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How the Design of Headlines in Presentation Slides Affects Audience Retention

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For the slides in most technical presentations, presenters choose a single word or short phrase as the headline. This article challenges that practice with experimental evidence showing that using a succinct sentence headline to identify the main assertion of a slide leads to statistically significant increases in audience retention of that assertion. The experimental tests occurred in a large, lecture-based geoscience course that had 200 students per section. For the study, the presenter, over five class periods, used about 100 slides with mostly phrase headlines to communicate the information to two sections of students and then used the same number of slides with succinct sentence headlines to communicate the same information to two additional sections. In the slide transformations, other changes occurred such as typographical changes and conversions of bullet lists to more visual evidence. However, for the 15 slide transformations considered in this study, the principal change was the conversion of a traditional headline to a succinct sentence headline. For example, in one transformation, the phrase headline Placer Deposits in the original slide was changed to Placer deposits arise from the erosion of lode deposits in the transformed slide.

When asked to recall the main assertions of slides, the students in the sections taught with the sentence-headline slides had significantly higher recall, even though our control questions revealed that the relative effort put forth by students in the sentence-headline sections was not as high as the effort put forth by those students in the traditional-headline sections. For the 15 questions in the study, the average score for the students viewing the sentence-headline slides was 79% correct, while the average for the students viewing the traditional slides was only 69% correct. A chi-square analysis shows that this difference is statistically significant at the 0.001 significance level.

On seven of the 15 questions, the students in the section with the sentence-headline slides achieved statistically significant higher scores (three at the 0.001 significance level, three at the 0.005 significance level, and one at the 0.025 significance level), while on only two questions did this same audience achieve lower test scores that were statistically significant (both at the 0.01 significance level). In this classroom situation, all four sections of students not only viewed the slides during the presentation, but also had access to the slides as notes after the presentation.

Document Type: Journal Article

Publication date: May 1, 2006

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  • Technical Communication, the Society's journal, publishes articles about the practical application of technical communication theory and serves as a common arena for discussion by practitioners. Technical Communication includes both quantitative and qualitative research while showcasing the work of some of the field's most noteworthy writers. Among its most popular features are the helpful book reviews. Technical Communication is published quarterly and is free with membership.
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