I was recently on a call to review a new technical presentation being created for the next release of a software product. I was joined by a Product Marketing Manager and a Field Readiness Manger to discuss the content of the slides and to give my feedback. Overall, the slides had a lot of great technical content and useful insights into the product. Several of the slides, however, were overloaded with text. I stressed my belief that much of that text could be moved to the notes and that the more we used visuals instead of text, the more effective and engaging the presentation would be. Unfortunately, the person who created most of the content did not take this response as feedback (the Reflect of the Six Rs) but became defensive. When I remarked that one slide had over 100 words on it, the volume and the tension raised considerably. Then he used the fateful phrase – "But this a technical presentation!"
I must admit, I have used this phrase several times myself in the past, before I came to understand how heavily I was leaning on the Technical Speaker’s Crutch (more commonly known as PowerPoint). I used that phrase when I still believed that the slides were there to be both my teleprompter and a handout to give to the audience afterwards. I used that phrase before I came to discover the there is a better way, and there is science to prove it.
Sometime in 2003, I was searching on the web for information on how to become a more effective technical speaker. I came across an article on Wired.com entitled "PowerPoint is Evil" by Edward Tufte. That provocative title certainly got my interest. This article asserts "the PowerPoint style routinely disrupts, dominates, and trivializes content. Thus PowerPoint presentations too often resemble a school play -very loud, very slow, and very simple". That article led me to Tufte’s essay on PowerPoint and the Shuttle Columbia investigation and his well known short called "The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Picthing Out Corrupts Within".
Tufte rejects PowerPoint almost entirely, and I could not see a way to do my job without it completely. I wanted to find out more about how to use this tool effectivley to support my remarks, not distract from them. His points about the abuse of slideware certainly had my interest, and these articles lead to me to do more digging into learning styles, cognition, and PowerPoint.
I soon found this document written by Dr. Richard Mayer and Roxana Moreno (presented at the annual meeting of the ACM SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, Los Angeles, CA in 1998). In this paper, these two Cognitive Psychologists review "a series of experiments yielding five major principles of how to use multimedia to help students understand a scientific explanation". This paper opened my mind to many new possibilities, and provided hard data to back up the assumption that less text more visuals in a slice deck was a good thing. Mayer published a book on this topic in 2001 called Multimedia Learning. Mayer lists three assumptions of multimedia learning in the book -
- First, the human information-processing system consists of two separate channels—an auditory/verbal channel for processing auditory input and verbal representations and a visual/pictorial channel for processing visual input and pictorial representations.
- Second, each channel in the human information-processing system has limited capacity—only a limited amount of cognitive processing can take place in the verbal channel at any one time, and only a limited amount of cognitive processing can take place in the visual channel at any one time.
- Third, meaningful learning requires a substantial amount of cognitive processing to take place in the verbal and visual channels.
Mayer updated his list in this book to Seven principles -
1. The Multimedia Principle: Students learn better from words and pictures than from words alone.
2. The Spatial Contiguity Principle: Students learn better when corresponding words and pictures are presented near rather than far from each other on the page or screen.
3. The Temporal Contiguity Principle: Students learn better when corresponding words and pictures are presented simultaneously rather than successively.
4. The Coherence Principle: Students learn better when extraneous words, pictures and sounds are excluded rather than included.
5. The Modality Principle: Students learn better from animation and narration than from animation and on-screen text.
6. The Redundancy Principle: Students learn better from animation and narration than from animation, narration and on-screen text.
7. The Individual Differences Principle: Design effects are greater for low-knowledge learners than for high-knowledge learners and for high-spatial learners than for low-spatial learners.
All of the principles are relevant to the conversation I described in the opening and the plea "But this a technical presentation!". A combination of words and pictures are more effective than words alone, especially when a minimal text description appear with a visual. Narration with animation and visuals is better than any combination with on-screen text. Audiences that are new to your topic will gain an even greater benefit from these principles than those who are well versed in your topic.
Even when "this is a technical presentation" you should aim for a high degree of retention and influence of your audience. If not, why bother preparing and speaking if you do NOT actually want to communicate? I cannot imagine taking the time and effort to prepare a presentation for an audience when you do not intend to communicate the value of your thoughts and ideas. If you want your technical presentation to be successful, I suggest reading Mayer’s work and implementing these principles into your preparation and presentation.