Should You Narrate Your Slides?

When using a video or images in your presentation, should you talk over them? Does narrating help your audience process it better? Or does it distract the audience? Are certain kinds of voice-overs more helpful than others? And what in the world does a kids’ snowman video have to do with presentation design?

Today, we’re looking at a research study that shows how words and images can either amplify or interfere with each other. We’ll break down the study first, and then we’ll explore the lessons it can teach us.

The Snowman Study

In his 1995 article, “The Autonomy of Affect” published in Cultural Critique, Brian Massumi shares the work of a research team headed by Hertha Sturm. Here’s the story of how the research came about. German kids’ TV programming had been showing a short film in between programs. It featured a snowman. The video was shown with no words, just images. Here’s the gist of the content:

“A man builds a snowman on his roof garden. It starts to melt in the afternoon sun. He watches. After a time, he takes the snowman to the cool of the mountains, where it stops melting. He bids it good-bye, and leaves.”

Soon after this short film began airing, parents reported that it was upsetting for kids. So a team of researchers decided to figure out why this video was upsetting children. So they gathered a group of nine year olds and studied their responses to three versions of the snowman video:

  1. The original, wordless version of the film.
  2. A “factual” version with a voice-over narration that offered a “step-by-step account of the action as it happened.”
  3. An “emotional” version with a voice-over narration that was similar to the factual version but “included at crucial turning points words expressing the emotional tenor of the scene underway.”

After the children watched the 3 versions of the film, the researchers tested which version they remembered best and which they found most pleasant. Here were the results.

  1. Wordless version: most pleasant
  2. Factual version: worst remembered, least pleasant
  3. Emotional version: best remembered

Aside from these initial findings, the researchers discovered some pretty interesting stuff. Like, kids found the “sad” scenes “pleasant.” The researchers hypothesized that this meant that it didn’t matter what emotion the kids were feeling as much as it mattered that they were feeling something. And the information picked up the pace of their heartrate, but emotion registered strongly on their skin surfaces. But all of that, while super cool, doesn’t have as much to do with presentation design. Let’s hone in on what we can learn about the relationship between narrated words and on-screen images.

What Can the Snowman Study Teach Us About When To Narrate?

Hidden within this simple research study are two really important lessons for those of us who present or design presentations. These lessons can help us know when to offer voice-over narration for our presentation media and when to stay silent.

  1. We don’t enjoy being told what is going on when we can figure it out for ourselves. This is illustrated by the fact that the original, wordless version was rated as the most pleasant, and by the fact that the factual version was rated the least pleasant. Massumi says that “matter-of-factness dampens intensity.” When you narrate what is on the screen in a factual way, it actually interferes with your presentation design and with the audience’s enjoyment of it.
  2. Emotion helps us to remember things. You would think that any narration would help us remember a story, right? After all, we are seeing the images portrayed and also hearing them narrated. But the study showed that narration or voice-over only helps when it contains emotional content. This is why the emotional version of the film was remembered the best. Rather than dampening the effect of the video, Massumi says that narration which included emotional content actually “enhanced the images’ effect, as if they resonated with the level of intensity rather than interfering with it.”

When it comes to presenting, you will rarely have moments when you aren’t talking. But the snowman study can help all of us to better understand what to say and when. If you have dynamic video during your presentation, it’s best to let it play without narrating it to your audience. Studies show that humans like to figure the story out for ourselves. Only speak up if you can add emotional content to the video, as this will help your audience remember it longer.

For more information on how to balance logos (information) and pathos (emotion) in your presentation content, check this out.

And if you want to learn more about collaborating with our presentation design experts on your next big project, contact us now.

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