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  • Writer's pictureBarbara Mayfield, MS, RDN, LD, FAND

Is a picture truly worth 1,000 words?

Updated: Jun 19, 2023

shadow profile of Sherlock Holmes

Where are you, Sherlock Holmes? I would like to enlist your help in solving the mystery of the unsupported data. It appears that the internet perpetuates the proliferation of statistics without proper referencing. People! Don’t cite data without supporting research!

Are 80% of statistics made up?

I have heard that 80% of all statistics are made up. I am beginning to think that is a conservative estimate. What is truly scary is that once a number is reported it gets repeated, and repeated, and repeated again. Where are the fact-checkers?

In researching content for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics' book Communicating Nutrition: The Authoritative Guide, I searched for research evidence to support the use of various strategies and techniques for presenting information: visual aids, demonstrations, videos, etc.

Is a picture truly worth 1,000 words? Is there data to support that commonly held belief?

Allow me to list some of the statistics purported to prove the value of visuals over words alone:

  • 90% of information transmitted to the brain is visual.

  • Visuals have been found to improve learning by up to 400 percent.

  • Illustrated text is comprehended 83% more effectively than text alone.

  • Presenters are twice as likely to achieve audience objectives using visual aids.

  • Meetings using visual aids are 26.8% shorter than meetings without visual aids.

I’m not claiming that any of these statements are true… or false. But, please don’t repeat them, and certainly don’t cite this blog as the source! I am still searching to find well-supported evidence.

If you do a Google search for any of these statistics, they appear to regurgitate the same ambiguous studies. The research may exist, but no references are provided and the way they are presented is often misleading.

One of the most often cited statistics originated from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in 1981. It involved the study of the effect of using overhead transparencies in business meetings. Retention of information presented improved from 10% with verbal only to 50% when visual support was added, resulting in the reported increase of 400%.

Good luck finding the original research. Considering it would now be 37 years old and overhead transparencies are rarely used today, it seems fitting that we should be able to update our statistics with more recent research.

Show me the data!

Thankfully, it does exist. It isn’t in the popular literature and if it was, it would likely be glorified or misrepresented. One of the best sources of evidence is The Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning (Mayer, 2014). It presents evidence for the Multimedia Principle - that people experience deeper learning from words and pictures combined than from words alone.

We not only have better memory retention, but we are also better able to problem solve and transfer learning to new situations when we experience learning both visually and verbally. The book also presents research describing situations when words alone or pictures alone are more effective.

I took an Academy survey asking me to explain the difference between “evidence-based” and “evidence-informed.” Possibly you took the survey, too. Both are valuable, but I contend we need more of the former and better descriptions of the latter.

I have found in my research for the book that many widely shared concepts and theories related to learning and communication are misrepresented. I explore this further in a blog about presentation effectiveness statistics and propose how we might do a better job communicating what we know and what we think we know.

What examples of misrepresented statistics have you come across? Share in the comments.

“Facts are stubborn, but statistics are more pliable.” Mark Twain

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