If your PowerPoint slides are generating more noise than signal, it’s time to fine-tune your approach and re-engineer your headlines.
The engineering term signal-to-noise ratio describes the relationship between meaningful information (signal) to meaningless information (noise). The higher the ratio of signal-to-noise, the more meaningful information is being communicated.
The same idea applies to the human mind, which also requires a high signal-to-noise ratio in order to understand information clearly. Cognitive science explains that the mind has only limited capacity to process information and integrate it into memory. In this context, the research-based signaling principle says that in a multimedia environment, the mind processes information more effectively when a headline or outline signals the most important information the mind needs to process.
An effective way to signal meaning in PowerPoint is with a clear headline — the information you write at the top of a slide. We’re already literate in the language of headlines from newspapers, which use them at the top of every article to quickly indicate the idea of the article that follows. This is an inductive technique — a headline makes a conclusion about what the story means, which is then supported by the story itself. Journalists have developed an art and craft of writing headlines that serve 3 very important functions — they quickly communicate the main ideas of the article, entice you to read more if you have the time, and allow you to skim the paper if you don’t.
A good headline can do the same for you on a PowerPoint slide — it quickly signals what you’re talking about, intrigues people to listen to the words you’re saying and the visuals you’re showing, and frees them from the burden of excess information they don’t have the time to process in a multimedia experience. However, the bullet-point approach that dominates PowerPoint today actually discourages effective headlines, and encourages less effective list headings that offer no clear signals.
Let’s say you’re going to the grocery store and you want to remember what to bring. You pull out a sheet of paper, write the heading, "Grocery List", then you make your bulleted list of chicken, cheese, strawberries and low-carb bars. None of the items necessarily mean anything in relation to one another. The same goes for slide headings like "The Market" or "Product Benefits" — they only establish categories of lists, but offer no meaning about what the list items mean together, or in relationship to one another. In a deductive approach, you could present a list of points like this and then come to a conclusion at the end; but since bulleted slides have no conclusion, the burden rests on the viewer to guess what you’re trying to say.
Why put additional cognitive load on the minds of your audience, when you can make it easier for them to see what you mean? Instead, transform your "Grocery List" heading into a useful slide headline like "Low-carb diets are healthier than high carb diets". Then you and your audience will have a meaty idea to chew on as you support, defend and discuss your case with your spoken words. Re-write "The Market" to say "The Market Has Split into 2 New Segments". Edit "Product Benefits" to say "External Drives Reduce Risk by 10%". Each of these new headlines stakes out a specific conclusion, that you can then support with the visuals on your slide along with your spoken words. When you design your slides along these lines with a more orderly hierarchy, you end up with an effective media module that works well across paper, projector and browser.
By re-engineering your list headings into more meaningful headlines, you signal a clear starting point for you and your audience to begin your mental or verbal discussion, and ensure your signal-to-noise stays at a very high level.
Tip: Improve your PowerPoint signal-to-noise ratio by working on your headlines. Read through your favorite newspaper with a sheet of paper beside you, and write down only the headlines. When you have a page of headlines, read them out loud to hear how they sound. Observe how they are each constructed to inform, entice and distill. Now return to PowerPoint and try your hand at headline-writing. If you have an existing PowerPoint file, you can break up all of your bulleted points into separate slides, so you can begin to distill them down to their essence. Or for a faster result, open up a new, blank presentation, and for every existing bulleted slide, create a new slide and write a headline that summarizes each main idea. Test out your headlines by showing them to your team for a reality check. It may take some time to develop your headline-writing skills, but when you start to engineer better focus, you’ll signal dramatic clarity too.