And the research says? PowerPoint meets cognitive science

By Robert Lane and Robert Wright

Applies to:
Microsoft Office PowerPoint® 2003
Microsoft Office PowerPoint 2007

A note to the reader

How do you best use PowerPoint to your advantage, for persuasion, teaching, selling, training, and entertaining? What must you do to effectively communicate your message with digital presentation? This article dives deeply into cognitive science research to find the answers — and you may be surprised by the results.

Help! What does the research say?

These days it seems like almost everyone (along with their dog, cat, and hamster) uses PowerPoint. PowerPoint MVP Kathy Jacobs recently described the phenomenon by saying, "PowerPoint can be found in just about every niche of modern society, in board rooms, classrooms, organizations, social groups … even churches, funeral parlors, and 'Hey, you want to see our vacation photos?'" A call to the Microsoft marketing department reveals an estimated 400 million devotes of their Office software. Although no one seems to have an official estimate for how many of those people subsequently utilize PowerPoint, a guess of 200 million worldwide presenters is not unreasonable.

Contemplate the staggering impact such numbers surely has on modern communication. Is PowerPoint really helping us deliver our messages more effectively? Do we know for sure? What if the opposite is true and some of us are hurting our cause? What if research was available that exactly spelled out what you should and shouldn't do to be a more powerful digital presenter? You probably would want to know the results of those studies, wouldn't you?

So did we and we set out on an adventurous quest to find the holy path to PowerPoint Utopia. Well, okay, it wasn't so adventurous. Actually, we read a mountain of high-brow research articles from our esteemed colleagues in academia, about 200 in all. After months of exhausting pupil dilation, we wrote a summary of our findings. This article is a summary of that summary. For sake of space and ease of reading, we deleted all formal academic references here. The full article is available by request. It contains approximately 30 pages and 80 references and is the initial draft of a master's thesis.

Top of Page Top of Page

The findings

With so many PowerPoint junkies lurking in offices and meeting halls, we expected to find an enormous number of rigorous studies exploring all aspects of the software's use. No doubt, we thought, beady-eyed cognitive scientists all over the world are watching audience reactions to slide design, media inclusion, and interactivity. After all, they study these subjects in all other forms of media, including Web sites, video games, databases, e-learning, and interactive movies.

To our shock, we found almost no such research. That is to say, we found a couple of obscure (unpublished) dissertations and a handful of informal, aging experiments that addressed PowerPoint use only in a tangential way. A call to our cognitive psychology idol, Dr. Richard Mayer at the University of California Santa Barbara, confirmed suspicions that, somehow, digital presentation has slipped through the cracks of academic rigor. How should you use PowerPoint? Apparently no one really knows for sure what works, when, with whom, how, or why. Hundreds of millions of people are projecting their messages to live audiences and, as far as we can tell, practically no one has studied the results, especially within the past 10 years. That soon will change.

All is not lost!

A lack of such research is unfortunate but does not mean we are without guidance. After wandering in the desert for a while, looking for PowerPoint-related findings, we turned our gaze to other forms of media where substantial activity does exist. We distilled the following four principles that can profoundly affect your use of digital presentation, based on design and use findings for Web sites, databases, gaming, and e-learning applications.

Top of Page Top of Page

Principle 1: Interactivity

What would a Microsoft Xbox game be without options to customize characters or choose gaming scenarios? What would the World Wide Web be like without the ability to focus in on just the right information needed, when it is needed? The positive effects of media-based interactivity are well documented by numerous experiments. Why not apply the same ideas to presentations?

Nested switchboard example

Although the notion of interactive PowerPoint slide shows may sound strange to most presenters, making this change in your delivery style is essential to improved performance. Flexible, customized delivery of media-based content can have a profound impact on audience (learner) comprehension, recall, and transfer.

Keep in mind that a slide deck can have all the flexibility of an advanced Web site. The slides shown here are examples of navigation known as Nested Switchboards.

The presenter can select categories (at the top of the left navigation panel), and the menu items at the bottom change according to the category selected.

This type of functionality, along with many other navigation strategies, has been available in PowerPoint for nearly 10 years now. Navigation gives a speaker the power to interact with audience members and be far more natural, spontaneous, and conversational.

Top of Page Top of Page

Principle 2: Rich media

Another key revelation from media-based research is that including rich media in your slide shows (in the right ways) likely will positively impact just about every aspect of your performance. Rich media, by definition, is anything other than text that you can place into PowerPoint, such as pictures, graphics, video clips, audio clips, animations, and so forth. In other words, begin to think how you can translate your bullet points into something visual. Doing so is not illegal! Slides do not always have to contain text.

Considerable research suggests our brains encode visual and verbal information simultaneously but differently, in separate areas (Dual Coding Theory). If we merely speak to people, without incorporating supporting visuals, we basically nullify the brain's mechanisms that respond to visual stimuli. Oh, but bullet points are "visual information," you say? Well, maybe not. Some studies suggest that seeing text on a screen causes us to, in effect, hear that information in our head and subsequently encode it as verbal information. Thus, bullet points may not add any visual stimulation whatsoever.

flowers and text


Our suggestion, if nothing else, is to minimize text and instead insert pictures full screen. The first example shown here is how most presenters handle pictures — text with a scrawny picture off to the side as an afterthought. Displaying the picture full screen has a far more dramatic impact and can "say" more than text will ever express, in certain contexts.

Top of Page Top of Page

Principle 3: Hierarchical organization of content

Databases are so beneficial because they allow us to store a vast quantity of information in an organized way, so that we can quickly find one piece of information out of thousands of available options. In a similar way, players of complex video games use what are known as "visual cues" to basically ignore all available information that is not immediately relevant. Presenters can employ similar strategies to organize vast quantities of slides and yet find just the right slide quickly, at the right moment.

By incorporating hyperlinks and hierarchical design strategies, presenters turn their scattered slide shows into what amounts to a visual database, a structure we call a Presentation Network. Having such a network available while presenting is a marvelous form of content management that further enhances the interactivity principle mentioned previously. Aspire trainers use a network that now contains thousands of slides and continues to grow — and they still find just about any slide in less than 5 seconds without ever leaving Slide Show mode.

Relational presentation example

In the example pictured, the presenter can jump instantly between approximately 200 video clips. He or she selects one of the 10 categories at the bottom of the slide and then clicks the desired thumbnail to start a clip. Any clip can be started or stopped at any time, and this section of the network is available within two mouse clicks from any of thousands of other slides.

Top of Page Top of Page

Principle 4: Media-enhanced presenter dynamics

Once your presentation methodologies contain the first three principles, a wealth of dynamic delivery techniques are available that have strong support in cognitive psychology and learning theory research. For example, following a generalized concept with a concrete, real-world example is one of the best ways to help people grasp your message. Perhaps someone asks a question or needs more information about the point you just made. Giving a spontaneous, visual example on the spot is very important; yet doing so is impossible using traditional bullet points. It is possible, however, if the content is hierarchically arranged and navigable. If you can simultaneously show what you say, regardless of where the interaction leads, your message will take on greater significance.

Nested switchboard example

More information about flexible, media-rich presentation is available on the Aspire Communications Web site. Or send an e-mail message to request this article in complete form or to request the free Relational Presentation Guide.

About the authors

Robert Lane is an Educational Technology master's degree candidate at the University of Arizona and Director of Aspire Communications. Robert Wright is a doctoral student in Educational Computing at the University of North Texas and the Biomedical Communications Coordinator for Educational Support and Faculty Development at the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth. Both authors, in conjunction with the University of Arizona, the University of North Texas, and Arizona State University, are preparing formal studies to examine the effects of interactive, media-based presentation in higher education and business.

Top of Page Top of Page

Applies to:
PowerPoint 2007, PowerPoint 2003