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Presentation content checkup, why text is bad

April 10, 2010

A couple posts back I started on the topic of text on presentation slides. By now you may have gotten the point that lots of text is bad, and that’s true.

But there are some interesting reasons from neuroscience why that’s true.

First, if your audience is reading text on the screen they aren’t listening to you. They simply can’t do both.  Plenty of research has demonstrated that (if you’re interested Medina’s Brain Rule #9 cites some of it).  It’s not often but occasionally, a text slide may necessary and what this means to the presenter is you must shut up–don’t talk while they read it.  Right there is a big reason to minimize the text:  your greatest chance for impact is combining your words and what they see, but you can’t do that with big blocks of text.

Second, reading text is, by itself, not a good way for people to remember things. People remember pictures far better than what they hear or what they read.  This is often referred to as PSE: the pictorial superiority effect:

Human PSE is truly Olympian. Tests performed years ago showed that people could remember more than 2,500 pictures with at least 90% accuracy several days post-exposure, even though the subjects saw each picture for only about 10 seconds. Accuracy rates a year later still hovered around 63%.
Medina, Chapter 10.

Pictures aren’t just better, they’re hugely better.

Even more importantly, memory gets even better when you combine all three types of input:  reading, audible words and pictures. That’s why your important points need to appear in all three forms–let them read a short version, see an illustration and hear you explain it.

So, no text at all?

For some presentations, that would be wonderful and very effective. But for many presentations some text is going to be needed but its effectiveness soars if it’s the exception:  another instance of  the “less is more” rule.  And if you do use a text slide:

  • make sure it’s readable by everyone in the audience–big text with good contrast
  • shut up and let them read it–do not ever read it to them!
  • make the all-text slides a rare thing

Do that and your audiences will thank you and you’ll have a lot more impact.

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