Presentations: why pictures speak louder than words

Last week I had the unusual experience of sitting through a slide presentation and enjoying every moment.

The presentation in question was given at a pan-European media event organised by the Celgene pharmaceutical company; and the presenter in question was Martin Inderbitzin, a young survivor of pancreatic cancer who now devotes himself to sharing his own and other stories to offer patients a new perspective on the dreaded C-word. You can read his and other inspiring stories at

Martin is a naturally gifted speaker. But what made his presentation stand out was the fact that his slides consisted almost entirely of photographs, accompanied by few, if any, words.

Here he is in his hospital bed, too weak to get to the toilet on his own; here he is sliding into the body scanner…getting drip-fed with toxic chemo drugs…submitting to terrifying doses of radiotherapy, while the staff delivering the treatment scuttle away to protect themselves from the powerful rays. And here he is just three months later, completing a gruelling triathlon, having never taken part in endurance sport before.

And it wasn’t just the personal stuff that impressed. How to convey the confusion, bewilderment and naked terror that beset travellers on the ‘cancer journey’? Martin didn’t try to do it with words. The visual image of a car driving blind through a vicious sandstorm with a broken windscreen said it all.

The picture superiority effect

We are all familiar with the notion that ‘a picture paints a thousand words’ and we now have some good scientific evidence to support the theory – and to justify why we should favour pictures over words in slide presentations.

The ‘picture superiority effect’ tells us that concepts are more memorable if they are presented as pictures than as words.

There are two possible ‘encoding’ theories that explain this effect:

  • Paivio’s ‘dual coding’ theory states that picture stimuli have an advantage over word stimuli because they generate a verbal code and an image code in the brain whereas word stimuli only generate a verbal code’;
  • Nelson’s ‘sensory semantic’ theory has it that pictures are perceptually more distinct from each other than words, thus making them easier to remember.

Other possible explanations are also being debated; but there seems to be general agreement among scientists that the effect is a genuine one.

The futility of talking when people are trying to read

I have spoken in a previous post about the futility of putting a lot of words on slides and then talking when people are trying to read them:

Reading and listening use competing sensory channels – meaning you can’t do both at the same time – but the same does not apply to listening and looking at a relevant image.

That’s why it is much easier – and far less frustration – for your audience to listen to you if you show one or more images rather than a screen-full of words.

And now it seems that this is also helpful in terms of them being able to recall what you said afterwards – which must be every presenter’s goal.

So do yourself and your audience a favour: use your notes to help you prepare for your presentation, not as a script for you to read during it. Instead, grab and hold their attention with a succession of powerful images.

Can we help you?

Clearsay works with professionals in the public, private and not-for-profit sectors to improve their spoken communication skills for use in presentations, media interviews and meetings of all kinds. To find out more visit the home page.