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Aligning Presentation Visuals With Your Learning Message

Every training presentation has a key message or a big idea—that’s the whole purpose of a presentation. The message might be to inform the executive team about third-quarter results or to teach the customer service reps about the five steps for resolving a customer call. When a presentation includes slides, every slide plays a critical role in driving home that big idea. 

As you think about visuals (which can be photographs, illustrations, flowcharts, tables, infographics, or other graphics or images), it’s important to keep your presentation’s key message front and center so that you choose visuals that support and drive home that key message. Remember why your big idea is important to your audience. What will it help them do? Will it save them money or time; will it increase their revenue?

The Science Behind Visuals

There’s a growing body of learning science and neuroscience supporting the benefits of using visuals in learning and communication. 

Memory and Cognition

Visuals enhance learning retention in multiple ways. Visuals also help us make sense of complex, abstract, or fuzzy concepts. For example, the picture superiority effect asserts that the brain has a tendency to recall certain types of learning better when learned using a combination of pictures and images. In her book Visual Design Solutions, Connie Malamed suggests that one reason picture superiority may work is because of dual coding, the theory that messages accompanied by visuals are processed through two channels in the brain—one channel for the verbal input and another channel for the visual input. 

Brain Physiology

The human brain is incredibly powerful, and most of that power is dedicated to visual processing. In their book, Basic Vision: An Introduction to Visual Perception, psychologists Robert Snowden, Peter Thompson, and Tom Troscianko assert that at least 50 percent of the cortex is used for visual processing and only around 10 percent is used for auditory processing. Adding a visual component to your message takes advantage of that 50 percent and puts it to use on your behalf. 

Furthermore, according to Ann Herrmann-Nehdi—whose company, Herrmann International, has developed a “whole-brain thinking” system that encourages creative, innovative ideas—actively engaging both hemispheres and all four quadrants of the brain provides a larger field from which to form connections and make sense of something. Using words and images to help you convey your message actively engages both hemispheres and multiple quadrants. For example, words are processed primarily in the left-frontal lobe, left-temporal lobe, and prefrontal cortex. Images, however, are processed primarily in the visual cortex in the occipital lobe. Activating multiple areas of the brain means your message is being absorbed by more of your brain.

Which Ideas Should You Represent Visually? 

How do you decide which ideas, concepts, or points on a presentation slide to represent visually? You do what storybook illustrators do. Many children’s stories include words and pictures, but they don’t have pictures of every word on the page. Instead, the pictures illustrate the most poignant part of the storyline on the page. Here are three suggestions for selecting content to represent visually on a slide. 


#1. Identify the Idea That’s Most Relevant to the Core Message 

Look at the information on the slide. Which bullet point, concept, or idea is most relevant to the big idea of your presentation? For example, I once designed a presentation on successful webinars for meeting planners. The key message for the presentation was “doing successful webinars requires three types of planning: planning the technology, planning the experience, and planning the presentation.” When I got to the slides for “planning the experience” (the experience that attendees and presenters had during the webinar), I shared four key ingredients for planning an optimal webinar experience. 

Of those four ingredients, the one most closely related to the key message was “use a webinar producer.” So on that slide I had a photograph of an airplane pilot and his co-pilot. The other three ingredients were important, but overall, the producer was the one most relevant to the presentation’s message. 

#2. Identify the Most Complex Idea 

Look at the presentation from your audience’s perspective. Which idea or concept is going to be hardest for them to grasp? Visualize that idea or concept using an analogy or other visual technique to help the audience make sense of the concept. 

I used to design training for a learning management system. One of the features that clients had a really hard time grasping was a versatile, multipurpose feature called “categories.” Categories were a complex concept in this situation because they were available in many different areas of the system. To help the audience grasp the concept of categories, we used an image of a manila folder because it is also a versatile, multipurpose tool that can be used to organize a variety of items. 

#3. Identify the Most Evocative Point 

Look at the slide and identify the idea, concept, or message that is most likely to elicit an emotional response from the audience. Emotions are motivational—they move us to change. 

For example, I once worked with a nonprofit organization to redesign the presentation they used for their fundraising campaign. The organization provided essential services for local children in need. The slide they used to share statistics about the children they served had lots of words and a tiny photo of a little girl with a sad expression on her face. We redesigned the slide by making the photograph full-screen with very few words. Why? Because the photograph of the unhappy little girl tugged at the audience’s hearts and elicited an emotional reaction. The audience saw a sad and vulnerable little girl, which made them feel compassion and want to help her. 

For more tips on developing effective visuals for your training presentations, check out the TD at Work5 Questions for Great Presentation Visuals.” You will learn why it’s important to align visuals with your presentation’s message and answer five questions about your presentation’s visual images.

About the Author
Wendy Gates Corbett, CPLP, is the president of Refresher Training, a company that redesigns presentations and materials for independent consultants and small businesses. She has 20 years of experience in training, including running several profitable multimillion-dollar training businesses and more than 16 years designing and delivering face-to-face, blended, and virtual training programs. She is the co-author of two ATD Infolines on designing for and delivering in the virtual classroom. She’s an expert instructional designer passionate about developing high-impact training materials and compelling PowerPoint presentations that engage the learner and heighten learning. She served on the board of her local ATD chapter in North Carolina for nine years and currently serves on ATD’s National Advisors for Chapters team. She has a B.S. in psychology from Guilford College and a M.S. in applied psychology from the University of Baltimore.

Connect with her on Twitter @RefreshTraining

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