LearnShareProsper logo Boosting Business_Performance Adele Sommers
by Adele Sommers, Ph.D.
 www.LearnShareProsper.com Adele@LearnShareProsper.com 
In This Issue

January 2023
Volume 19, Issue 1

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Below find this month’s newsletter, hot off the press!

  • Feature Article: Overcome Audience Overload with Presentation Design Best Practices (Part 1)

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Note from the Author

How Do You Prevent “Out-of-Order” Syndrome?

Woman with "out of order" taped across her foreheadIn a recent feature article, “Use These 10 Tips to Add Pizzazz to Your Presentations,” I revisited a timeless topic that never goes out of style!

In case you’ve been pondering ideas for new presentations, isn’t this the ideal moment to explore new ways to rivet your audiences with memorable messaging? Also consider testing new techniques for avoiding presentation mistakes that can result in audience overload.

How do you prevent or reduce the kind of out-of-order syndrome that an audience experiences after being subjected to common presentation perils?

That’s the subject of this multi-part series on ways to replace ineffective and problematic practices with proper preparation. Starting with today’s feature article, this series elaborates on previous tips and shares more “time-tested secrets” for producing supremely successful slide shows.

I hope you enjoy this month’s highlights, and as always, please be sure to join the ongoing conversations by leaving your comments on my Facebook page!

Here’s to your business prosperity,

Adele Sommers, Ph.D., business improvement specialist, author, educator, and award-winning instructional designer

P.S. If you missed any previous issue, please visit the newsletter archive!

Special Message

Here’s a Terrific Book on Presentation Design

Have you wondered where to turn for excellent advice on thinking through and designing presentations? Below is a classic resource.

Cliff Atkinson is a master of presentation design. His now-classic book, “Beyond Bullet Points: Using Microsoft® PowerPoint® to Create Presentations That Inform, Motivate, and Inspire,” will completely alter your previous beliefs about using text-based slide shows. Most tips that appear in the first, second, and third editions are software-independent and apply to any slide-authoring tool you might be using.

"Beyond Bullet Points" by Cliff AtkinsonAtkinson cites studies by Dr. Richard E. Mayer and other researchers who have experimented at length with the phenomenon of cognitive overload and the necessary conditions for learning. Their findings may surprise you.

For example, did you know that the use of bullet-heavy slides with very few illustrations actually works against the audience’s ability to successfully comprehend, store, and recall your information?

To counteract this dilemma, Atkinson lays out his own comprehensive, three-part strategy for structuring the story you will tell, and then powerfully illustrating your slides, even if you have no graphic design background.

His multifaceted approach will ensure that your audience remembers much of what you say, and leaves with an irresistible urge to take action on your message!

Feature Article

Overcome Audience Overload with
Presentation Design Best Practices (Part 1)

by Adele Sommers

A major dilemma we face as presentation designers is that it’s very difficult to curb our desire to tell people everything we know.

A man experiencing "overload"This challenge seems universal because many of us love talking about our favorite subjects. If given a chance, we could go on forever!

But the problem is that our audiences have only a limited capacity in what is known as “short-term memory” or “working memory” to handle all of the incoming information. What is going on up there?

You can think of working memory as a kind of cramped processing center where gobs of input are constantly arriving and are waiting to be packaged, moved, and stored in long-term memory. Yet, only a tiny fraction might ever make it to that destination.

Much like trying unsuccessfully to drink from a fire hose, our meager, underpowered working memories simply discard anything that they can’t quickly sort out. That’s why this article, Part 1 in a series, focuses on why those limitations exist, and what we can do about overcoming “audience overload” in our presentations.

Here’s one reason why our audiences are easily overwhelmed...

We can process only about 3 or 4 chunks of information at a time

We can process only 3-4 chunks of information at a timeYou may have heard about memory studies that were initially published in 1956 by Dr. George Miller. He became known for proposing the theory that our short-term memories can handle around “7 plus or minus 2 chunks of input at one time.

For many years, that notion seemed perfectly reasonable. For example, we usually have 10-digit phone numbers (including an area code) that are not too tricky to memorize.

But despite the longtime popularity of Miller’s “7 plus or minus 2” idea, Dr. Nelson Cowan’s 2001 re-analysis of decades of research suggested that we’re more likely capable of handling only about 3 to 4 chunks of input at once. His closer look at the data revealed that the limitations of working memory seem to be somewhat greater than originally thought.

Really? But what about those long telephone numbers?

As it turns out, 10-digit phone numbers are really “chunked” into smaller parts. The first two parts, the area code and the prefix, are fairly standard for a particular geographical area. So they’re not difficult to remember if we happen to be familiar with them. This means that unless the entire number is new to us, we’ll only need to juggle the last 4 digits in many cases. That’s a lot less heavy lifting, especially since chunking (which refers to reducing or organizing things into smaller or fewer memorable pieces) is doing much of the work.

So, how else can we verify whether this phenomenon really exists, and...

What does our limited processing capacity mean in daily life?

Limited working memory refers to how many items we can juggle in memory without writing them downTo informally assess how many chunks of information you can juggle at a time, all you’d have to do is visit a local supermarket without a shopping list when you have several things to buy.

Someone with an exceptionally good short-term memory (or a clever mnemonic aid) might be able to remember a long list of items to buy without ever having to write them them down.

Most of us, however, must depend on the use of a written list when our needs exceed a certain threshold. For example, I have found that my own item-juggling capacity accommodates only about three or four things before I really must make a list.

This same kind of juggling occurs when I’m rehearsing an unfamiliar phone number that I’ve just heard for the first time. I practice it only long enough to dial it — and then it quickly fades away!

How can we support working memory via our presentations?

As you can see, we’re dealing with a fragile, ephemeral processing system when we proceed to give a presentation — our audience’s brains! Therefore, we must strive to chunk our material into no more than 3 or 4 main sections or topics if we want our audiences to do any of the following:

  • Understand our 3 or 4 topmost, takeaway ideas
  • Store and retain that information for future use
  • Retrieve and apply the key points correctly in the right situations

Another aspect of presentations that assaults our audience’s working memory is the repeated use of heavy text and bullet points. It takes extraordinary energy and effort for people to decode slide after slide of dense verbiage, and ultimately leads to the “glazed-over” effect.

Therefore, if we want our audiences to absorb what we’re saying, minimizing text is another effective way to support working memory.

People comprehend and retain better when relevant pictures accompany wordsFor example, multimedia-learning researcher Dr. Richard E. Mayer found that by simply incorporating relevant illustrations in text-only content, learners experienced the following benefits:

  • Retention increased by 23%, and
  • The ability to apply the information increased by 89%.

His research has shown that pairing a relevant image with a descriptive sentence is ideal. That’s because people encode and store information more successfully when a complete sentence accompanies a graphic.

Just be aware that the more textual content you include in a slide, the more time it will take for your audience to decipher it as you deliver your live presentation.

Why have we been using text-heavy slides in the first place?

Why do we treat our blank slide canvases like word-processing pages, and what are we using all of those bullet-heavy slides for? For our talking points, of course!

What are we using text-heavy slides for?Yet displaying our talking points on our slides is like inviting our audiences to watch a movie, but then requiring them to read the movie script instead of seeing the actual movie.

To our audiences, simply reading a script is not nearly as compelling or memorable as watching the movie itself.

Whenever we avoid using imagery in favor of typing speaker notes on our slides, it’s like telling the audience, “Here’s the script, folks! Go off and imagine the movie!”

A related problem... Displaying talking points on our slides is a crutch that tempts us to merely read them to our audiences — a presentation no-no! Further, when we are reading from our slides, our attendees are also trying to read from our slides. They can then experience another kind of “traffic jam” in working memory because there are too many visual and verbal things to attend to at once.

Research shows that average learners can usually do a small amount of reading while listening, but typically cannot do a lot of both with ease simultaneously. This is especially true if the pace is fairly fast and the material is relatively detailed. So, we have yet another reason to minimize text on our slides, in most cases.

In summary, today’s tips include the following:

1. Chunk your material into no more than 3 to 4 main sections or topics.
2. Minimize text, such as by combining a full sentence with a relevant image.
3. Don’t use your slides as a talking script or read your slides to the audience.

At this point, are you wondering any of the following?

  • What elements should I leave in, and what should I leave off of my slides?
  • Is there an advantage to eliminating text entirely from my presentations?
  • Should I use any type of image, as long as it serves to replace some text?

Be sure to stay tuned for Part 2 when we will continue to explore these questions!

Copyright 2023 Adele Sommers

The Author Recommends

“Presentation Zen” More Insights on Presentation Design

"Presentation Zen" by Garr Reynolds"Presentation Zen: Simple Ideas on Presentation Design and Delivery," by Garr Reynolds, is packed with ideas on how to finesse the visual aspects of slide design and view it as a canvas rather than a word-processing page.

(Also see the second edition of this book, the video, and his newer, related work, Presentation Zen Design.)

Reynolds offers practical guidance on the power of simplicity, naturalness, and elegance to galvanize attention and make an indelible visual impression on your audience.

By minimizing text and relying on simple imagery and symbolism, he illustrates with copious visual examples how we can engage our audiences and greatly increase their attention and comprehension.

About the Author

"Straight Talk" Special Report
"Straight Talk" Workbook

Adele Sommers, Ph.D. is the author of “Straight Talk on Boosting Business Performance” — an award-winning Special Report and Workbook program.

If you liked today’s issue, you’ll love this down-to-earth overview of how 12 potent business-boosting strategies can reenergize the morale and productivity of your enterprise, tame unruly projects, and attract loyal, satisfied customers. It’s accompanied by a step-by-step workbook designed to help you easily create your own success action plan. Browse the table of contents and reader reviews on the description page.

Adele also offers no-cost articles and resources to help small businesses and large organizations accelerate productivity and increase profitability. Learn more at LearnShareProsper.com.

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