To Convey Information: Chunk, Don’t Crowd
Most people have seen terrible presentations. They have a common phenotype: too much information cluttered on each slide, overlapping images that don’t seem to be connected, and too much monotony. All of these things together make terrible presentations, but even separately they can do damage to your presentation. It has to do with how the audience pays attention to your slides, and if you put all of your information in bullets, you’re not only crowding the screen, you’re causing your audience’s attention to be strained or reduced.
When you pay attention to something, your mind can use one of two paradigms: space-based or object-based. Space-based attention is used in ordinary situations, like when you go for a jog or when you’re out to lunch. You pay attention to the space around you, focusing more with a “spotlight” of attention, where everything else fades into the background.
Object-based attention is when you focus on specific objects, usually when there’s a lot to pay attention to. This type of attention allows you to pick out small details that may be important later on, where observing the whole scene wouldn’t be as helpful. For example, if you look at a bus map for a city, you’ll pay attention to different routes or stops, but not the whole map. This is different from the spotlight because everything else doesn’t fade into the background, there is no background, at least not one you pay nearly as much attention to.
So when you’re confronted with the stereotypical “bad presentation”, with its pre-described endless bullet points, you’re using object-based attention to analyze the information you’re bombarded with. The problem stems from how object-based attention operates, which is either by priority or en masse. Ordinarily, when looking at something, your brain can pick which method of attention to employ, depending on the scene. When you’re hit with too much information, however, you rely on en masse processing of information, which spreads your attention thin across everything you need to pay attention to. So when you get ten bullet points of information, you try and fail to process all of them.
Chunk items together so the audience can easily find important information
When creating your own presentation, it’s best to split up the information into discrete objects, or “chunks”, so that information can be processed naturally, and at a higher level of attention. If a member of the audience can easily digest information bit-by-bit instead of all at once, they’ll be able to pay attention more easily, and thus take away more information. It would also help to create a space on your slides where the most important information can be presented, so that the audience knows where to look first and foremost. It’s always a good idea to break up the flow once in a while, but having a reliable template can go a long way in maintaining attention.
Hu, F., Jiao, C., Zhao, S., Dong, H., Liu, X., Yi, Y., & Wang, J. (2015). The effects of attention pre-allocation and target-background integration on object-based attention. PloS One, 10(3), e0119414. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0119414