Great visuals for your next presentation? Think like a kindergartner.

Remember show and tell? I’ll bet it was one of your favorite parts of Kindergarten – at least the observing part. Why? For one thing, it got your attention. You were looking at an object, an image, something purely visual while you listened to its “Show-er” tell you about what you were looking at. You may have known what the object was; a baseball, a puppy, maybe even a sibling, but you wanted to know more, and the only way to know more was to listen to the Show-er. Right?

Well, my grown up friends, this is the very dynamic missing in most presentations. We’re showing, but what we’re showing leaves nothing to tell. Our PowerPoint slides are so text-dense, so completely self explanatory, they don’t require a “tell-er” at all. Thus, our presentations are the furthest thing from attention-getting, heck, they’re not even interesting. Worse, what we are showing is jamming our audience’s circuits.

Make no mistake, it’s not because we’re no longer five. . It’s because we’re overloading the part of our audience’s brain that processes language. When we show slides with bullet after bullet (or paragraph after paragraph) of text while we talk, we are forcing our audience to make a choice. Why? Because we listen to language and read language with the same processor in working memory, known as the “phonological loop” (Baddeley 1986). We cannot do both at the same time.

Think about the last time you were an audience member for one of these kinds of “Text and Tell” presentations. I’ll bet you either; 1) read the slides and ignored the speaker, 2) ignored the slides and listened to the speaker, or 3) read the slides and then attempted to catch up with the speaker. AmIright?

Meanwhile, another processor in your working memory, your visuo-spatial sketch pad (Baddeley 1986), sat idly by. This is the part of your brain that processes images, the part of the brain that your blissful little five-year-old self used to process the thing that your classmate was showing. At the same time, and in perfect harmony, your phonological loop was processing what your classmate was telling. No wonder show and tell was so captivating! We got to maximize the use of these two processors! Those were the days…

Uh, wait a sec. Why can’t we put Show and Tell to work for us as big business people? What is stopping us from creating images that we can show and then tell our audience about their significance? Why wouldn’t we want our grown up audiences to be every bit as enthralled and attentive as our kindergarten ones were?

I hear your objections already, from here, in the quiet of my little office. “But what about when they ask us to send the presentation ahead of time?” “What about the people that can’t be at the live presentation?” “How is my audience going to remember what I said?” “How am I going to remember what to say?”

OK, let’s take the last question first. Visual aids are meant to aid the audience, not the presenter. That said, if you rehearse your presentation OUT LOUD, the image will absolutely help you remember what comes next. More important and happy-making, the images will help your audience remember what you’re saying. Lastly, because whatever you show on screen should always require you to explain it (the “tell” part) it makes no sense to send your PowerPoint slides to those who won’t be attending. How about sending a regular document instead? Here you can be as verbose as your little heart desires because they will be reading in peace and quiet.

Take a look at the visuals for your next presentation. Are they “show” worthy? Do they require you to “tell” the audience what they’re seeing? If not, they’re not visual aids, they’re great big redundant distractions. Make your next presentation a true Show and Tell and you’ll be heard.


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