People have been picking on PowerPoint for a long time. But the remedy proposed is ... better PowerPoint. Emerging “visual storytellers” speak of using large metaphorical imagery or borrowed interest photography and flooding slides with just a few key words.
So many opinions sound convincing, but is there really anything to support the contentions of these design gurus?
In a recent set of experiments, Stanford University Graduate School of Business Professor Zakary Tormala tested three visual storytelling approaches, pitting whiteboard visuals against two types of PowerPoint approaches. The aim of the research was to uncover which visual storytelling approach increased presentation effectiveness, using the metrics of engagement, enjoyment, credibility, and—most critically—recall and persuasive impact.
Interestingly, Tormala found a statistically significant difference in favor of the whiteboard approach, which outperformed both PowerPoint presentations on a wide range of measures associated with message impact. Here are the results of two separate studies conducted regarding this topic:
Study 1: Whiteboard Wins On Engagement
In an initial study, 351 individuals (with an average age of 34) took part in an online experiment. Participants were asked to imagine that they worked at a company where they were responsible for improving the presentation skills of their sales staff. Participants were told that they would be viewing a presentation regarding this topic, which would begin on the next screen.
All participants then viewed the same short, two-minute video presentation about the “attention hammock,” a phenomenon where, while listening to a spoken message, an audience’s attention starts high, declines in the middle, and then peaks again at the end. Little did they know, however, that each of them was randomly assigned to one of three situations where the visuals accompanying the spoken message were slightly different.
In the “whiteboard condition,” participants viewed an automated presentation with hand-drawn graphics on a whiteboard. In the “PowerPoint condition,” participants viewed a more traditional PowerPoint presentation that contained stock photography and bullet points. Finally, a third group of participants was given a “Zen condition,” which contained one key phrase and an engaging metaphorical image that accompanied it. The latter two conditions were intended to capture the typical ways in which speakers tend to use PowerPoint in their live presentations.
Despite the fact that all participants received the exact same information and message content, the study revealed that the whiteboard presentation outperformed the PowerPoint and Zen presentations on a wide range of messaging impact metrics. More specifically, the whiteboard presentation statistically outperformed the two other approaches in each of the following areas:
• Engagement: Participants in the whiteboard condition reported finding their presentation more interesting than the PowerPoint and Zen conditions, paying more attention to it and thinking more deeply about its content. On average, the whiteboard presentation created an approximately nine percent improvement in engagement compared to the PowerPoint and Zen presentations, which did not differ from each other.
• Credibility: Participants in the whiteboard condition also found the presentation to be more credible (i.e., based on scientific evidence) and rated their presenter as being more experienced and trustworthy. Overall, the whiteboard presentation created an 8 percent increase in perceived credibility compared to the PowerPoint and Zen presentations, which again did not differ.
• Presentation Quality: By a margin of about 8 percent, participants in the whiteboard condition rated the presentation as clearer, easier to understand, more enjoyable, and simply better overall than those participants in the PowerPoint and Zen conditions.
• Recall: Finally, in a recall test at the end of the session, whiteboard condition participants were able to accurately remember significantly more message content than those within the PowerPoint or Zen conditions. Most importantly, as illustrated in Figure 2, the whiteboard presentation generated an approximately 16 percent improvement in memory for message content--more than the numbers for both the PowerPoint and Zen conditions combined.
Figure 2: Immediate recall differences as a function of presentation condition in Study 1.
Study 2: Whiteboard Is More Persuasive
In a second study conducted a few weeks after the first, 401 new participants (with an average age of 33) participated in the same experiment. This time, however, new measures were included to directly tap into the persuasive impact of the whiteboard versus PowerPoint and Zen presentations. In addition to assessing the same factors of engagement, credibility, presentation quality, and recall (all of which replicate the Study 1 findings), participants in this study were asked:
• How compelling was the presentation (e.g., how convincing was it to you personally)?
• How important is it to remember the idea of “the hammock” when giving presentations?
• To what extent will the presentation about “the hammock” change the way you give presentations or deliver your messages to others?
• How likely are you to follow the advice from the presentation the next time you have to speak?
• How likely are you to share the information from the presentation with someone else?
• Do you intend to tell anyone you know about “the hammock?”
The results showed that the whiteboard presentation had a statistically significant advantage over the PowerPoint and Zen presentations across each of these categories. On average, the whiteboard presentation enhanced the persuasive impact of the message by approximately 8 percent.
Furthermore, to determine whether the whiteboard advantage persisted over time, a follow-up survey was sent to the same participants two days later. This survey evaluated recall and sustained engagement and impact. None of the original presentation was shared in the follow-up survey, and participants needed to rely on their memory to respond to the following three key questions:
• How often have you thought about the content of the presentation since you viewed it?
• How likely is it that you will use or apply the insights from the presentation in the future?
• Has the presentation changed, in any way, the way you interact or communicate with others?
In this follow-up test, the whiteboard presentation again produced a statistically significant boost in recall relative to the PowerPoint and Zen presentations (see Figure 3) and continued to be more engaging and impactful relative to those presentations (see Figure 4). On average, two days after its viewing, the whiteboard presentation outperformed the other presentations by 14 percent and 17 percent on recall and engagement/impact, respectively. So the advantage of the whiteboard presentation over the PowerPoint and Zen presentations was persistent over time.
Figure 3: Recall differences in the Study 2 post-test.
Figure 4: Engagement and impact in the Study 2 post-test.
Based on this research and the proven advantage of using whiteboard style visuals, you as a marketer or salesperson should think about how to implement these types of visual stories into your marketing assets and sales approaches. If you do, you’ll surely improve your customer conversations and in turn, increase results for the company you represent.
If you’re interested in learning more about Zak Tormala’s research studies and in particular, the power of persuasion when it comes to your marketing and sales efforts, check out this video interview I recently conducted with him.