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Say it with Stick Figures

Why whiteboard-style imagery is more powerful than PowerPoint

The Picture Superiority Effect says concepts are much more likely to be remembered if they are presented as pictures rather than as words. In fact, research has discovered that visuals are recalled six times better than words alone. But what kind of visual support works best? Is there a superior picture approach that maximizes the Picture Superiority Effect?

In a recent set of experiments, Stanford University Graduate School of Business Professor Zakary Tormala tested the potential effects of whiteboard visuals against more traditional PowerPoint approaches. The aim of the research was to determine whether “whiteboarding” can enhance presentation effectiveness, as defined by metrics of engagement, enjoyment, credibility and — most critically — recall and persuasive impact.

Tormala found a statistically significant difference in favor of the whiteboard approach, which outperformed the PowerPoint presentations on a wide range of measures assessing message impact.

Study 1
In an initial study, 351 individuals (with an average age of 34) took part in an online experiment. Participants were instructed to imagine that they worked at a company where they were in charge of the sales staff and considering ways to improve presentation skills. Participants were informed that they would be viewing a presentation on this topic, which would begin on the next screen.

Participants then viewed a 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. The content of this presentation was identical for all participants.

However, unknown to them, participants were randomly assigned to one of three different conditions that varied the visuals accompanying the spoken message. In the “whiteboard condition,” participants viewed an automated presentation in which graphics appeared to be hand-drawn on a whiteboard. In the “PowerPoint condition,” participants viewed a more traditional PowerPoint presentation containing stock photography and bullet points. Finally, a third group of participants was assigned to a “Zen condition,” which contained one key phrase and an engaging metaphorical image. The latter two conditions were designed to capture the default ways speakers tend to use PowerPoint in their live presentations.

   

Despite the fact that all participants received the exact same information — that is, identical message content, the study revealed that the whiteboard presentation outperformed the PowerPoint and Zen presentations on a wide range of measures assessing message impact. More specifically, in
each of the following areas, there was a statistically significant difference in favor of the whiteboard presentation:

Engagement – Compared to participants in the PowerPoint and Zen conditions, participants in the whiteboard condition reported finding the presentation more interesting, paying more attention to it and thinking more deeply about its content. On average,
the whiteboard presentation created approximately 9 percent improvement in engagement above and beyond 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 the speaker as more experienced and trustworthy. Overall, on these measures, 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 did participants in
the PowerPoint and Zen conditions.

Recall – Finally, in a recall test at the end of the study session, participants were able to accurately remember significantly more message content in the whiteboard condition than in the PowerPoint or Zen conditions, which also differed in this case. The recall difference between the latter two conditions is not surprising given that the PowerPoint visual summarized some of the key points from the presentation, whereas the Zen visual did not. Most importantly, as illustrated in Figure 2, compared to the PowerPoint and Zen conditions combined, the whiteboard presentation generated approximately 16 percent improvement in memory for message content.

Study 2
In a second study conducted a few weeks after the first, 401 new participants (with an average age of 33) were run through 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. For example, in addition to assessing engagement, credibility, presentation quality and recall (all of which replicate the Study 1 findings), participants 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 own messages, to others?
  • How likely are you to follow the advice from the presentation the next time you have to speak in public?
  • 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?”

Across these measures, the whiteboard presentation had a statistically significant advantage over the PowerPoint and Zen presentations, which were no different from each other. On average, the whiteboard presentation enhanced the persuasive impact of the message by approximately eight 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 assessed recall and continued engagement and impact. Importantly, none of the original presentation was shared in the follow-up survey and participants simply took another memory test.

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 it continued to be more engaging and impactful relative to those presentations. 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. Thus, the advantage of the whiteboard presentation over the PowerPoint and Zen presentations was persistent over time.

Given the clear, proven advantage to using whiteboard conditions, companies — and particularly sales and marketing leaders — should look to implement this strategy across their teams to improve results, realize better customer conversations and increase revenue.

Tim Riesterer is Chief Strategy and Marketing Officer of Corporate Visions, a leading marketing and sales messaging, tools and skills company. The Corporate Visions Marketing and Sales Alignment conference is scheduled for Sept. 24-26 in Chicago. Find out more or register here.