The One Thing That’s Probably Missing From Your PowerPoint Presentations

Yes, you need to include a visual element in your presentations, but it’s probably not what you’re thinking.

The One Thing That’s Probably Missing From Your PowerPoint Presentations
[Photo: Flickr user ImagineCup]

A picture might actually be worth 1,000 words (or more). The decision-making parts of our brains evolved long before written language, which means that trying to persuade people with bullet points on a slide is going to be an uphill battle. You need visuals.


But what kind of visuals?

Corporate Visions, a company that helps other companies improve sales, recently partnered with Zakary Tormala, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, to figure this out.

They had hundreds of people watch a narrated video. The audio portion was the same for all versions, but some people saw a standard PowerPoint presentation, with bullet points and stock photography. Others heard the same message in the so-called “Zen” condition: a popular PowerPoint technique involving one big metaphorical image per slide with just a few words.

Others heard the message accompanied by “whiteboard visuals,” defined as pictures that “an average human being could draw with a whiteboard marker,” says Tim Riesterer, Corporate Visions’ chief strategy and marketing officer.

After, participants were tested on how much they recalled and, in some versions of the experiment, whether they’d be likely to share the information with someone else.

In all cases, the whiteboard visuals won, hands down.


Why Drawing Wins

There are likely a few reasons for this. On the recollection front, people remember something best when it’s presented as a story. Watching someone draw a series of pictures creates an uncertainty that’s ultimately resolved.

You follow along to get there, and remember the major events leading up to the resolution. “Typically the problem with bullet points and stock photography is that there’s no uncertainty created,” says Riesterer. “Everybody’s certain they know what you’re going to tell them before you tell them because they’ve read it faster than you can say it.”

Our Simple Brains

You can obviously create uncertainty by doing dynamically building bullet points, but then we get to another quirk of the human brain, which is that we like things concrete and simple. That’s the major problem with the “Zen” condition: The visuals are beautiful, but then the message is gone. Honing a story into a few drawings requires that it be focused, relatable, and easy to tell.

Most importantly, “someone who observed it could go redraw it for someone else,” Riesterer says. Since you rarely get a decision right after a presentation, “the story you tell needs to walk the halls after you’ve left.”

The Human-ness of Authenticity

Finally, when it comes to arguments, we respond more to the human being making the argument than the power of the argument itself. That’s unfortunate, but if you’re trying to make an effective presentation, you can’t hope to change human nature on your own. Something clearly drawn by a human being “leverages all the power, the human-ness of authenticity,” says Riesterer.

You are invested in your story. Whereas bullet points convey that “somebody else built this for you and you’re just reading bullet points,” he says. “You don’t know your story well enough to own it.”


Of course, not all spaces are set up for you to draw on a whiteboard while you’re talking. You can create animations that mimic drawing simple visuals, and put those into regular slides. Riesterer reports that in his own talks, using methods of “delivering the graphic as if I’d drawn it” are still effective.

All in all, this suggests that your high school math teacher working through a problem on the board was onto something.


About the author

Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management and productivity books, including I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time (Portfolio, June 9, 2015), What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast (Portfolio, 2013), and 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think (Portfolio, 2010). She blogs at