Does visual really matter?

The simple answer is yes, of course it does. This may seem like a given in an age where children learn how to draw on an iPad and the basics of text speak before they learn (if they ever do) that it’s Shakespeare who claims that “all the world’s a stage.” However, in the business and education worlds, verbal and textual communication is still king!

Since 1987, PowerPoint users everywhere have followed a standard operating procedure–open the program/application, choose a template, insert notes, speaking points, a transcript, or an entire report’s worth of information on text-driven, bulleted slides. This is what Nancy Duarte and Garr Reynolds describe as a slideument–a document (something to be handed out and distributed). On the presentation axis Nancy describes below, the exact opposite of this is a cinematic, story-driven (Duarte’s phrasing) presentation. Check out what else these two gurus have to say about how the slideument relates to the scientific and technical world.

So, even a scientific presentation could benefit from at the very least the splitting of information over more slides. Well, one way to do this and ensure that this material resonates with an audience is to not only focus on one idea per slide but also pair that idea with a strong visual. Thus, you apply the picture superiority effect.

What is the picture superiority effect? I posted this video last week, but, who couldn’t use a refresher–in 30 seconds, here is the picture superiority effect as it relates to cognition and our brain function.

In essence, we retain information when it is visually displayed. But, why is it that pictures have this incredible impact on our minds? What is it about images that makes our brains work so well (at least in terms of information retention, which is definitely one goal of a presentation)?

Let’s check out what John Medina, my superteacher superhero, has to say about his 10th Brain Rule:

So, we learn two important lessons related to presenting from studying this important Brain Rule:

1. Vision Trumps All Other Senses.

Vision is the primary sense of the majority of your audience. Vision also takes up some major real estate in our brains, making it one of the most powerfully complicated senses. For Medina, most things come down to survival and procreation. Vision was how we observed danger in our environments; it was also how we determined the characteristics that made a suitable genetic male. Tor Norretranders mapped the processing speed of the human senses and found that sight has the processing speed of a computer network, as compared to taste, which has the processing speed of a pocket calculator (Source).

2. Even Text is Visual.

Our brains translate the squiggles, lines, and shapes that make up letters, connect them to the sound we were taught matches that pictorial representation, and then determine how that pictograph in relationship to other pictographs creates a sound, and a word. But, according to Medina, this process takes more time and effort. We can, however, process a whole image much more quickly than pictorial representations of sounds. Medina’s advice? Business professionals and teachers should “burn their current PowerPoint presentations” and ditch the inefficiency of oral and text-based information (I fear this opens a giant can of worms–I am not saying text is useless–merely that as a means of conveying information in a set time and context that invites distraction and noise, it is best to amplify your signal through the visual medium). So, to harness the true power of the visual medium and shoot retention through the roof, we have to pair one impacting image with one clear and concise idea.

Image: Stacie Stacie Stacie, Image: Julian Santacruz

Choosing an image and pairing it to an idea is a challenge that takes conceptual or metaphorical thinking, which is a separate, post-worthy topic. For the time being, let’s take a look at how PETA uses the picture superiority effect to drive home their point about fur for fashion.  Consider the text only visuals as they compare to those applying the picture superiority effect–do these slogans carry more cognitive retention power when paired with a recognizable, moving, or arousing image?  Note, the Shirley Manson ad is not for the weak of stomach–you have been forewarned!

Consider how much more lasting this image of NBA star Chris “Birdman” Anderson is. We tend to equate fur with status, but Chris is comfortable in his own tattooed skin.

Visceral images that juxtapose beauty and delicateness against brutal reality hit us at our emotional core. Manson’s porcelain skin creates amazing contrast to the horror and cruelty she displays for the viewer.

This is one of PETA’s most popular campaigns. Gone are the days of splashing red paint on fur coats. Now, PETA appeals to one of our most basic visual drives, the drive towards attractiveness while also challenging the viewer to embrace the vulnerability of nakedness.

So, to fully harness audience retention in your next presentation, ditch the pre-made template (or even if you don’t!), and focus on visually-driven slides that pair one image, with one idea. Remember, visual is king!

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4 thoughts on “Does visual really matter?

  1. [...] the possible elements of stagecraft that the audience will experience visually.Chiara Ojeda also argues that visuals matter.In essence, we retain information when it is visually displayed. But, why is it [...]

  2. [...] picture superiority effect.  Chiara Ojeda of Tweak Your Slides recently wrote an article called “Does Visual Really Matter?” Chiara discusses the picture superiority effect, and I love this video she found explaining the [...]

  3. [...] Picture Superiority (From Brain Rules) [...]

  4. [...]  My colleague and slide master, Chiara Ojeda, blogged about the PSE in her August 2012 post “Does visual really matter?”  You can also read more about how the PSE influences consumers in this article appearing in the [...]

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