The Changing Role of Visuals

web conferencing

Back in the late 1980’s, presenters with live audiences had limited choices when it came to visuals. If you wanted to use a visual aid in your presentation, you were confined to props, displaying a transparency on an overhead projector, or referencing some type of visual on a large poster. Visuals were clearly supplemental and played second fiddle to the main speaker. Regardless of whether you were presenting to teach, inform, persuade, or entertain, visual aids were the secondary messenger and the speaker was primary.

For example, if a presenter claimed something should be done about the high cost of healthcare in the 1980’s, they would likely reveal a poster with a table chart depicting how health care costs have risen dramatically over the past several years. The visual would offer supporting evidence with accurate statistics from a credible source to support their claim that health care costs were rising. Then, when the presenter was ready to move to another point, the poster was covered. In other words, visuals were used to clarify points at the time the content called out for more clarity. Once the point was made, the visual was removed and the speaker became the focus of attention once more.

Flash forward to the advent of web conferencing nearly 20 years ago, where this operating principle got turned on its head. Suddenly, a constant barrage of slides became “the presenter,” while the audio commentator of speaker took the back seat. Visuals were shown at all times throughout the presentation, which also became common place with PowerPoint slide presentations as well. Slides visuals took over as the primary messenger, and the speaker’s audio became secondary. Why? Visuals simply steal the show. As John Medina in his book, Brain Rules says, “the visual sense trumps all other senses.” Unfortunately, to make matters worse, stagnant slides in the early days of web conferencing displayed for long chunks of time, while presenters often droned on with audio commentary.

The result?

Paper airplanes flying around workplace cubicles during webinars.

Today we’ve seen how dramatically web conferencing, webinars, and virtual classrooms have evolved. Yet the challenge to continually engage attendees remains as strong as ever. One shift is the improved quality and ease of video and integrated webcams. We see this adoption of streaming live video growing. In fact, some presenters stay on camera through the entire webinar presentation, in addition to subjecting viewers to continual slides. Although we’ve made improvements over the past decades in the number of slides shown, as well as shortened the amount of time they remain static, a new challenge has emerged.

When presenters leave their webcams on for the entirety of a webinar, in addition to showing multiple succession of slide visuals, viewers experience competing visual stimuli. Where to look? The disadvantage is that by focusing on the speaker’s video, for example, absorption from the content of the slide takes a hit. From what we know about research in neuroscience and cognitive psychology, this type of attending and processing involves task switching, holding content in working memory, and likely, some cognitive load if the content is complex. The challenge is that viewers will likely not successfully absorb all slide content, while simultaneously watching and listening to the video of the speaker. Virtual attendees cannot attend to both and do them well.

Therefore, it is the presenter or the facilitator’s job to guide the viewer where to look. By turning off the webcam at strategic points, attendees can be directed to focus on the slides only, for example. By turning off slide display or displaying a fully colored, blank slide (explaining why it’s blank) or a slide with minimal content, attendees’ attention can be directed to the speaker’s video.

The lesson here is that just as a film director works with a cinematographer to direct where the audience should focus in a production, so also, we should carefully and thoughtfully determine when and where to best turn our webcam on and when to project slides. Video works great to introduce the presenter at the beginning, as well as during question and answer periods, for example.

Some web conferencing platforms now even allow for frames to be adjusted to consume more real estate, and then be reduced in size later. This is yet another tool at our disposal for helping communicate what the primary messenger is and what should be supplementary at any given time.

Using visuals to enhance and clarify our presentation should not be a 3-ring circus, but instead, a well crafted and directed production that considers the attendee first and foremost.

What say you?

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