Here's What Two Research Studies Say About Designing Compelling Powerpoint Presentations

By: Dan Hodgins

You would think that PowerPoint presentations would be designed in ways that are aligned with how the human mind works, using principles based on scientific research.

Sadly, this is not the case as many business owners, employees and professionals receive zero training on how to design a compelling presentation (or any other type of persuasive communication).

The end result is a snoozer of a PowerPoint presentation that puts your audience to sleep - not exactly a key business objective!

There is hope, however.

As part of a 12 part series by Design Butler™ on designing presentations that win we’ll be sharing insights from Mayer’s Theory of Multimedia Design.


Today we’ll start with his first principle.

Principle #1: Coherence

In his words: “People learn better when extraneous materials (words, pictures and sounds) are excluded (Mayer, 2001).”

In simpler terms - reduce, reduce, reduce!

Many of you will know this intuitively, but putting it into practice on a consistent basis is another matter.

Here’s how you can use Mayer's Principle of Coherence today.

How to Apply It - Reduce, Reduce, Reduce!

To simplify even further imagine you could only use one visual and up to 3 words per slide to reinforce the meaning of the visual.

Here is a visual depiction of what that might look like:

1x3 Method For Powerpoint Presentation Design (PPT)

The choice of 3 words is arbitrary - it could just as easily be 3 bullet points of 3 words each.

The point is to radically reduce the amount of extraneous text, images and other elements that are included in each slide.

Note that your single visual could be a photo, mind map, symbol, diagram, icon, process map or other (to help you communicate more information in that visual).

The reason such a design would be coherent is because the elements relate to, and reinforce the meaning of, each other.

This minimalist design methodology also applies to other visual communications such as infographics. The same principle of reducing extraneous elements applies.

Radically Simplify Your PPT Design

In other words - use fewer images and FAR fewer words and bullet points per slide.

According to Grech: "It is crucial to remember that a slide show is not a teleprompter. A speaker should never read from screen unless quotes are used, and should never turn their back to an audience." (Grech, 2018).

Cluttered Powerpoint Slides - Avoid at All Costs

Using 8 bullet points with 20 words each and 3 visuals perslide would be a failure to apply Mayer's Principle of Coherence. This type of design would create a 'slides as teleprompter' scenario where the presenter is essentially reading a document. This is highly likely to put the audience to sleep and induce heavy snoring.

In contrast, image a TED Talk or Apple product presentation with their minimalist aesthetic of one image and minimal words per slide. These are the most compelling presentations in existence, and you would be wise to model them.

Sure, it might be a bit more work to design a presentation using Mayer’s Principle of Coherence as you’ll need to aggressively reduce extraneous elements and ensure that the remaining elments reinforce each other.

You might even need to redesign some of your presentations from scratch.

If your objective is to to tell a coherent story, persuade an audience or grow a business you would be wise to follow Mayer's research-based design principles to increase the emotional impact of your presentations.

After all - the best communicator wins.


Mayer, R.E. (2001). Multimedia Learning. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Grech, Victor. (2018). The Application of the Mayer Multimedia Learning Theory to Medical PowerPoint Slide Show Presentations. Journal of Visual Communication in Medicine. p36-41.

Author Bio

Dan Hodgins is the creator of a researched-based methodology called Strategic Visual Communications™. His objective is to transform your communications at a strategic level to increase engagement, retention and emotional impact. As the founder of Design Butler™ Dan enjoys solving problems for clients using this proprietary process.

Interested in learning more?

Visit the Design Butler™ website or get in touch today.