Tag Archives: presentations

The Science Behind Good Presentations

We know that cluttered presentations and those with paragraphs of text per slide aren’t good and that the 10/20/30 rule is a guideline generally worth adhering to, but why? Could there be a scientific basis for why some presentations are better than others?

Chris Atherton, an applied cognitive psychologist at the UK’s University of Central Lancashire, studied the influence of different presentation styles on learning and retention by conducting the following experiment:

Students were randomly assigned to two groups. One group attended a presentation with traditional bullet-point slides (with the occasional diagram) and the second group attended a presentation with what Chris calls “sparse slides”, which contained the same diagrams, but minimized the amount of text, and broke up the information over several different slides. Both presentations were accompanied by the same spoken narrative.

When both groups were later tested on the presentation’s themes, it was the group shown the sparse slides that performed “much better”. Atherton suggests that well-designed presentations are superior teaching tools and improve recall and learning for a number of reasons:

  • The limitations of working memory: even the students who did well in recalling themes, remembered only 6-7 themes out of a possible 30.
  • The visual and auditory cortexes are not being used as effectively as they could: the cluttered slides overload the auditory cortex as it is used for written and spoken language processing.
  • Extraneous cognitive load is minimised: the sparse slides may minimise extraneous cognitive load by creating fewer competing demands on attention
  • Better encoding of information (into memory): having to work a little bit harder to integrate the speaker’s narrative with the pictures might actually improve our storage of the information (up to a point).

via @finiteattention

Steve Jobs and Circular Visualisations (Not Just Pie Charts)

Pie charts have been having a bad time of it lately* and I can’t see things improving anytime soon.

In one of the better articles looking at this humble chart, Brian Suda notes not only at what you can do instead, but what improvements you can make if you’re forced to use the pie chart.

The original idea behind a pie chart is that it represents parts of a whole, each sliver or wedge is a section, when totaled gives you the overall picture. Over the years pie charts have morphed purely into eye-candy, exemplified by their sister graph the doughnut chart, which offers zero additional information.

If we look at a few examples, you will quickly see the failings in the circular design along with how easy it can be used to misrepresent data.

One such example of how a pie chart can be used to misrepresent data was Steve Jobs’ keynote at Macworld 2008–as discussed in Suda’s article and over at The Guardian.

* Seth Godin called pie charts “spectacularly overrated” and Seed said we need to “get past the pie chart”.

TED Speaking Guide

Now that TEDGlobal 2009 has drawn to a close and the videos are slowly making their way online, the latest Nature has an editorial on the TED phenomenon, suggesting that “those wishing to reveal scientific ideas should learn from the engaging style of TED conference talks”.

TED succeeds in part because participants are encouraged to talk about the unexpected. […] But perhaps the most critical key to success is the style of the talks. […]

The talks have a strict time limit of 18 minutes — no interaction with the audience, and no questions except the informal ones asked in the extended conversation breaks. […] For a general audience, 18 minutes is plenty for getting across context and key issues, while still forcing each speaker to focus on a message — whether it be advocacy or the celebration of new knowledge.

There is also a welcome absence of PowerPoint presentations. Instead there are plenty of images — but precious few professional scientific diagrams, which can quickly lose the audience’s attention. This forces speakers to craft talks that can engage sophisticated but scientifically untutored listeners at their level. And it also encourages speakers to try for a freely flowing, relaxed presentation style, without notes. […]

Scientists wishing to inspire non-scientists should look at a few of these talks online and learn a thing or two.

I would go one further: non-scientists wishing to inspire others should look to TED to learn a thing or two.

Making Graphs That Work

Seth Godin offers some advice on creating quality, legible, graphs.  Short and sweet.

  • Don’t let popular spreadsheets be in charge of the way you look.
  • Tell a story. The only 4 stories permissible:
    • Things are going great, look!
    • Things are a disaster, help!
    • Nothing much is happening.
    • We need to work together to figure out what the data means.
  • Follow some simple rules:
    • Time on the bottom, from left to right
    • Good results go up on the Y axis.
    • Don’t connect unrelated events.
    • Pie charts are spectacularly overrated.
  • Break some other rules (but not too many)

Seth’s written previously on this topic, specifically to proclaim the three laws of great graphs (one story, no bar charts, movement) and then later to defend his position on bar graphs and pie charts.

As Dan says, “It’s not exactly Tufte, but it covers the basics”.

Presentation Masterclass

LifeHack has just started what I hope will become an informative and useful series entitled Presentation Masterclass, courtesy of Rowan Manahan.

Audiences are so deluged with advertising messages and radio jingles, with phone calls, voicemail, email, SMS and IM, with… stuff in their personal lives that unless you, the presenter, are wowing them with every word, you will lose their attention in a matter of seconds.

I am always striving to improve my public speaking and my presentation style, so this series is a welcome addition. I just hope it continues to be as good as the introductory article.

As a starting point, I recommend some detox to clear your body and mind from a lifetime of exposure to sucky presentations. I strongly recommend that you expose yourself to some great presenters:

  • Check out Seth Godin, Tom Peters, Guy Kawasaki, Steve Jobs, and Dick Hardt on YouTube.
  • Have a look at some of the wizards on TED.com – Rives, Hans Rosling, Barnett Thomas, Lawrence Lessig and Ken Robinson all stand out, but there are reams more on this invaluable resource.
  • Go over to Common Craft and have a look at their ‘plain English’ tutorials on aspects of Web 2.0

The one common theme that emerges from this tremendous diversity of presenters, topics and styles is RESPECT. By every word and deed, they demonstrate absolute respect for both their audiences and themselves.