Category Archives: Presentation Facts

Presentation Facts explores what is known for sure about presentations and presentation visuals… or at least what can be supported with reasonably well done research. It also explores the origins and validity of presentations-related common wisdom.

The Complexity Paradox

I have a bit of advice for any presentation professionals out there who might be listening. It could help you explain to a client, or potential client, why you are so vitally important–or, maybe reinforce your career decision. The next time you face a skeptic who is not sure you are worth the money, or is not resonating to your brilliant ideas, tell them to consider the complexity paradox.

When they say they’ve never heard of it, which they will because they haven’t, explain to them that the complexity paradox is one of the defining attributes of our modern world. Go ahead, lay it on thick. Tell them that it is a phenomenon well-understood by few and poorly addressed by most. They should be hooked by now, so lean back in your chair, look professorial, and say, “Increasing complexity demands increasing simplicity.

Before they have time to respond with “ah”, “oh” or “hunh?” expand your explanation by telling them that the more complex a system becomes, the simpler the processes for understanding it must be. If they still aren’t with you, whip out a few pithy examples. Explain how we frequently use metaphors to reduce the difficult complexity of one thing by directly comparing it to the familiar simplicity of another. All the world’s a stage. Love is a flower. War is Hell. There goes the ballgame.

Point out how in the hands of a professional simple images can convey complex messages with vivid clarity. That is what charts, graphs and diagrams do when they are well designed. Remind them that physicists and engineers routinely reduce vastly complex equations into simple animations in order to grasp what is happening. The greater the complexity, the simpler the visualization required. You might also explain how psychologists and biologists are trained to identify simple patterns in order to understand complex behaviors. The list goes on. By now they should have the point.

Close the deal with the statement that you are in the business of addressing the complexity paradox. You make the complex simple so that your clients and their audiences understand faster, make better decisions and take more effective actions.

And be aware the real value of citing the complexity paradox is not that it will make you sound erudite or even that it might get you that job. The real value lies in the fact that the world is getting more complex by the nanosecond, and for presentation pros that reality translates into job security.

House Warming for Presentation Facts


Thanks Lee for launching Visual Being and thanks to VB readers for letting me make a small contribution to this site over the years. Really hard to belive it has been about three years already. In 2008 I am renewing my committment to post on presentation-related research and have decided it is a big enough topic to warrant its own blog. If you are so inclined, stop by and visit me from time to time at the new home for Presentation Facts.

It’s not a fancy place but I hope to fix it up as we go along. Mostly I hope it is full of interesting and engaging discussion and debate about a topic we all care about… presentation effectiveness.

The Wow Factor… Multiple Monitors

I’ve struggled with the dual-screen (multiple) monitor feature in Windows for the past year.  After a coworker showed me this feature on a job I was working, I was anxious to learn how to do it because it looked so cool!  Well I found out that it wasn’t such an easy task…  Continue reading

The 2006 Presentations Council Survey


For as long as I have been associated with Presentation Professionals in various settings, I have been aware of an underlying sense of professional identity confusion that runs through the group. Even after years of discussion in groups like the IAPP (now defunct) and the InfoComm Presentations Council, it is still not uncommon to hear people argue, question or discuss exactly what a Presentation Professional is. Who are they? What do they do? Where do they work? And perhaps most importantly, what do Presentation Professionals want? 

Fortunately for Presentation Professionals everywhere, some of these questions are finally beginning to be answered thanks to survey results just released by the Presentations Council of InfoComm International. The questions asked in this survey were developed by a project subcommittee of the Presentations Council (the survey group) that included Korie Pelka, Lisa Lindgren, Darlene Briggs, Richard Bray and Bob Befus. InfoComm’s Market Research group, led by Eva Guterres then developed the online survey itself. The survey group worked hard to publicize the survey through email invitations, listserve messages and through various blogs and newsletters. As a result of their efforts, a very respectable 928 complete responses were collected to the 25 survey questions. 

In this article I will present a few of the more interesting highlights from the survey, the complete survey will be available for purchase from InfoComm International here soon. Continue reading

Shea Tips

I’ve been a regular reader of Dave Shea’s, ever since I discovered him a year or so back through his ground-breaking ‘Zen Garden‘ work in the field of CSS .

This week he posts a well-considered article called ‘Speaking? Tips‘, about the lessons he’s learned through having to give numerous presentations on his work. The reader comments offer some added value as well.

The PPT Use Survey

In many VB posts I have expressed my opinion about the “Death by PowerPoint” thinking that has been so pervasive in recent years. Many blame the tool itself. By its very design, these folks believe, PowerPoint interferes with a presenter’s ability to communicate effectively. Others, (like me), blame the user for not learning how to use the tool effectively. I also indirectly blame myself and others in the presentation media community for not taking our profession seriously enough to research, train, develop best practices and in general treat our work like a serious and important enterprise. As a result, the notion that anyone can simply load up a PPT template and develop effective presentation materials is widespread. Continue reading

Multimedia Learning – Part 2

A Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning

Doug Vogel’s 1986 study demonstrated a clear and significant effect on persuasion when a presentation is delivered along with supporting visuals. What is not clear from Vogel’s work is exactly how the improvement in persuasion happens. Persuasion is a complicated process involving attention… comprehension… yielding/agreement… and retention …. culminating in action. Vogel studied 17 modifiers of these components of persuasion trying to understand what was going on, but in the end his results were inconclusive and even contradictory.

Professor Richard Mayer has approached the challenge of understanding the use of visuals from a different perspective. Mayer has focused on the effect of visuals on learning. Just as Vogel developed a well researched theory of persuasion, Mayer has done extensive research on learning and developed a cognitive theory of multimedia learning. All of the research he presents in his excellent book “Multimedia Learning” is designed to test the assumptions of this theory.

Why should a Presentation Professional care about a cognitive theory of multimedia learning? Because the design of visual support material should be based on what is known about how the mind works… how information is processed and how learning occurs. Effective presentation design cannot be based on intuition, heresay or opinion. If we were to overlay Mayer’s learning theory over Vogel’s persuasion process, it would clearly overlap with the components of comprehension and retention. I believe there is also an overlap, although a little less clear, with the component of yielding/agreement. Mayer’s work is meticulously researched and referenced. While I won’t present all of his supportive references, they are available in his book for those who are interested. Continue reading

Multimedia Learning

It’s early Wednesday morning, and the client sitting across the small conference table is harried and obviously stressed. She explains that she will be giving a 45 minute talk to company managers on Friday and has just found out that several of the other presenters are developing PowerPoint presentations. She hadn’t planned on using PPT, but now feels pressure to conform. On the conference table are a small stack of printouts and several CDs. She has provided a nearly finished script, a list of the 35 visuals she thinks she will need created, a PPT file she has started using a Microsoft template, and a variety of other files and resources you might need. Can she see something Thursday morning she asks?

You begin by asking your client about her audience and objectives. How much does the audience know about her subject? Is there already widespread agreement with her position? What exactly is she trying to accomplish? Where will the presentation take place… and what kind of presentation equipment is available? You also try to assess her experience and skill as a presenter. Does she present often? Has she presented to this audience before? She resists at first, but you coax her into delivering her introduction to you so you can get a quick feel for her delivery style. She seems fluent and confident.

You go through each prospective visual carefully, making sure you know what she will be saying with each one and what key points each visual should reinforce. Finally, you review the production schedule. By lunch you will send her a few format comps for her to review. At nine the next morning you will have her visuals ready for a preliminary review. You insist that she schedule some time in the afternoon to rehearse with her presentation. Throughout your discussion with this client you are careful to manage her expectations. There is not enough time to design each visual as it should be designed. The quick turnaround will require you to focus on the design of an overall presentation format, and then develop each visual consistently within the format specs. The format you design will carefully incorporate all you know about effective visual design including projected colors and contrast, spatial layout and use of grid systems, font selection and the use of supporting imagery and animations.

Let’s assume that this job goes according to plan – you deliver a nicely formatted presentation, your client delivers her talk and is satisfied with the results. Is that all there is to presentation development? What evidence do you have that you have made a real difference in the outcome of your client’s presentation? After 11 Presentation Fact articles, what do we know that gives us assurance that our professional efforts on our client’s behalf are truly worth the investment? Continue reading

What Do We Know About the Effectiveness of Animations?

Presentation Facts is a work in progress. It is an ongoing search for empirical evidence of effectiveness in various presentation related arenas. As I have read through studies on the persuasive effect of various types of visual support, an interesting pattern seems to be emerging relative to the use of animations in computer graphic presentations.

Vogel’s study on the impact of presentation visuals on persuasion (1998) did not really provide conclusive evidence of the effectiveness of animations. Some improvements in comprehension and perception of the presenter were noted, but these did not translate into a significant improvement in persuasive effect. The quality of the graphics and the way animations were used in the study could have contributed to their lack lustre performance.

This article adds some interesting information from a 1991 study to our emerging understanding of animation effectiveness.

Professor Wesley King, Jr. is the Chair of the Management/Marketing Department at the University of Dayton. He teaches organizational behavior and theory at both the graduate and undergraduate level. In 1991, King along with Marie Dent and Edward Miles published the results of a study entitled: The Persuasive Effect of Graphics in Computer-Mediated Communication. The study results were published in Volume 7 of Computers in Human Behavior. The purpose of this study was to investigate how presentation graphics might influence a group or individual to accept an action or point of view. Interestingly, King and his colleagues compared both static visuals along with what they called dynamic (moving) graphics. While we are interested in all of the results of this study, it is the comparison of static to dynamic graphics that is most important to our understanding of the effectiveness of animations. Continue reading

Before… and After… Bullets

The argument for and against PowerPoint (mostly against) goes on. Many have picked up on thoughts expressed by Edward Tufte in his essay “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint”. Regardless of where you stand on the debate created by this essay, it is important to understand that Tufte’s essay is opinion… not science. There are no studies that show PowerPoint is “making us stupid”, or that we should not trust presenters who rely on it or that projected visuals should be thrown out in favor of handouts. It is also very popular these days to decry the widespread use of the ubiquitous Bullet Slide. Keep in mind that to date, Presentation Facts has found no empirical evidence that the much maligned Bullet Slide is significantly more or less effective than any other type of visual. (It may or may not be better, or worse than other visuals, we just haven’t reviewed studies yet that clearly answer this question).

We have however found clear evidence that what happens before… and after visuals are created can significantly impact the persuasive effect of a presentation.

Dr. James McCroskey is a Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at West Virginia University. For 25 years (1972-1997) he served as chair of that department. McCroskey has studied attitude change and persuasion for many years. In 1969, he published the results of a study entitled: The Effects of Disorganisation and Nonfluency on Attitude Change and Source Credibility.

This well-designed study demonstrated that the presence of either serious disorganization or extensive nonfluences in a speech was sufficient to significantly reduce the amount of attitude change produced by a speaker. Continue reading

The Primary Visual – Physical Attractiveness and Persuasion

Presentation Professionals add value only to the extent that their work enhances the ability of presenters to communicate. Early studies we have looked at demonstrate that visuals can positively influence persuasion. We have also seen that if used improperly, (as in the improper use of transitions), visuals can actually impede a presenter’s ability to communicate. It is important to remember however, that there is probably a fairly limited range of enhancement that visual support can provide to a speaker.

This is a personal opinion, not a fact, and I say it for two reasons. First, as I have poured over many studies in the last few months, the impact seen with visuals, while often statistically significant, is usually only marginally so. I don’t see dramatic and overwhelming improvements by using visuals (contrary to the past claims of many in our industry). Secondly, I know anecdotally from personal experience that some of the most powerful presentations I have heard did not use any visual support at all.

This doesn’t mean that what we do is unimportant… it means that we have to keep in mind that our presentation support materials are only a part, (maybe only a small part), of the very complex process of communication… and that the most important visual of all is the presenter him or herself.

Shelly Chaiken is a Professor of Psychology at New York University. In 1979, while at the University of Toronto, she published a very interesting paper on a study she conducted called “Communicator Physical Attractiveness and Persuasion”. The paper was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Volume 37, Number 8. In this well designed and well conducted research, Chaiken proved that physical attractiveness can significantly enhance communicator persuasiveness. Continue reading

The Presentations Magazine/3M Multimedia Study

I remember pretty clearly the day that the February 2000 issue of Presentations Magazine arrived in our Raleigh, North Carolina office. It contained the results from a Presentations/3M study on the effectiveness of multimedia presentations. Prior to this, I had heard rumblings of “data” from the 1980s studies but had never actually read those research reports. For the next few years, I confidently told audiences and clients that “multimedia presentations could increase comprehension 78% over static visuals.” Like many others, I was eager to use any data that seemed to validate the services we were offering to clients.

So what did this study really tell us about the effectiveness of PowerPoint multimedia presentations? Unfortunately, the answer is: Not much at all. Continue reading

Vogel’s 1996 Extension Study with Transitions and Animations

One of the problems with the 1986 UM/3M study was that it used overhead transparencies and slides for visual support. It is a little hard to know which of the 1986 findings (if any) might be generalized to the way most presentations are given today. It might be reasonable to think that the positive findings in comprehension and retention would still hold true. What about the significant improvement in the audience’s perception of the speaker however? Vogel hypothesized that the improvement in persuasion was predominately mediated through this heightened positive perception of the speaker. Would someone viewing a typical presentation with PowerPoint support today perceive the presenter as positively as the 1986 subjects viewed the speaker with overhead transparencies?

In 1996, Doug Vogel, who was an associate professor in the MIS department at the University of Arizona at the time, joined forces with Joline Morrison, an assistant professor in the MIS department at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire, to submit a research paper for publication entitled “The Impacts of Presentation Visuals on Persuasion”. After a revision in 1997, the article was accepted and published in a 1998 volume of Information & Management.

This article did two things. First, it re-presented the data from Vogel’s 1986 research, and secondly, it added new results from an interesting 2nd study on the use of electronic presentation of computer visuals rather than the overheads and slides he had used previously. The 1986 study was covered in the posts linked above, so this entry will only be concerned with the 1996 extension.

The purpose of this extension study was to “investigate the impact of screen-show effects (animation and transitions) on presentation persuasiveness.” Vogel saw animation and transitions as another characteristic of visuals just like colour vs. B&W or text only vs. the incorporation of graphics. Prior to conducting this extension study, Vogel hypothesized that the use of animations and transitions would enhance attention as well as the audience’s perception of the presenter. Both of these were expected to have positive effects on persuasion. Continue reading

Do You See the Words Coming Out of My Mouth?

7% – 38% – 55%

How many of you know the significance of these three percentages?

Anyone who has ever attended a seminar or course on presentation skills has undoubtedly heard them. When communicating, we are told, only 7% of our message is communicated through the words we use… 38% is communicated through vocal tone… and a whopping 55% is communicated through facial expression.

I was thinking about this during a trip I took this spring to Prague in the Czech Republic. Czech is a very difficult language to learn (for me anyway). But according to the 7-38-55 theory, I really shouldn’t need to learn Czech at all…. I should be able to understand 93% of a Czech conversation through tone and facial expressions alone. Suffice it to say, the 7-38-55 concept did not work for me that well. Without understanding the words I was pretty clueless!

So what exactly is going on here? Where do these percentages come from?

Albert Mehrabian, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at UCLA. In 1967 Mehrabian conducted a pair of studies with some colleagues. The first study, “Decoding of Inconsistent Communications” was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The second was called “Inference of Attitudes from Nonverbal Communication in Two Channels” and was published in the Journal of Consulting Psychology. Together, these two small studies are the origin of the 7-38-55 percentages which are used exstensively in presentation skills coaching. Continue reading