4 Multimedia Learning Principles that will Improve Your Slides

February 3, 2009

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Olivia Mitchell has been a Toastmaster, a management development trainer for a major bank, and a political candidate in New Zealand. Now she teaches others how to become more confident and effective presenters - through face-to-face training courses in New Zealand (Effective Speaking) and her blog Speaking about Presenting.

I've just hosted a passionate debate on my blog about the importance of design in a PowerPoint presentation. Some bloggers were adamant that design was a luxury that businesses could not afford. Others couldn't understand why businesses didn't accord the same design budget to PowerPoint presentations as they did to their annual reports and brochures.

Here's my take on it. There are slides that are ugly but work. There are slides that are visually stunning but have zero learning value. In this post I want to:

1. Distinguish between the two aspects of slide design which explain this: graphic design and instructional design

2. Explore how you can implement effective instructional design in your next SlideShare presentation.

Graphic design

This is probably what you think of when you think of designing a slide. It includes your fonts, your colour palette, and how you place objects on the slide so that you end up with an aesthetically pleasing result.

Graphic design is important but not critical. The critical aspect of design - if you want your audience to remember and learn something from your slides - is instructional design.

Instructional design

Instructional design helps people learn. It does this by taking into account how people learn from different media. This is called the cognitive theory of multimedia learning. One of the key ideas of this theory is that we have separate channels for processing verbal material and visual material. Each channel is limited in the amount it can process.


This idea is supported by e-learning research. The lead researcher in this area is Richard Mayer. He's developed a set of multimedia learning principles based on the research. He says:

[T]he results of this research can be used to improve the effectiveness of PowerPoint messages.

I've outlined below the multimedia learning principles that are applicable to SlideShare presentations.

1. Use words and graphics

The first principle is to use both words and graphics in your slides. This is what the research shows:
Though there are still a few bulleted presentations on SlideShare composed almost entirely of words, most presentations on SlideShare do combine words and graphics effectively. The winning presentation of the 2008 SlideShare Presentation Contest, created by Jeff Brenman, is a great example of this:

View more presentations or upload your own. (tags: design crisis)

2. Don't use pictures which aren't 100% conceptually relevant

If you include a photo which doesn't obviously relate to the text, then we start devoting some of our limited processing capacity to working out the link . This is called adding to the cognitive load. Quite a few SlideShare presentations fall down on this principle. This tends to happen when you know you should add a picture but can't find quite the right one - so you settle for something less. This reduces the effectiveness of your slideshow. Here's an example of a slideshow where I had trouble connecting the photos to the text.

3. Present words as audio rather than onscreen text

You can now add audio on a SlideShare presentation - it's called a Slidecast. The evidence from research on e-learning is that presenting words as audio rather then text is more effective.


And yet there are only 300 slidecasts on Slideshare. And of those, not many are teaming the visual and the audio channel effectively. Most slidecasts I've seen have too much onscreen text. The result of this is that the verbal channel gets overloaded because it has to process both the audio and the text.


So when you add audio to your SlideShare presentation reduce the amount of onscreen text.

4. Use a "virtual coach"

A virtual coach is an onscreen character that you create who acts as the " host" for your presentation. The virtual coach makes the watcher feel more like they're in a conversation rather than just passively watching a slideshow. An inspired example of a virtual coach is the frog that Garr Reynolds of PresentationZen created to explain "Brain Rules for Presenters".

With your knowledge of these principles, you can now create SlideShare presentations which are not only great to look at, but help your audience learn.