Scientifically Speaking, Your PowerPoint Sucks

A study from Harvard’s Decision Science Laboratory uses brain science to explain why we prefer certain types of presentations over others.

Scientifically Speaking, Your PowerPoint Sucks
[Photo: Bzzz/iStock]

When I spoke to five leading designers last year about how they design presentations, Meg Beckum, a creative director at the brand engagement firm Sullivan, had some straightforward advice. “Don’t treat a presentation like a brochure,” she told me. “For the most part, people aren’t reading the slides. You want to start a conversation and have a dialogue.”


This should be comforting advice for designers, who are used to communicating through strong visual messaging anyway—to hell with words. Others I interviewed echoed Beckum’s sentiment, adding that presentations are most compelling when they are punctuated with data visualizations, splashes of color, carefully chosen fonts, and animation. And while I kept using “PowerPoint” as a shorthand for “presentations” in my interview questions, several of the designers I interviewed corrected me. They actually used the presentation software Prezi.

But does the kind of presentation software that you use really have an effect on the persuasiveness or effectiveness of your presentation? Researchers at the Harvard Department of Psychology’s Decision Science Laboratory think so. In a study titled Does A Presentation’s Medium Affect Its Message?  published in Plos One, they concluded that yes, in fact it does. And they found that Prezi was the best medium to use.

But the more fascinating part of the study is why some methods of presentation triumph over others. From the perspective of Beckum and the other designers I spoke to, Prezi was appealing because it offers more advanced tools for presenting information in precisely the way the designers want it presented.

But as this new study argues, there are also psychological factors that determine what type of presentation will capture the audience’s attention and convey information best. If you know how to leverage that, the researchers conclude, not only will the design of your presentation be better perceived, the audience will also think more highly of you as a presenter. Here are three of the most compelling takeaways from their research.

[Photo: Tailex/iStock]M

Our Brains Like “Zoomable” Interfaces

The researchers behind the Harvard study wanted to explore two overarching questions: What mental mechanisms underlie effective communication, and how can presenters leverage those to communicate more effectively? They looked at three different communication styles: PowerPoint, Prezi, and oral presentation. They divided the study into two phases. The first phase had 146 participants create a presentation in one of the three formats—with the topic and context provided by the researchers—then give it to an audience of 153 over Skype. The second phase took video footage of those presentations and showed them to a larger audience (1,069 people).

In both phases, the audience members were asked to judge each presentation style—and the results show Prezi as the clear winner. The audience, the researchers write, “evaluated Prezi presentations as more organized, engaging, persuasive, and effective than both PowerPoint and oral presentations.”


The reason why Prezi emerged victorious reveals something about the mental mechanisms that are most effective for this type of communication. Prezi is what computer scientists call a zoomable user interface (ZUI). Unlike PowerPoint’s deck of slides, Prezi allows users to create presentations on a single, infinite canvas that users can animate through panning and zooming.

ZUIs jive better than slides with the ways that our brains work naturally. We have both a “ventral” visual system that processes information such as shape and color and a “dorsal” spatial system that processes things like location and distance. When these two systems are prompted to work in concert—as the animated features of Prezi prompt them to do—it enhances our memory and comprehension. By encouraging the audience to process information spatially, Prezi has a leg up over PowerPoint and oral presentation techniques.

[Photo: Tailex/iStock]

Animation Isn’t Just Window Dressing

The study shows that participants rated the visuals from Prezi presentations as much more “dynamic, visually compelling, and distinctive” than PowerPoint. And fascinatingly, they identified animation as the attribute that most distinguished Prezi from PowerPoint. When a presentation was judged as lacking in animated elements, it was almost always rated poorly. Taken together, the study suggests, “this evidence suggests that Prezi presentations were not just better overall, but were better at engaging visually with their audience through the use of animation.”

The cognitive science behind ZUIs explains why Prezi’s panning and zooming animations so impacted participants. Compared with slide-based decks and their linear transitions (and oral presentations, of course, without any visual references whatsoever), the features that allow users to move fluidly over a virtual canvas were much more engaging to audiences.

[Photo: Tailex/iStock]


The Medium Affects The Message–And The Messenger

But keep in mind that audience members weren’t rating the mechanisms of the presentations—they weren’t asked to evaluate the zooming, for example, or the transitions. They were rating the content of the presentations as well as the presenters.

That means the audience members were not only confusing the media with the messages, they were also conflating the media with the messenger. Participants rated Prezi presenters as “more knowledgeable, professional, effective, and organized than other presenters.” As the study argues, this is because of the animated presentation, not because the presenters were particularly better than the ones who used PowerPoint.

This last point might be the most useful takeaway for designers. It drills home the point that Beckum and the other designers I spoke to seemed to know implicitly, or at least have learned from experience: The only way that you will get your work through to clients or any other audience is through a compelling presentation.

How you present your work can be every bit as important as the work itself. A tip from Harvard psychologists? Make it move.

About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.