In a classic study by Alfred Yarbus, reported in his 1967 book Eye Movements and Vision (originally published in Russian in 1965), the eye movements of an observer were recorded while they viewed an image—Ilya Repin’s Unexpected Visitors (c. 1886)—seven times with different instructions.
Before we see the results of the study, let’s replicate it ourselves here.
As you complete each of the tasks below, pay attention to where you find yourself looking.
First, take a look at the painting below, and examine it however you desire (a).
Next, estimate the wealth of the family in the picture (b).
Then estimate the ages of each person in the room (c).
Now, figure out what the the family was doing before the “unexpected visitor” arrived (d).
Next, remember the clothing worn by each person (e).
Then remember the positions of the people and objects in the room (f).
And finally, estimate how long the “unexpected visitor” has been away from the family (g).
Of course, while you were completing each of these different tasks, your eyes followed different paths around the image. Below, you’ll find the eye tracks recorded by Yarbus of a participant completing each of the seven tasks you just did.
As you can see—and as you probably noticed yourself just a moment ago—depending on what someone is looking for, they’re going to process an image in different ways. Of course, this finding isn’t only true for paintings: it also applies to your visual aids.
So while you can—like most speakers—simply allow your audience’s eyes to wander around your visual aids, as in the free examination task (a) above, you may be able to do even better if you direct your audience’s attention by telling them what to look for. By doing so, you’ll make their job significantly easier, which as we’ve seen before, will lead to greater understanding. Although it sounds obvious, the easier you make it for your audience to understand you message, the better they’re going to understand it. As Yarbus’ experiment demonstrated half a century ago, directing their eyes is one easy way to do that.
While in a formal speaking context, these specific findings are moot—using sex to sell is usually inappropriate in such contexts—there are still several important lessons we can take from this research.
First, it underscores the importance of congruence. In The Science of Speaking, I repeatedly note that it’s important to make sure all aspects of your speech go together, whether it’s matching your facial expressions and tone of voice to your content, making sure your visual aids all look cohesive, or making sure your persuasive appeals are all congruent. This research intensifies all of these points by showing that incongruence can not only be ineffective, it can actually have a significant negative effect, in this case leading to lower recall and purchase intentions.
Second, beware “seductive details.” In The Science of Speaking, I review research showing that when interesting but irrelevant details are added in order to spice something up, these details can actually draw attention away from the main message, resulting in the opposite of the intended effect—in that case, learning, and in this case, sales.
Finally, it’s always important to consider your audience. Just as in this case, there were totally different effects for men and women, your appeals may have totally different effects on different audiences, and a strategy that works well for one may totally flop with another. Rather than designing general appeals that you think will work for everyone, you want them to be tailored to your audience as much as possible.