Category Archives: Memory

The Value Of The Visual

Between the horrendous NSA slides and the disappointing prosecutorial closing presentation in the Trayvon Martin case, we’ve seen some pretty terrible slide design in the news lately. These recent examples might seem like the exception, but unfortunately, they indicate the underlying perception that presentations are not valuable workproduct. Visual communication is a huge opportunity in the business sphere. Even more than briefs and spreadsheets, great presentations can engagepersuade, and increase information retention.

The NSA’s PowerPoint presentation on the Prism Program was intended as an educational piece about electronic surveillance. Visual communication is a great approach to communicating data and complex ideas in an understandable way, but the NSA missed an opportunity when they neglected to prioritize the quality of their graphics. The template and graphics are so poorly designed that they come across as confused and convoluted.

NSA Prism Slide Original | Presentation Design

Below, we’ve simplified the template to focus on the main point: the diagram of telecommunication data exchange. To increase speed of comprehension, we’ve added visual cues and changed the configuration of the diagram to emphasize the US as the “backbone.”

NSA Slide | Prism Powerpoint | Redesigned

The slides from the Trayvon Martin trial were so poorly constructed that they received some harsh words in the press. This slide from the Prosecutor’s closing arguments looks slopped together.

Trayvon Martin Slide Design

It’s hard to imagine that any professional would feel comfortable with this slide, never mind a prosecutor with 20 years of experience. Some quick finesse adds credibility:

Trayvon Martin | Slide Design | Improved

In the age of life-like video games and multimillion dollar advertising budgets, great design is all around us and subpar design has never been so obvious. Poor quality visuals damage not only the credibility of the presenter and organization, but also that of the arguments. Failing to spend the necessary time and resources on visual communication is an insult to the audience.

From the classroom to the courtroom to the boardroom, presentations can be excellent tools for communicating complex ideas, arguments, and strategies in a way that is memorable and easy to understand. Investing in the design and development of visual communication is as important as ensuring quality in all areas of professional communication.

For more thoughts how to employ presentation design in business, pop over to our Expertise page.

Slide Design: Picture This

Seeing Is Believing_Presentation DesignSeeing is believing – we’ve all heard that before. However, its truer and more literal than one might guess. We’ve discussed the effect that images have on memory, but what about their effect on persuasion?

The Picture Superiority Effect states that concepts are more likely to be remembered experientially when presented as images than when presented as words. Partially, this may be because our brains are more likely to generate a verbal label for an image than an image for a term. Generating this additional memory “tag” creates two pathways to recall.

Nolan Haims had a great post last week over at his blog about a beautiful, but very toxic, blue lagoon. Visitors ignored the grotesque warnings posted and believed instead that the water was just too pretty to be toxic. Even more than memory, this anecdote implies that not only do we remember images more easily, but we also believe them more readily.

The persuasive value of an image lies not in the image itself; instead it’s power is in the inferences that one draws from it. A study in the political sector found that constituents were more likely to believe a candidate supported a specific interest group after seeing a picture of that candidate with a member of the group. Campaign speeches and pamphlets can only go so far, but when we think we can infer the evidence for ourselves, we believe it.

The advertising industry has long since learned this lesson. Indeed, our tendency to believe what we see may be the only reason PhotoShop exists! A suspiciously slender Kardashian sister sure moves a lot of QuickTrim.

Yet, still too often presentations are stuffed with words and facts and figures when a simple picture would suffice. Not only are images more memorable, but they are more persuasive for our brains. If you really want to prove your point and resonate with your audience, then help them picture it.

Persuasive Presenting: Death To Red Herrings

Presentation design: Avoid ClichésI once sat in court for a Big Oil client and watched with a mix of bemusement and horror as the plaintiff’s attorney put up an illustration of an anthropomorphized fat cat in a suit struggling to hold shut the door of a closet bursting with skeletons.

We can all see what my confused adversaries were going for: Big Oil is a bunch of fat cats with skeleton-filled closets. Don’t trust them!

A fair argument when it comes to Big Business of all sorts, but the miscalculation is this: Clichés are so overused that they bore our brains. This, likely expensive, piece of design was a throw-away for the jury.

Well-used metaphors can engage the brain and create powerful associations. Researchers in 2006 found that our brains are stimulated by original and intriguing metaphors that use sensory-charged words like “coffee,” “lavender,” and “perfume.” In fact, these words light up the primary olfactory cortex of the brain – the cortex in charge of processing smell.

However, when metaphors age and, finally, mature into clichés the effect diminishes. Phrases often heard in courtrooms like “a lot of moving parts,” “throw the baby out with the bathwater,” and “pulling wool over our eyes” become commonplace, meaningless language. In short, our brains read these phrases literally and the metaphor completely loses it’s ability to inspire thought or feeling.

I was once witness to slide where certain events on a timeline animated into “red herrings.” The trial team was enamored with the cleverness of the slide, but I watched as the jury sat, passive and bored, as the fish appeared. It simply did nothing for them.

If the jury remembered this graphic at all during deliberations, I’m fairly sure it was referred to as that “strange fish timeline.” A better strategy would have been to simply turn the offending events red and notate that the importance of these events was falsely exaggerated by opposing counsel. Then remove them completely and discuss what the situation looks like without them. Now a powerful point has been made, rather than just labeling events red herrings and expecting that tired phrase to do the work for you.

When it comes to incorporating graphics into your presentation, leave the clichés out and focus your resources on the concrete facts of your case. The more original your use of metaphor, the more it will resonate with your audience – inspiring thought and associations with the arguments you’re presenting.

Further reading:
Another Red Herring Story and Nine Other Don’ts from the Persuasive Litigator

Slide Design: Learn From Print Ads

When it comes right down to it, the success of any presentation comes down to a sell. Maybe you’re selling a product, or a brand, or maybe an argument. Why not, then, steal some hints from those that make a living making sure products get sold: advertisers.

Great ads rely on attention-grabbing images, brand cues and limited copy. Consider these gorgeous ads from Bold Detergent:

Slide Design Example

Bold has created images so powerful and clear that no words are needed. They simply include a brand cue to drive home the point: Bold Detergent dissolves your messiest stains.

Visual images lessen processing burden and are more attention-getting and memorable than words. Is it any wonder, then, with all the cognitive benefits, the best print ads are those high on visual impact and low on copy?

Here’s another example:

Slide Design Example

Attention grabbing, memorable and clear. With only 7 words!

Slides are no different than print ads: they aim to sell. Thus, slide design should abide by the same principles.

1. Use powerful images. The more visual your slides, the more engaged your audience will be. Depending on your purpose, it may be appropriate to work in humor. And put away the clip art: The more professional your images, the more credibility you will garner.

2. Limit the copy. Ever hear the internet expression “TL;DR”? It’s shorthand for “too long; didn’t read” and you can bet that anything more than a few necessary words will get the same treatment during your presentation.

3. Use brand cues. Does the template you’re using reflect the brand identity you represent? Are you incorporating fonts, logos and other distinctive assets to remind your audience just who is behind the moving and visually engaging show they are experiencing? You should be.

By creating slides that have the impact of great ads, you are creating mental images in the minds of the audience. Associate your brand and your sell will stay with your audience long after you’ve left the podium.

Further Reading/Happy Clicking:
BuzzFeed’s 12 Best Print Ads of 2012
AdWeek’s Best Print Ads of 2011-2012

Slides Should Never Be Handouts

Presentation DesignA quick peek into my personal life: my husband spent a decade and a half as a management consultant. He violates the rule I’m about to discuss more egregiously than anyone.

Although I’ve given up on convincing him, I do believe there’s hope for the rest of humanity: Slides and handouts are two separate animals. Never use one for the other.

Consultants, like too many other presenters, often rely on their slides to serve two purposes: presentation tool and take-away info-pack. When a presenter makes this mistake, the resulting slides are so jam packed with information that not only do they exhaust the audience, they become their own worst enemy.

The human brain can only hold so much information before deciding to commit it to long term memory or discard it. The more info available at once, the more will get tossed into the discard pile.

During a presentation or learning session, new information is kept in the working memory of the learner. Ideas in the working memory are subject to manipulation by reasoning and comprehension; it is where the presenter can massage the information, add his take, affect its meaning and plead his case. Working memory is where information is the most subject to persuasion.

What a wonderful workspace! There is one problem though – space is limited. Only so many ideas can be actively held and manipulated in the working memory. This limitation is referred to as cognitive load and the theory states that the more a learner has to learn at one time, the lower his or her comprehension rate will be. In fact, the general consensus is that the working memory can only hold between 5 and 9 pieces of information at once.

Comprehension happens best when the audience is coming to understand a visual with the help of audible explanation, rather than when the brain is trying to process spoken words, written words, images and relational information all at once. Slides should be visual, low on text and simple. The best slides focus on one main concept and leave the detail to the presenter. This frees up the audience to listen to the narrative and associate it with the elements of the displayed image.

So now that the slides are simple and visual, has putting together handouts become separate project all together? Not at all; most presentation platforms have an answer programmed in. In PowerPoint it’s called the Notes section* and it builds comprehensive handouts without overcrowding the visual aids.

Reserve bullets and details for the Notes section and free up the slides for that which they were intended: visual communication.

Instructions on using PPT Notes:
*How To Use Notes To Create Handouts
*How To Set Up Presenter View To See Notes While Presenting

Bullets Are Killing Your Presentation

One of the cardinal sins of presenting is also one of the most (mis)used presentation strategies. Say it with me now, “Bullet Note Script.”

We’ve all suffered through one of these – the presenter has somehow confused the purpose of his slides and that of his notecards, and suddenly we are forced to read the exact words coming out of his mouth. This sensory stereo effect causes glossy eyes and wandering thoughts.

But why? Shouldn’t giving the audience the same information in as many ways as possible maximize their retention?

The reason lies in how the brain processes the information it receives. Incoming information is processed in one of two major places: the auditory cortex and the visual cortex.

The auditory cortex processes language, both spoken and written, while the visual cortex processes images. Although the visual cortex is perfunctorily involved in the processing of the letters into words, during a bullet note presentation it is largely lying dormant while the auditory cortex is being overloaded.

Now instead of appealing to two centers of processing in the brain, the presenter is not reaching either one effectively. Using slides as true visual aids, images that accompany audible language, better pings both processing cortices.

Take the below examples. The first is a typical bullet point slide. There are several things wrong with slides of this nature, though I’ve seen them used by some of the best corporate lawyers around. Full sentences, colloquialisms, small text, LOTS of text, redundant information. Mind-numbing.


Here’s a slightly improved version. Sentences have been shorted into true bullet points. An appropriate image accompanies the text. The slide is now more visually interesting and demands less attention from the auditory cortex’s language processing systems.


A further improved version becomes a true “aid” in that it supports the speaker’s words and arguments, rather than repeating them. This slide speaks directly to the visual cortex and frees up the auditory cortex to focus on the speaker.


It is widely accepted that presenting information both visually and audibly drastically increases attention, persuasion and retention. The bullet note script presentation is the exception to the rule. Avoid bombarding the auditory cortex with simultaneous audible and written language and engage the visual cortex with succinct, high quality graphics in order to best engage your audience.

Order, Chunking & Repetition: The Memorability of Organized Information

We’ve explored the effect visual and emotional stimuli has on memory, but the Art of Memory works only begin with these two ideas. There are numerous other tactics and theories covered in the literature. For the most part, those theories all revolve around one main tactic: organizing information.

When presenting, the best way to insure your message stays with your audience is to communicate with them in ways that their brains can easily process, commit to memory and recall. The brain understands the world around it by creating associations among the occurrences and information it perceives. Take a note from the brain’s penchant for organizing information and organize your arguments.


When the brain perceives the world around it, it strives to make sense out of what it perceives. What came first? And then what happened?

There’s a reason that timelines and flowcharts have become presentation staples. An argument line should always be accompanied by linear order of events, whether they be in the past, present or future. By placing information into a linear order and supplying a visual aid for the brain to recall, you’re helping the brain to form a story line in the manner to which it is accustomed.

Information Chunking

Long sets of information are tedious and often too detailed for the brain to reliably recall. By chunking information into groups of associated facts, you’re doing some of the work of the brain.

Information chunking can be used in many ways throughout a presentation. Divide a long timeline up into “eras.” Talk about the four main benefit categories of your product, even if within each bucket lie many specific benefits. Categorize facts into argument buckets: premeditation, crime and cover up.


If you’ve ever suffered through late night advertising, you’re familiar with the benefits of repetition. Those ads can be so cloying and irritating. And yet, you remember it. So how can repetition be employed without annoying your audience?

Presentation_Design_Roadmap_Slide Every presentation should use a “roadmap,” or overview, slide. A roadmap slide will outline the
linear order of your presentation and list the major information chunks you are about to share, plus it comes with the added bonus of being the landing slide between each section. Without the cloyingly obvious “repeater” effect, you get to remind the potential buyer that your product markets, tracks, automates and analyzes several times throughout your presentation. A roadmap slide creates order, chunks your information and fixes your arguments into the listener’s brain with repetition. It it the holy grail of information organization.

The many works that cover the Art of Memory explore many options for enhancing the memorability of information. Though originally developed to aid the rememberer, these principles can be leveraged to create more memorable presentations. Keep in mind the effects of visual stimuli, emotions and information organization when preparing your next presentation and use the tips to not only reach your audience, but stay with them long after you’ve left the stage.