Why Visuals Work

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The other aspect I was talking about at my presentation session at Barcamp Stuttgart recently was why visuals, specifically photos, work in presentations. I.e. how they help your audience to process and remember the content.

This, again, draws heavily from Dr. Medina's book Brain Rules, specifically from Rule 10: Vision trumps all other senses.

Remembering Photos

In this chapter of his book, Dr. Medina makes two important points. He quotes experiments that show that people can remember photos really well.

In one experiment, people were shown 2500 photos (over several sessions), each for only 10 seconds. Over the following days, they were shown some of those photos again and asked if they recognised them. The recognition rates were pretty much like you would expect: They were around 80-90% after one or two days, then began to drop off.

In another similar experiment (minor criticism here: the book makes it sound like it was the same experiment), people were shown the photos again after one year.

Just imagine this scenario: You've been shown a lot of photos, only once, and only for a couple of seconds each. One year later, someone comes by, shows you some photos and asks if you recognise them. What do you think - how many photos would you be able to recognise?

When I ask my audience to take a guess, they usually come up with very low numbers - 10%, 3%, even 0.5%. The actual rate, however, was 63 percent.

This demonstrates that our brain is really good at remembering visual information; and it makes a strong case for us to make use of this fact in our presentations.

The Visual Cortex

The other aspect here is that when we listen to a presentation, our brain's prefrontal cortex is doing most of the heavy lifting. It has to preprocess all the information that's coming in and decide what's worth remembering, at least for the moment. This is because our working memory (aka short-term memory) is also located in the prefrontal cortex.

Visuals, like photos, however, are processed in a different part of our brain, the visual cortex. To get in contact with your visual cortex, place your hand on the back of your head - there it is, on the other side of the bone. The prefrontal cortex is located at the front of your head, behind your forehead. So when using visuals, you are "outsourcing" some of the work to another part of your brain. Which lightens the load on the prefrontal cortex and makes it easier for your audience to process what you tell them.


When using visuals in a presentation, you make use of the facts that

  • the human brain is good at remembering visuals
  • visual information is processed in a separate part of the brain

More visual presentations are often seen as "too fluffy". The above (and the previous article) show that there is scientific evidence behind approaches such as Presentation Zen - they really work. And now you know why.

(Photo: Stack of photos, iStockphoto file #4743375)

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