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In Persuasive Presentations—Less is More!

Here’s the Indisputable Proof … Finally: Less is More!

One of the basic principles of remarkable presentations is that they’re about one thing.  That’s because we just aren’t capable of taking away multiple messages from a 20 – 30 minute presentation. And now I’ve got proof!

“Less is More” is one of my favorite phrases when it comes to being persuasive. The need to be focused and have a clearly defined objective and central theme relates to ANY presentation you do. It could also be argued that it extends to EVERY conversation you undertake.

When I beat people over the head with the need to focus on only one thing in their presentations, I really have had no strong science to back it up. Until now.

Here’s the bottom line:

  1. People remember more of the important information when it is presented as a summary
  2. Too much information or information that doesn’t directly support your main theme dramatically reduces effectiveness.

Cognitive psychologist Richard Mayer (pronounced “May-er”) at the University of California, Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences has done a tremendous amount of work on how the brain takes in information. Much of his work has a direct bearing on how we should be designing our presentations.

I’m fascinated by the brain and how we learn and react to outside stimuli. This is a subject I tend to come back to again and again in my articles.

One of Mr. Mayer’s key findings is “The Coherence Principle.” It states that we learn better when extraneous material is excluded rather than included.

“People learn better when extraneous material is excluded rather than included.”

I read that and a HUGE LIGHT went on.

I ran across Richard Mayer as I recently leafed once again through one of my favorite books, Brain Rules by John Medina. If you don’t have it, I highly recommend you add this book to your library.

I have Richard’s book, Multimedia Learning in my Kindle Library. You can find it on Amazon, if you’re really interested, but for the casual reader and presenter, John Medina’s  book is adequate to give you all of Richard Mayer’s key principles, and there are a number of them that relate to the transfer of information (e.g.- via presentations).

In a series of tests that Professor Mayer undertook, people who received concise multimedia presentations (he defines “multimedia presentations” as any presentation that combines aural and visual information) performed better on tests of recall that did those who received messages that contained extraneous, but interesting material. In fact, 97% of the test subjects did better in this situation. That’s ninety-seven percent!

Less is More.

How does this relate to us in the corporate environment?

We tend to think of our core information as boring and uninspiring, so typically, we search around for images or interesting stories to “spice it up” and make it more compelling to our audience, in spite of the fact that this additional material doesn’t directly support our point.

However, in Richard’s tests, this had an overwhelmingly negative effect on the audience’s ability to understand and use the core content of the presentation at a future time. In other words, learning was adversely affected.

This principle also extends to music. Adding “bells and whistles” in the form of background music or even animation that does not relate, or add value. In other words, music that is not only noticeable but, in fact, is distracting (one of my pet peeves).

So … what’s happening here that interferes with the transfer of information?

We process messages in our visual and auditory channels (two distinct and separate channels) – both of which are limited in their capacity. For example, when processing capacity in the auditory channel is used to process music and sounds, there is less capacity available for paying attention to the spoken word. In other words, the pipeline is only so big. Try to stuff too much information through it and some gets lost.

In tests Professor Mayer performed, that’s exactly what happened. Extraneous information (in this case, music) resulted in much poorer test results.

We only have a certain capacity for taking in information at any one sitting.

Now, here’s what’s really interesting, all you engineers: When quantitative details (measurements and computations) were left out of a presentation, and the focus was only on the essential material, the result was an 82% greater increase in the transfer of information. It was the core message that was important. Giving intricate examples lessened the impact markedly.

Less is more.

Here is the key finding:

People remember more of the important materials when it is presented as a summary and they better understand the material.

So … keep your presentation short and to the point. A concise presentation allows the audience to focus on the key elements and to mentally organize them in a way that makes sense.

It’s been tested; it’s been proven. It’s true: Less is more.

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