A few weeks ago, I wrote about how Cognitive Load Theory can be applied to delivering clear, effective presentations. A second learning theory that may be useful for presenters to understand is a group of learning principles developed by psychologist Richard Mayer and his many different co-authors (and summarized nicely in his book with Ruth Clark).
In my new book, Better Presentations: A Guide for Scholars, Researchers and Wonks, I explain how to create, design, and deliver effective presentations, and understanding the mechanisms by which your audience learns can help you improve your own presentation skills.
Mayer’s research involves the intersection of cognition, instruction, and technology. Three aspects of his research are especially important for presentations:
- The Multimedia Principle simply states that people learn better from words and pictures than from words alone. Based on a number of studies, Mayer and his colleagues found that there was an 89 percent improvement in learning when pictures were paired with text compared with text alone.
When applied to presentations, try to be as visual as possible. Use images, graphs, and icons—instead of that dense table of regression results you copied-and-pasted from your paper’s Appendix, convert them to a graph that visually demonstrates the patterns.
- The Contiguity Principle argues that integrating text and visuals can lead to more learning than when text and visuals are not combined. Over the course of eight different studies, Mayer and his colleagues found that learning outcomes from lessons integrating text and visuals were on average 68 percent higher than those that did not.
When you use visuals in your slides, don’t slap them in randomly or haphazardly. Each image—every object on every slide—should have a purpose and should help support your content. As a simple example, if you’re placing a picture of a person next to text on a slide, have them face the text; we tend to follow the person’s gaze, which therefore leads your audience to your text.
- The Coherence Principle suggests that adding superfluous elements irrelevant to the teaching goal can disrupt and interfere with learning. Across six different experiments, learning outcomes were 105 percent higher on average for students who received the lesson without extraneous materials than those who did.
At all times, focus your audience’s attention where you want it, and what’s important. You may be able to delete the regression estimates that are secondary to your main point; remember, your presentation is not an opportunity to give your audience every single detail from your paper, but to highlight the most important points.
In the past, I’ve urged researchers to think about their audience when they present, tell stories when the present, and reduce the amount of numbers they put on their slides. Some of those recommendations are based on observed best practices and strategies employed by others, but many of them are based on learning principles rooted in science that demonstrate some of the ways in which our brains receive and process information.