You put a picture or a graphic on the screen while you are presenting. The audience sees the screen light up and takes in the graphic. But once that picture changes or disappears, it begins to fade from their “mind’s eye” in less than a second.

On Wednesday, we talked about how we learn through what we hear, which is called echoic memory. Today, we’ll be exploring another form of sensory input, iconic memory, which is learning through what we see.

Once we see something, that image very briefly imprints on our mind. For example, say you accidentally open the door to a room where people are having a meeting. In a split second, your brain snaps a picture. You can probably initially recall the layout of the room and some details about the people who are attending the meeting. But the scene doesn’t really have any impact on your life. So you won’t be able to remember much of any of it just a few moments later.

Your iconic memory, like your echoic memory, is a temporary storage system. If what you see is important to you, it will be moved it to a more permanent part of your brain. So the goal for presenters is to get that snapshot to turn into a lasting memory through the use of relevant visual information.

Human Preference

When developing presentations, we might tend to think about words first and images later, developing our presentation media last. But Kenneth Wesson of BrainWorld reminds us that “vision has a much longer history in the human experience than does the printed word.” Because of this, our brains actually give priority treatment to visual information, fast tracking it, so to speak. Echoic memory lasts longer, but iconic memory typically captures 8-9 items verses the 4-5 that are captured by echoic memory. Since the human brain has a greater capacity for processing visual information, create visuals first rather than last.

Sperling’s Experiment

In 1960, George Sperling conducted a series of tests to see how much information we retain from our iconic memory. He showed research participants a series of 12 letters, formed in a grid pattern like this:




The image flashed for less than a second (0.05 seconds or 50 milliseconds to be precise), and participants were able to recall less than 35% of the characters. However, when he conducted the same research and used tones matched to the different rows of the grid, partcipants were then able to recall approximately 75% of the characters. A marked improvement.

Making Imagery Last

Sperling’s experiment tells us that if we can help the audience to somehow focus in on segments of the image instead of the whole, they’ll have a greater chance of remembering it. Here are a few ways to put Sperling’s research into practice:

Simplify Imagery: Sperling’s research proves that we need to present visual information in simple formats. The more that is on the screen, the less the audience will remember once that screen changes.

Highlight and Segment: Instead of asking the audience to process a full screen of information at once, highlight parts as you address them. Try changing the color the part you want them to focus on for the moment. Or try having information appear only once you are ready to address it.

Make Connections: The reason that visual snapshot, or any visual snapshot for that matter, fades is because it has no value for us. The sequence of Sperling’s letters don’t mean anything to us. They aren’t connected to any prior knowledge or experience. However, if it is connected to something we know or care about, it sticks. Remember the scenario about accidently opening the door on a meeting? Say you make a mental note that the woman who was seated at the end of the table looks like your Aunt Jane. Your brain now files the snapshot away because of the connection. So take time to relate your graphics to something that matters for the audience.

Humans have a highly adapted iconic memory. When we understand how that works through the foundation of scientific research, we can create visuals that help us make lasting and impactful presentation graphics.

For over 10 years, our team at Ethos3 has helped the biggest brands in the world seize opportunities to sell, educate, and inspire the masses through powerful graphics and presentations. How can we help you today?


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