Hear, hear! long and descriptive assertions may be more effective than short and crispy slide titles

I am busy preparing a new presentation and while crafting my slides, I (almost naturally) started writing full sentences in the title area. Up to recently I’ve always stuck to the principle that slide headings should be short, sweet, and tweetable – although I never use topic headlines like “Background”, “Our products”, or “Conclusions”. These are meaningless and, no matter how short they are, a waste of slide real estate.

But reading a twelve-year-old research paper by Michael Alley, “How the Design of Headlines in Presentation Slides Affects Audience Retention”, made me change my mind. The article challenges the efficiency of short catchy headlines, and suggests that full-sentence assertions increase both the audience’s attention and the retention of information. His research showed that students performed better after receiving presentations designed using an assertion-evidence approach, which combined sentence titles (the assertion) with visual elements like photos, charts, and diagrams (the evidence) instead of boring bullet lists.

Here’s an example of how a dull, bullet-ridden text slide may be converted in a more attractive one (that tells and shows exactly the same):

I must admit that the presentation that I’m currently preparing targets a relatively small and specialized business audience (and, no, it’s not about childhood obesity). I’m also aware that Alley’s principles may not apply to every single PowerPoint deck you build. But while crafting my visuals, I found out that these wordy and assertive headlines kind of enrich the highly graphical content I tend to create. They help me to develop my ‘story’ and let my audience keep track of the ‘plot’. As the title will be the first thing the people in the room read when I put up a slide, it will orient them to the upcoming content. And at the same time, I’m giving them a clear takeaway message – just take the title of this blog post as an example.

Download Michael Alley’s research paper:

Replace the lamp

It happens so now and then that, just when you want to start your presentation, a message shows up on the screen behind you that urges you to replace the projector lamp… Luckily for me, the last time this happened, there was an A/V technician around who fixed the problem in a matter of minutes, and I could deliver my talk as planned.

replace_lamp

This incident, however, made me reflect about why we –business presenters and public speakers– are actually so addicted to slideware, and why some of us seem to be completely helpless without Powerpoint, Keynote or Prezi.

  • Surely we’re all part of a visual culture. In our daily lives we are bombarded with a plethora of (static and moving) images offered by billboards, magazines, TV, social media and web pages that “help” us better ingest, digest, and retain information. Illustrations can make things more clear, more visible or more manifest. Children’s books are often illustrated with colorful pictures. The illustrations are as much a part of the experience with the content as the written text.
  • Some speakers (including me) are picture thinkers. I design my presentations on the back of a napkin and, most of the time, I have a graphical representation in mind even before I know the exact words of what I am going to tell. If you’re in the same situation, then make sure that what you show is complementary to what you say.
  • Other presenters use slides because they have a bad memory –at least that’s the excuse they come up with for not spending enough time on preparation and rehearsal– or want to add a level of detail to their story that is too complex for oral transmission. Data visualizations and infographics are good examples of how pictures may add value to words. But always beware of texty slides and bulleted lists!

Next time I enter the stage, I might just ignore the projector (even when the lamp is not broken) and start presenting “naked”…  Stay tuned for a testimonial about the joy of naked presenting in a next blog post!

More reading about visual thinking and slide design: