if the ideas of a single rich and famous tycoon ought to be gospel for the rest of us.
Most of us are not running multi-billion-dollar, multi-national, complex e-commerce companies with 800,000 employees and a market cap bigger than 92% of the world’s countries. Bezos’s policy is based on his concern that meetings at the highest executive levels were losing efficiency because busy execs were not coming to the meetings prepared to discuss the topics on the agenda.
In other words, these meetings were not the “just give me the bullet points” sort of meetings that most of us face on a regular basis. What if the executive team and some of the shareholders at your company simply want a 20-minute territory report from you? Are you going to ask them to sit in silence for thirty minutes and read your six-page memo first?
What if you are sharing your research at an academic conference as part of a three-person panel, and you only have fifteen minutes to communicate complex data to a room of twenty-five strangers? They came to see you, hear you, and watch as your ideas take shape before them. If they wanted to read your ideas, they could simply have sent you an email request or waited for your work to be published in the back of some obscure journal a year and a half later.
Just because it works for Team Bezos does not mean it’s going to work for Team You. And that’s a reality you should embrace because the research on visual communication has only become more compelling in recent years. Here are five reasons you absolutely should not abandon the slide deck:
- Most people are visual learners.
65 percent of the population are visual learners, meaning they learn primarily by seeing and watching. Only about 30 percent of the population are auditory learners. Only about 5% of the population retains information most effectively by reading. Good speakers make efforts to appeal to all learning styles, and they certainly do not rule out the visual learners.
- Visual communication grasps and lasts.
You probably do not remember what your third-grade teacher taught you, but you almost surely remember what kind of clothes they wore, how they did their hair, and how the room was decorated. Dr. Lynell Burmark reminds us that words are processed in the short-term memory, whereas images lodge in our long-term memory. Not only do images stick with us longer, but we are able to use them to process complex information at an alarmingly fast rate. Robert E. Horn of Stanford University points out that “visual language has the potential for increasing ‘human bandwidth’ – the capacity to take in, comprehend, and more efficiently synthesize large amounts of information.” One study concludes that we process visual information 60,000 times faster than verbal information!
- Visual communication creates more involvement from the audience.
When you include well designed slides, you create a multi-modal appeal for your audience. Their brains are able to cross-check the information they’re hearing with the information they’re seeing. And when you draw their attention to certain parts of the visual, such as a graph or a bullet point or part of an image, you get their kinesthetic brain involved, which again makes the information stickier. Even better, if you are able to generate some interactive discussion surrounding something they are seeing on the visual, you’ve supercharged their memory of that part of the presentation.
- Visual communication reaches the audience’s emotions.
Just as people remember what they see much more effectively than what they read or hear, so they remember what they feel. This is because the human brain processes visual stimuli in the medial temporal lobe, which is also where emotions are stored. When we see images, we are able to recreate the experience in our mind, which triggers a personalized, empathic response. This, again, is why most people are visual learners. We remember what we feel, and we feel what we see.
- You can make more money.
Surprised? One study at the University of Minnesota found that effective use of visual aids resulted in a 43% increase in persuasiveness and a 26% increase in the amount of money a potential client or customer is willing to pay for a product.
When people like Jeff Bezos criticize PowerPoint, they are almost never targeting well designed slide decks that are used in effective ways. They are almost always targeting the poorly designed slides that amateur presenters use in lieu of effective communication habits.
No one is suggesting that you make visual aids the centerpiece of your presentation. To the contrary! They should be backgrounded. Their job is to reinforce your message. This fact does not undermine the power of the visual aid. It ensures the visual aid does not undermine you. In other blogs – and in most of Trivium’s workshops – we will discuss and workshop how to use visuals: how to use text sparingly, how to use images effectively, how to display information coherently, and how to interact with the visuals.
There are also guidelines on what kinds of visuals might be most effective in a given circumstance. PowerPoint isn’t always the best strategy. A whiteboard or flipchart or pad of paper may be best for extra small meetings; a handout might be good for more interactive meetings; and so on. And sometimes, yes, a written brief read in silence might be the way to go.
But to conclude that slide decks are therefore the bane of the professional world is fallacious – what we argument types call a hasty generalization. For now, just be assured, you do not need to abandon the slide deck just yet.
Ben Crosby is a professor of rhetoric and a communication skills consultant. He teaches courses in public speaking and presenting, argumentation and debate, technical and professional communication, persuasion and selling, and the history of rhetoric.
His work is regularly published in his field’s top academic journals and conferences. He is also the author of Presentations as Performance: A Professional’s Guide to Better Speaking.
In his free time, he spends time with his wife, their four kids, and their cat, Arza. He is an avid Utah Jazz fan.