Why Do Faces Work Better Than PowerPoint?

We’ve all been on the receiving end of a boring PowerPoint presentation. And we’ve probably created our own share of them, too. This despite the fact that we know how dull they can be.

But what’s the alternative? Is it using some other slide tool, like Keynote or Slideshare? Or maybe going zen with ZenDeck? Or maybe skipping the slides altogether and telling a story?

There’s no one right answer here -- because all of these solutions are asking the wrong question to start. We shouldn’t be asking what technology or method to use. We should be asking “What naturally gets people’s attention?”

Faces Get People’s Attention

Some of what we do is conscious and deliberate. And some of what we do is unconscious and automatic. Where our brains decide to focus our attention tends to be the latter. If you are a presenter, knowing what the brain tends to focus on (and what it ignores) can help you through the filters, biases, and distraction that most audiences naturally have.

Some of the things that automatically draws our attention are faces. It makes sense that this would be a “hard wired” tendency in us. A person’s face helps us identify them-- an ability that is important from the very first relationship, that of infant and mother. Faces also give us clues about other’s intentions, goals, and emotional state. Eye gaze in particular can tell us a lot about where people are paying attention, and so directs us to pay attention too.

Faces are so important, in fact, that we are hard-wired to seek them out, study them, and look where they are looking. These tendencies seem to be universal (i.e., the drop up across all cultures and times). They also tend to be fast and automatic. Using a face, then, is a way to quickly and automatically draw someone’s attention.

“We’ve got pictures of faces… now what?”

Of course, sprinkling a bunch of faces into your presentation is not enough. Sure, the extra pictures of people can add a little eye candy, especially if your presentation is almost all words to begin with. But faces need to be integrated into your presentation in a way that enhances the content (or at least does not distract from the content).

For example:

  1. 1) Have the face match the text. If your text is a quote, get a picture of the person quoted. If the text is not a quote, use the face of a person that looks like they would say what is in the text. Or even better: if you can embed video, have someone actually narrate the text. Moving video is the best way to make use of a face when presenting content of any kind!
    2) Orient faces towards important text. Our natural inclination is to follow a person’s gaze. So, if you use pictures of faces, try to use one’s where the person’s gaze points towards your text. For example, the first slide here is much more effective (and rated as less boring) than the second:
    Effective Photo

    Facial Recognition Example 1 - ej4

    Not-So-Effective Photo

    Facial Recognition Example 2 - ej4
    3) Emotions are OK. Most stock photography has picture-perfect models smiling sweetly at us. There’s nothing wrong with that. But sometimes contentment is not the only emotion one wants to convey. What about boredom? Anger? A feeling of incredulousness? Faces can be used to quickly and easily convey an emotion, and thus set the tone for a slide or presentation.

Remember, whether or not you use PowerPoint, or slide software at all, is not really relevant. It’s the little things that are doing the work. Give us a presentation with a face-- whether it’s in slides, video, game displays, or something even weirder-- and we can say with confidence that it will do better than your average PowerPoint.

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