Your PowerPoint presentation is not as engaging as you think. Here’s why and what to do instead.


Posted June 21, 2018

PowerPoint is incredibly popular. Microsoft estimates users of the software make 30 million PowerPoint presentations every day. So, it’s troubling when researchers discover that audiences rate PowerPoint as no better than verbal presentations with no visual accompaniment.
Specifically, Harvard researchers found that PowerPoint often fails to increase information transfer to the target. This isn’t a new discovery; back in 1999, an Australian study found that using PowerPoint could potentially increase the audience’s cognitive load, making it harder to master and integrate the information presented.
Specifically, presenting both text for reading and speech for listening can overwhelm working memory capacity; this is called the “redundancy effect.” In other words, you’re getting too much redundant information too quickly. You can absorb it in the moment, but your brain will struggle to retain it.
This is a major issue with most PowerPoint presentations, where the top two complaints made by respondents to the “2017 Annoying PowerPoint” survey center on text: the speaker simply reads the text (67.8%) and there’s too much text – up to full sentences (51.6%).
How can you ensure your PowerPoint presentations are engaging and don’t fall into this trap?
First, shed the words.
Richard Mayer, a brain scientist at UC Santa Barbara and author of the book Multimedia Learning, recommends eliminating text from the presentation altogether and using only relevant images, graphs, and charts. This is the strategy that Google CEO Sundar Pichai uses. "Since stories are best told with pictures, bullet points and text-heavy slides are increasingly avoided at Google," Pichai says. His slides rarely include more than one or just a few words, if that much. (Mayer has found that the average slide contains 40 words.)
Presenters can also use PowerPoint designer Nancy Duarte’s three-second rule: the audience should be able to understand the gist of the slide within 3 seconds. "Think of your slides as billboards," she told Inc Magazine. "When people drive, they only briefly take their eyes off their main focus, which is the road, to process a billboard of information. Similarly, your audience should focus intently on what you're saying, looking only briefly at your slides when you display them."
Second, consider alternatives to PowerPoint.
That might mean other presentation tools. In fact, the Harvard researchers found that online audiences preferred other solutions. Specifically, they found that participants rated online presentation platforms that offer a “zoomable user interface” as more organized, engaging, and persuasive than either PowerPoint or oral presentations. Even Microsoft has built a PowerPoint alternative: Microsoft Sway, which Microsoft calls “a digital storytelling app.” The app is designed to tell a dynamic story that incorporates dynamic multimedia elements.
About Hurley Write, Inc.
Hurley Write, Inc., a certified women-owned small business (WBENC and WOSB), Historically Underutilized (HUB), and Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE), has been designing and teaching customized onsite and online technical, business, and scientific writing courses for over 25 years. We also develop and teach specialty courses, such as how to write proposals and standard operating procedures (SOPs) and deviation and investigation reports, and how to prepare and give great presentations.