Tag Archives: slides

Persuasive Presenting: Death To Red Herrings

Presentation design: Avoid ClichésI once sat in court for a Big Oil client and watched with a mix of bemusement and horror as the plaintiff’s attorney put up an illustration of an anthropomorphized fat cat in a suit struggling to hold shut the door of a closet bursting with skeletons.

We can all see what my confused adversaries were going for: Big Oil is a bunch of fat cats with skeleton-filled closets. Don’t trust them!

A fair argument when it comes to Big Business of all sorts, but the miscalculation is this: Clichés are so overused that they bore our brains. This, likely expensive, piece of design was a throw-away for the jury.

Well-used metaphors can engage the brain and create powerful associations. Researchers in 2006 found that our brains are stimulated by original and intriguing metaphors that use sensory-charged words like “coffee,” “lavender,” and “perfume.” In fact, these words light up the primary olfactory cortex of the brain – the cortex in charge of processing smell.

However, when metaphors age and, finally, mature into clichés the effect diminishes. Phrases often heard in courtrooms like “a lot of moving parts,” “throw the baby out with the bathwater,” and “pulling wool over our eyes” become commonplace, meaningless language. In short, our brains read these phrases literally and the metaphor completely loses it’s ability to inspire thought or feeling.

I was once witness to slide where certain events on a timeline animated into “red herrings.” The trial team was enamored with the cleverness of the slide, but I watched as the jury sat, passive and bored, as the fish appeared. It simply did nothing for them.

If the jury remembered this graphic at all during deliberations, I’m fairly sure it was referred to as that “strange fish timeline.” A better strategy would have been to simply turn the offending events red and notate that the importance of these events was falsely exaggerated by opposing counsel. Then remove them completely and discuss what the situation looks like without them. Now a powerful point has been made, rather than just labeling events red herrings and expecting that tired phrase to do the work for you.

When it comes to incorporating graphics into your presentation, leave the clichés out and focus your resources on the concrete facts of your case. The more original your use of metaphor, the more it will resonate with your audience – inspiring thought and associations with the arguments you’re presenting.

Further reading:
Another Red Herring Story and Nine Other Don’ts from the Persuasive Litigator

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Slides Should Never Be Handouts

Presentation DesignA quick peek into my personal life: my husband spent a decade and a half as a management consultant. He violates the rule I’m about to discuss more egregiously than anyone.

Although I’ve given up on convincing him, I do believe there’s hope for the rest of humanity: Slides and handouts are two separate animals. Never use one for the other.

Consultants, like too many other presenters, often rely on their slides to serve two purposes: presentation tool and take-away info-pack. When a presenter makes this mistake, the resulting slides are so jam packed with information that not only do they exhaust the audience, they become their own worst enemy.

The human brain can only hold so much information before deciding to commit it to long term memory or discard it. The more info available at once, the more will get tossed into the discard pile.

During a presentation or learning session, new information is kept in the working memory of the learner. Ideas in the working memory are subject to manipulation by reasoning and comprehension; it is where the presenter can massage the information, add his take, affect its meaning and plead his case. Working memory is where information is the most subject to persuasion.

What a wonderful workspace! There is one problem though – space is limited. Only so many ideas can be actively held and manipulated in the working memory. This limitation is referred to as cognitive load and the theory states that the more a learner has to learn at one time, the lower his or her comprehension rate will be. In fact, the general consensus is that the working memory can only hold between 5 and 9 pieces of information at once.

Comprehension happens best when the audience is coming to understand a visual with the help of audible explanation, rather than when the brain is trying to process spoken words, written words, images and relational information all at once. Slides should be visual, low on text and simple. The best slides focus on one main concept and leave the detail to the presenter. This frees up the audience to listen to the narrative and associate it with the elements of the displayed image.

So now that the slides are simple and visual, has putting together handouts become separate project all together? Not at all; most presentation platforms have an answer programmed in. In PowerPoint it’s called the Notes section* and it builds comprehensive handouts without overcrowding the visual aids.

Reserve bullets and details for the Notes section and free up the slides for that which they were intended: visual communication.

Instructions on using PPT Notes:
*How To Use Notes To Create Handouts
*How To Set Up Presenter View To See Notes While Presenting

Thinking In Pictures

Thinking In PicturesIt has been long recognized that visual representations greatly enhance our ability to remember and recall information. In fact, the dominance of the visual sense is the most important principle of the Art of Memory.

Perhaps Aristotle said it best, “The soul never thinks without a picture.” (De Anima)

If one hears “red brick house, 4 windows, stoop with three steps” an image begins to form in the brain, essentially streamlining the words heard into one cohesive picture. The brain is doing some work here to make information easier to remember.

When presenting information to an audience the goal is to not only engage your audience but to make your arguments or data memorable. Don’t make your audience do more work than they need to, because, as all presenters know… they wont.

Why not help the brain out and make the information as easy to remember as possible? Do the work of the brain, so you’re not relying on disinterested brains to take that extra step. Show your audience illustrations, icons and diagrams that they can associate with the information presented.

For instance, a scientist tasked with explaining the similarities and differences between diamonds and graphite to laypeople might offer a confusing explanation of molecular structure, carbon and tetrahedral formations. The audience, unfamiliar with the terms and thus unable to streamline the information into a cohesive visual idea, will likely discard the information. The scientist has just failed his task, when instead, he could have offered a simple diagram to increase the audience’s retention.

Molecular Carbon ImageThis slide, constructed for a patent hearing, shows the molecular structure and bonding configurations of sp2 and sp3 carbon, and then ties that information to the end product, something familiar to the layperson. Suddenly, the scientist’s task is easier and the audience has a visual aid to both understand and remember just what this scientist is trying to explain.

When presenting, its critical to use your slides to give the audience all the visual cues and imagery they need to be able to quickly comprehend and file away the information for future recall.

Like Confucius said, “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember.”