How the Brain Processes Visual Communication

March 24, 2014

Here’s the problem with PowerPoint. Everyone has access it, and everyone thinks they know how to use it. Unfortunately, the abuse of tools like PowerPoint in our business culture are neglecting opportunities to maximize how the human brain functions best.

With that said, I want to focus this post on the teachings of American educational psychologist, Richard Mayer of the University of California Santa Barbara. Dr. Mayer has received numerous awards and has written more than 390 publications including 23 books on education and multimedia. In other words, he knows a thing or two about how the human brain digests and processes information in the context of multimedia stimuli.

Here are a few of the biggest takeaways from his two decades of research on how people learn from multimedia presentations. Every presenter needs to consider his teachings when building and designing a presentation.

1. The Principle of Continuity

People absorb and retain information better when there is text and images on the screen. Let me repeat that item: People retain information when both 1) Text and 2) Images are on the screen. You need both elements when designing a presentation because studies have proven that this approach increases retention by up to 42%. In this case, don’t opt for traditional headers, but aim to keep the text close to the image or concept that is being portrayed. If you help your audience make the connections by utilizing this layout, the higher the probability of your presentation success.

2. The Principle of Coherence

Humans have a very limited working memory and can only take in limited amounts of information at one time. Therefore, as a presenter, you need to be able to separate the essential from the non-essential for your audience. Only the most important talking points should make it on your slide. Presenters need to avoid the temptation to add information, stats, or facts that are only relevant to them and not the audience.

3. The Principle of Signaling

Remember that your audience doesn’t have the same depth of knowledge as you do regarding your topic. Therefore, it is your responsibility to help connect the dots by creating signals. For instance, it needs to be absolutely clear that A leads to B which leads to C. If the audience isn’t signaled that this is how A connects to B or we are now moving from topic A to B, your message needs to be reevaluated. It is your responsibility to make sure the audience can see the connections in your material.

4. The Principle of Segmenting

If your material is complicated, don’t forget to “chunk” your information into shorter bursts. For instance, instead of lingering on one slide for 5 minutes, utilize 5 one-minute slides. The shorter the segments, the higher potential for retention.

Remember, PowerPoint gets abused every single day. You need to harness the power of this medium by applying the principles above to maximize its effectiveness for you and your audience.

READ MORE: 4 Steps to Creating a Visual Resume That Stands Out

About the Author

Scott Schwertly is the author of How to Be a Presentation God and CEO of Ethos3, a Nashville, TN-based presentation boutique providing professional presentation design and training for national and international clients ranging from Fortune 500 companies to branded individuals like Guy Kawasaki.

If Scott is not working with his team building presentations, you will find him in the pool, on the bike, or on a long run. Scott lives in Nashville, TN with his wife and three dogs. He has a B.A. and M.B.A. from Harding University. Find Scott on Google+.

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