Better PowerPoint: What We REALLY Remember From PowerPoint Presentations

carmen_taran5In our never ending quest to make presentations less boring , we’ve invited Dr. Carmen Simon(formerly Taran) to guest author a new series on Better PowerPoint.  Dr. Simon is a cognitive scientist, a leader in the virtual presentation movement, and an internationally renowned public speaker. Dr. Simon is a founder of Rexi Media, a world wide presentation consulting firm. This is part one (including study background) in a series based on her research published this year. 

I have recently completed a study that examined the intersection of cognitive psychology and communication from the perspective of one tool: PowerPoint. I was motivated to carry the study because I have noticed these three trends in the past decade:

A dichotomy in information processing habits: on one hand, we crave information (spending 60+ hours a week on line, consuming content), and on the other, we grumble how we are overwhelmed by so much information.

Ubiquitous use of PowerPoint for information processing, particularly as a standalone offering (a quick search through confirms the growing trend of on-demand PowerPoint presentations).

PowerPoint-based presentations that look very similar, making it more difficult for messages to stand out (how many presentations have you seen lately where either you can’t remember who created them or they looked similar to something else you saw months ago?).

These observations invite the question: how does one distinguish a particular on-demand PowerPoint presentation, given existing informational noise and competition?

Study Methodology

1,540 subjects participated in the study, where I started with a very basic question applied to a very basic on-demand presentation: How many slides does a viewer remember, on average, from a text-only, standalone online PowerPoint presentation containing 20 slides? To answer this question, I used the isolation effect theory, according to which, items (in this case slides) that stand out in some way from a homogenous list have a higher likelihood of being recalled.

Study Results

  1. Participants remembered an average of 4 slides from a 20-slide, standalone, text-only PowerPoint presentation.
  2. Neutral visuals help, but they don’t change the rule of 4. There was a statistically significant difference between the recall of content in text-only slides versus slides that contained text and neutral visuals. However, the recall rate did not exceed 4 slides in any of the 26 PowerPoint deck manipulations included in the study.
  3. Participants tended to remember the same content, not slides at random, as was predicted. This means that it may be possible to control what people remember by using a certain set of criteria.
  4. For standing out, 5 is an important number. Applying the isolation effect every nth slide (3rd, 4th, or 5th) did not impact the overall recall of an entire deck.However, when a change was made every 5th position (i.e., slides 5, 10, 15, and 20), those slides tended to be remembered better than any other randomly selected slides from that deck. The reverse was true for slides changed in every 3rd and 4th position.

These findings can be linked to a set of practical and immediately transferable guidelines for anyone who creates on-demand presentations. Let’s start with the first one.

Part One:  The Magic Number Four

No article on memory capacity and short-term memory can escape without quoting Miller’s classic “seven plus or minus two”, which has often been four.previewused in the fields of psychology and education as pillars for creating guidelines on information processing and communication design. Back in the 50s, Miller contended that there is a limit in the number of items that working memory can retain (namely, 7±2).

Other researchers have since questioned the limitations of memory capacity, suggesting that the new magic number is 4±1, and that people form clusters of no more than three or four items to recall. When memorizing lists, some researchers observed that items in a list entered a fixed-capacity rehearsal buffer and displaced a randomly selected item already there, when the capacity of approximately four items had been exceeded. Newer research suggests that the capacity for visual working memory is limited to four items. In a “list” or PowerPoint presentation of 20 slides, if information after 4 slides starts to be displaced by other items that were just viewed, it makes sense that the average recall rate would be 4 slides from the entire list. The good news is that if we know that the amount of slides people remember is limited, that means we don’t have to try so hard on every single slide we present.

Let’s Test What You’ve Learned.  Which is Better?

Even though this study was created in an on-demand setting, let’s reflect how this would apply in a face-to-face setting, where a presenter is involved. Imagine that someone had to present the file below. Can you sense how everything is so intense on every slide and each slide may have taken a long time and quite a bit of money to develop?


And at the opposite end, can you tell how “weak” the content is in the example below, where someone did not take that much time to place text in a sequence of slides?


So, which way is better?

Surprisingly, while both examples may have good content, they are equally bad where memory is concerned. This is because when everything is equally intense or equally weak, something has got to give. In an environment where there is a presenter, the content has a chance because the presenter can do something to deviate from sameness (e.g., invite participants to answer questions, participate in a group exercise, or switch from PowerPoint to a software demo).

In an on-demand situation, the slides are all you’ve got. How do you control which slides people remember? More about that next week.

About Steve

Steve is the Product Manager and Head of Support at Poll Everywhere. After receiving his degree in Industrial Design from Virginia Tech, he headed west for cooler summers and higher mountains. He stopped off at Enterprise's Management program before making audience engagement his full time job at Poll Everywhere.


  • Michelle Starr

    Thanks, Carmen. Very helpful. I’ve tried many different approaches and clearly integrating different formats and media, or interaction certainly make a difference. I didn’t know that a specific position of a slide was a consideration in impacting what people remember. There is a movement in some areas to move away from PPT or use a minimal number of slides and have the audience focus more on the presenter. Accordingly, they pay attention to what the speaker is saying and less time just copying down data from slides. Attendees seem to be more engaged as well. I’m sure that success of this approach must factor in the speaker’s presentation skills. I doubt that this would work well if the speaker was not a dynamic, engaging presenter. Do you have any data or thoughts on this?

    • Carmen Simon

      Hi Michelle, I really liked the observation about vanity and you’re right on. If you read Part II of the article, I mention that feature as one of the commonalities between the most memorable slides. It is understandable that we are constantly on the lookout for things that make us stand out in some way. As society is getting even more competitive, I wonder if this trend will be even more pronounced?

  • Steve Giacomini

    Important study for so many reasons. Thank you. Have you considered the quantity of information on each slide as a factor in recall? Every good presentation that I have engaged in has used PPoint sparingly; small amounts of important information on some slides and the presenter was careful *not to read* slides but rather to interact with them.
    Knowing the most effective quantity to place on a slide, techniques for making it pop, as well as how to position the important slides would be very helpful as well. I’m looking forward to next week.
    Regards, Steve

    • Carmen Simon

      Hi Steve, you’re so right, the amount of information can make a difference. In this study, each slide contained just a few lines of text and the design was very simple (almost to a fault, some people commented that they would have expected more complex design) :) The study I reported was focused on on-demand presentations, where you can get away with more text because there is no presenter. But you’re right, if slides become a teleprompter, they negate the presence of a person delivering the speech.

  • Vinnie

    Great article!

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  • Nikki Robinson

    That’s heavy stuff.

    I have Google Alerts retrieve info about presentations for me because I’m aspiring to speak in public high schools and community centers. But I didn’t expect to come across a study so thorough. I have index cards sitting beside now of notes I’ve written to myself to help me when selecting and designing presentation templates in the future. So far, the biggest audience I’ve spoken in front of was ~20 people. I kind of just flow along with the process of information when presenting and I’ve not had anyone fall asleep yet.

    But I want my audience to really connect with me personally, on top of what I’m presenting. I’ll have a lot more confidence in my slides and how I’ve organized information – and thus my presentation skills overall – thanks to you. :)

    • Carmen Simon

      Nicki, what a nice message. This study was developed to research the impact of on-demand presentations. When you are there live and you use slides, you become the most important visual, slides are just background, you are foreground. Keeping this in mind will help you on your quest to connect with your audience on a deeper level.

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