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.