Mixing media: happiness or headache?

Describes the problems that can arise when you mix verbal and visual channels.

We are fortunate in that our brain is able to focus on verbal and visual inputs simultaneously. Although these inputs are likely to be linked, i.e. the verbal input often relates directly to the visual in some way, different parts of the brain are used to process these two channels. Where we are less fortunate is that the brain finds it uncomfortable to deal with more than one verbal input or more than one visual input at a time.
As a facilitator in a web conferencing environment, we have two main ways in which we can provide verbal input – using our voice or using text on slides. We also have more than one way of communicating visually, the most common being the graphics that we display on slides and (if we’re lucky) a real-time video feed of us presenting.
Happpiness for the participant means:

  • you present using your voice, while you display a graphic;
  • you display text on the screen, keeping quiet while they read it;
  • you present using a video feed, but with no accompanying slide.

It’s headache time for the participant when:

  • you talk over a slide full of text (the participant doesn’t know whether to listen or read; because they can do the latter much faster than the former, they’ll probably tune out what you’re saying);
  • you run a video alongside a sequence of pictorial slides (not such a disaster, but chances are your video image will draw more attention than the graphics, because it’s moving).

These rules might seem common sense, but they can’t be, because they’re commonly broken. The result? Presenters communicating happily, participants with headaches. Not a formula for success.