Happy New Year everyone!

I told you I’d write more about presentation theory and I finally made good on it. Better than most New Years resolutions after a week, I’d say.

Anyway, it has taken me some time to get up to speed working full time with BrightCarbon, but I am starting to get the hang of things. Which bodes well for those of you who would like to see more stuff like this: Cognitive science informed writing about presentation methods. This one is framed in a way that’s quite geeky, I’ll admit.

Then again I am of the firm persuasion that Presentation Design has a lot to learn from Game Design. Game designers excel at applied psychology to drive human interaction with information. The methods they use to solve the communication issues between man, woman and machine are a treasure trove for other design professions. See for yourself:

Worldbuilding in Presentation Design

Transparency Update

As it were there are some rather exciting things happening in my life, some of which may actually be of interest to you, my readers. Me moving to a new place in eastern Germany is probably not one of the latter. But one thing that pertains to both my professional endeavors and to the things you may enjoy reading about is that I have decided to team up with a presentation consultancy that is run by some of the most likable chaps I have come across in my professional life. It just so happens that their talent is on par with their charm and that they invited me to work on some really awesome stuff which made it all but impossible to say no. The honor in working with BrightCarbon, then, is all mine.

The approach towards presentations at BrightCarbon very much aligns with my perspective on how to meaningfully convey information and among other things I will be helping them to further develop their already very methodical style. Giving me free reign to explore presentation methods is a bit like giving the fox the key to the henhouse. There is probably going to be a bit of bloodshed involved, but at least there will most definitely be a spectacle for all of you to enjoy. My output regarding presentations should very much profit from actually being paid to finally do a lot of things I meant to do on my own for quite some time.

Better yet, for all of you still looking for my input with your communication challenges, design innovations and media experiments, my agreement with BrightCarbon still allows me to pursue a few side projects of my own. So do invite me to all that exciting work I know is out there. In the mean time I will also work on all those little experiments I always wanted to share. Having conquered hauling all my belongings across the country and up and down several stories intact I feel ready to take on the world.1

However, and this should probably not come as a surprise, such an agreement entails that for as long as our partnership lasts I will be pouring all I have to give about presentations into making their services the best you can buy. Which means that when it comes to presentations, you will have to buy my services through them. I still very much look forward to working with you on bespoke presentations and you can rest assured that I will continue to give all of you the attention to detail you deserve. But I will do so only on a project we create with BrightCarbon—if you want to gauge the level of investment involved, please have a look at their services—naturally, I will also continue to provide an edge that you may not find on their pricing schemes.2

Now, you may not find this whole disclosure thing quite as exciting as I find the developments that prompted it, but I will give it considerable effort that something exciting will come of it for everyone. Me, my partners, my clients, and, not least, you my dear readers.

  1. Seriously, moving is a pain. I was smart enough to pay professionals to help me, which is one of the best things you can do to keep your friendships intact, and yet it is always more hassle than you remember after a year has passed, let alone a few more. 

  2. And for those who have worked with me and allow me a bit of self indulgence: The kind of things you were hard pressed to find anywhere else. 

Contingency Plans and Slideuments

Sorry if the following is a bit non sequitur, but I need to write down an idea that came to me just now. I was thinking of how to stage an apparent technical breakdown in a training situation for high stakes presentations to drive home a point about always providing a fallback for when technology lets you down. Create something that is truly memorable. That led me to think about how to create a very specific fallback, but also an augmentation for my slideument model.

This is where you’ll have to suspend disbelief for a bit, because I have not yet published this model in English. My slideument model is tailored for an office meeting kind of presentation, much in the mold of what Edward Tufte proposes: Don’t use powerpoint, instead bring a printed document with the data and information on it that the participants proceed to discuss in the meeting.

Only that I propose that you bring not only a document to hand out to the audience but also a slide deck that is nothing but closeups of that same document. In the powerpoint version of the document you can animate stuff in sections that are deliberately left blank in the printed version. The audience may then take notes or doodle in those spaces in their own printed version of the document, leaving them with both a task that facilitates information uptake and a deliverable to take home that is perfectly suited to their take on the subject being discussed in the meeting, because they themselves annotated it while watching the presentation.

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What Part Of Your Presentation Do You Want To Be Remembered

My answer is a resounding: It depends.

When you want to maximize the impact of your presentation, you will have to invest some effort and deliberate the design constraints that apply to your case. Generic descriptions of the communication objective and content like “business material” or “memorable” are insufficient to determine how you should tackle the task at hand.

Instead, you will need to consider what kind of information you want to convey and in what context the presentation takes place and then optimize for the objective that will guide your process. Are you giving a business pitch that has to compete with other pitches and needs to stand out? Are you looking to get the brass on board with a strategic decision in an internal meeting? Are you trying to inform different stakeholders of critical information so that they can orchestrate their efforts?

The kind of style that you see in the videos in my lab is geared to work in the medium of web video and thus it leverages the established conventions for the medium that drive user expectations, timing considerations, and so on. Moreover, the aesthetics and pop culture references are familiar to the target audience and serve as a hook that needs to support no more than a handful of points each. Then again, part of the message is: See what you can do with these tools.1 The novelty effect of the style adds a layer of information that goes beyond the content.

That kind of hook is something you may want to consider when your presentation has to compete for attention. Standing out can be a means in itself if you need people to remember just one key piece of information and want to give them an item they can readily evoke and talk about when there is a break in between sessions. Nancy Duarte calls this technique the STAR moment. Give your audience something they’ll always remember, or at least something to talk about for the day, because that’s where audience retention is really kicking in.

In other scenarios the wow-factor can be counterproductive. When you need not vie for attention, giving your audience just one thing to talk about by virtue of a super salient feature in your presentation (like the style) actually takes away attention from the kind of information you could and probably should be conveying instead. Attention is a finite resource. Your job, as the presenter, is to manage it to the benefit of your audience.

My one final piece of advice on the matter of style: Never let the message that you took the effort to shine up your presentation outshine the message of your presentation.

  1. And if we’re completely honest, it’s: Look what I can do. But if you’re willing to invest the time, so can you. If you’d rather spend the money, I’m there for you. 

Well, what can I say: there is a lot that can be learned from cinema which also applies to presentation design, even when things don’t move. Personally I very much propose that you also do invest a little time to learn about animation if you are serious about presentation design. Nothing says “change of state” like a visual representation that actually changes state. Transformation. From here to there. The works.

As soon as time allows I’ll surely revisit the matter in more detail. Until then, the link points you to an article that contains a few really helpful hints to get you started.

Use cinematic techniques to spice up your presentation!

Form & Function & Perception

There is a well established psychological phenomenon called priming that has all sorts of effects on communication. It can both help you understand and hinder you to interpret meaning through facilitation or interference. Now, in fairness I should tell you that we are talking about split seconds when it comes to measuring the effect. Nonetheless the phenomenon shows us how our perception of things, our understanding of their meaning or function, is influenced by their form.

The relation between form and function is something designers obsess over. Introducing an audience or users into the equation adds a whole new dimension to the way form and function interact. But it is this threedimensional matrix in which a designer really operates. We must never forget to ask ourselves how the perception of our design impacts its meaning. That may sound trivial to interface designers or other communicators, but all too often do I see design that clearly has no appreciation of human perception.

Perception matters. Don’t take my word for it. You can experience interference for yourself in this little video:

If you want to learn a bit more about how our brains are shaping the way we see the world I recommend you take a look at the wonderful Christmas Lectures of 2011. The lectures are an annual event of the Royal Institution of Great Britain to promote science to the public. Besides providing a great introduction to the world of science they also set a standard for presentation.

Each lecture is an hour of wonder. Go ahead. Meet Your Brain.