Time for another episode of presentation myth busters. You may already be familiar with the oft-quoted nonsense about “Mehrabian finding that 93% of communication is nonverbal.” You may have read my own breakdown of why “The 10-20-30 Rule” isn’t a rule and doesn’t apply to you.
Today’s battle of reality vs hype takes us to a statistic that has floated around the presentation industry for many years (read on for a shocking reveal of how many years). I just saw it featured as the key proposition of an advertising campaign from a well-known heavyweight in our space. I’m not going to call them out, because this isn’t about them or their marketing. It’s about the statistic itself.
Presentations Using Visual Aids Were Found To Be 43% More Persuasive Than Unaided Presentations.
Wow. That is impressive! And the instant I read it, alarm bells went off inside my head. “More persuasive?” How is that quantifiable? To an extent as precise as 43%? And is that oh-so-exact figure a measurement of “persuasion” or “effectiveness,” as is often claimed? Are the two terms interchangeable? Is there such a thing as an overall measure that applies to every presentation use case in every context?
Fortunately, Google is a powerful research tool. And content lives forever on the internet. So I was able to track down a superb 5-part series of articles written by Ikumi Kayama of Studio Kayama who did the hard work of tracking down the source study and analyzing it with a statistician’s eye.
I was a little surprised to find that Ms. Kayama published her analysis 8 years ago this month. But that was nothing to the shock of discovering that the source study providing the suspect statistic had originated in 1986!
I urge you to read through Ms. Kayama’s detailed analysis. I’m not going to plagiarize her work and I don’t want to reduce traffic to her website. Suffice to say, the figure of 43% was made up out of whole cloth. The “study” was a predetermined advertising ploy by 3M corporation to act as a way to promote their line of acetate overhead transparencies for business use. The so-called “study” compared color transparencies to 35mm slide projector slides for instance. Guess what… Using the color transparencies that could be made with 3M’s own color transparency foils and pens were markedly superior to illustrations made in black and white or on projected slides.
If you like the 1986 3M research project, I’m sure you’ll also appreciate how Marlboro cigarettes make men 37.6% more attractive and masculine. It’s garbage produced by an unscrupulous corporate marketing department to support a figure they have arbitrarily decided on as a promotional campaign strategy. This nonsense still goes on today… Look no further than Cisco’s recent barrage of press releases and interviews going on and on about how “Webex makes meetings 10x better than in-person.” Reciting a specific number somehow makes promotional hyperbole seem legitimate.
Now look… I have nothing against good visuals in presentations. I’m right there with everyone else in our industry, exhorting presenters to make presentations more visually interesting and engaging. DO use supporting graphics to help emphasize key points and recapture audience attention! It IS a good thing! Just stop regurgitating meaningless “statistics” to prove your point. The fact that 3M wanted to sell transparency foils in 1986 has nothing to do with your use of pictures in a PowerPoint.
Good visuals in a well-structured, well-planned, well-rehearsed, and well-delivered presentation are going to help. But not by a factor of 1.43.