The Power of Patterns in Visual Communications

PatternChart

Patterns are everywhere and even where they aren’t, we’ll make them up. This is because all animals are hard-wired to find patterns through our sensory input. It’s all about survival. Our skill at pattern recognition means capitalizing on opportunities and coping with challenges.

All visual communications use patterns whether purposefully designed or not. I’m sure you’ve seen designs with unintentional patterns such as Business Insider’s 15 Worst Corporate Logo Fails.

Data visualizations are reliant on pattern recognition. A chart interprets measurable values as a visual image. This in turn allows us to recognize patterns for the purposes of making comparisons, identifying outliers, etc.

The interactive tutorial below introduces some of the scientific theories behind pattern recognition and how to use that knowledge to improve the clarity of visual communications products, especially data visualizations. To view the tutorial in full screen, click here. All opinions expressed in the tutorial are my own.

 

Using PowerPoint to Improve Lives

We Are Equal to the Task

Today is the first day of National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) and I’m reminded of my roots for the Microsoft PowerPoint MVP award. In the early 2000s government agencies were mandated to make all our electronic communications what is called 508 compliant. This means all electronically published items need to work with assistive technology, most notably screen readers. My mission was to ensure that Office documents and presentations were compliant. While Microsoft did a fantastic job of making sure persons using assistive technology could use the applications, there was literally no documentation for making sure the end products were compliant. I found myself not only on the bleeding edge, it was more like the hemorrhaging edge with pressure to resolve it every day.

Through the wonderful folks at EASI, I obtained my certificate in Accessible Information Technology and found an incredibly motivated group of testers who helped me identify and document exactly how to make accessible presentations and documents. Since then I’ve taught many classes on how to create accessible documents and presentations and I’m proud to say the Office.com site still carries my articles:

While they were written for PowerPoint 2003, the concepts and techniques are still valid for all versions of PowerPoint.

In 2009, thanks to Ric Bretschneider, I was thrilled to get the opportunity to contribute to a wonderful add-in that allows users to sub-title their presentations. The add-in is available at: Sub-titling text add-in for Microsoft PowerPoint (STAMP) and is a terrific addition to produce presentations for the hearing impaired or for persons who speak a different language. The add-in is for PowerPoint 2010 or higher, but if you’re using an older version of PowerPoint, see my article on Adding captions, annotations, or subtitles to presentations.

In the 10+ years since I first received MVP recognition, I’ve turned most of my attention to areas where my skills truly lie, information design and data visualizations. But I’ve never lost my passion for advocating how PowerPoint can improve the lives of persons with physical challenges. A person who is visually impaired can create their own visual aids with PowerPoint. And that sentence is not an oxymoron. How wonderful that PowerPoint can give that individual just that much more independence.

I’ve also received many testimonials from parents, teachers and others who’ve used PowerPoint to effect a change in someone’s life. For example the mom who used PowerPoint to help her autistic son learn to speak, the teacher who used PowerPoint to help her special needs class learn math and, most profound of all, the father who created a looping PowerPoint of pictures that when you clicked the slide an audio message matching the picture would play.  He put this PowerPoint on a tablet PC attached to his severely disabled daughter’s wheelchair. She would watch the images loop and when one she wanted was displayed, she could tap it and it would play, “I’m hungry”, “I love you, Mom”, etc. Since she could not talk, PowerPoint quite literally gave this young girl a voice. How amazing is that? Is it any wonder I still continue to make myself available to help anyone who wants to use PowerPoint to help improve someone’s life?

Keep in mind most of us are challenged in some way or another even if it isn’t readily apparent. I myself am so vertically challenged I have to kick a stool around my kitchen just to cook dinner or put away dishes. And even if you don’t have challenges now, I assure you, down the road, you will. None of us are exempt from the effects of age. So celebrate NDREAM with me and recognize what people can do.

Do you have your own story to share about how PowerPoint improved your life or someone else’s life? I’d love to hear about it.

Disclaimer:  This site was prepared or accomplished by Glenna Shaw in her personal capacity. The opinions expressed on this site are the author's own and do not reflect the view of the United States government.

A TV Series for Presenters and Presentation Designers

braingames

You might not believe it, but National Geographic’s Season 2 of Brain Games is a near perfect resource for presenters and presentation designers. While not perfectly scientifically accurate, the series contains a wealth of information about how our brain processes information and it’s delivered in an entertaining format. This is invaluable information if you are a presenter or presentation designer.

The official Brain Games web site has video clips, articles and the schedule for all 12 episodes. Amazon provides the series in both DVD and streaming format. Episodes are also available through NatGeo’s YouTube Channel for $1.99 per episode.

In addition to the series episodes, National Geographic’s Education web site has more resources on how your brain works and, finally, if you’re curious to see how your own brain stacks up, discover your own brain profile at the Interactive Brain Games web site. I highly recommend you watch the episodes first though or you might find you’re not as clever as you thought you were.

Cloudy with a Chance of Inspiration

Cloud ComputingI love TEDTalks and I especially enjoyed a talk from the TEDGlobal 2013 event in June.  Quoting the site: “You don’t need to plan an exotic trip to find creative inspiration. Just look up, says Gavin Pretor-Pinney, founder of the Cloud Appreciation Society. As he shares charming photos of nature’s finest aerial architecture, Pretor-Pinney calls for us all to take a step off the digital treadmill, lie back and admire the beauty in the sky above.”  I highly encourage you to take a breath and enjoy Gavin’s talk for yourself.

As I was watching the video I was reminded of a presentation that I made for a friend a few years ago.  He was speaking on the topic of Cloud Computing at the Green Computing Conference. Using PowerPoint 2010, I created a presentation where his content tumbled and flew through the sky.  The result was a light and breezy presentation that was unique but professional.

I had the opportunity to show a presentation using this same technique at The Presentation Summit and I noticed admit the ooo’s and ah’s of the audience, it’s a format that makes people smile.

Inspired by Gavin’s talk on clouds, I decided to create and share a Cloudy PowerPoint template.  It’s a deceptively simple template but when used correctly really allows you to Wow! your audience.  The key is the fade background portion of the Dynamic Content Transitions available in PowerPoint 2010 and 2013.  By alternating the cloud background a subtle sense of movement is achieved without conscious awareness by the audience. Like the magician’s redirection trick discussed in a previous blog entry, the “front” portion of the Dynamic Content Transition provides the obvious dynamic movement of the content through the sky.  You can learn more about using PowerPoint’s transitions by viewing my tutorial, The Beauty of Transitions in PowerPoint.

The template is shown below, but alas Web Apps cannot display the Dynamic Content Transitions.  To view (and use) the template, you’ll need to click on the menu icon image (on the navigation bar below), download a copy and run the presentation using the full PowerPoint 2010 or 2013 application.  You can also download directly using this link.  Directions for using the template are included on the slides.

Enjoy the video, enjoy the template and enjoy watching the clouds.

Kill the Jerk (in PowerPoint Animations)

Many of you may have noticed that animations that run smoothly in PowerPoint 2007 now have a noticeable jerk when played in PowerPoint 2010 and PowerPoint 2013.  The good news is there’s a work-around to the problem.

Both PowerPoint MVPs Troy Chollar and Geetesh Bajaj have published explicit directions on how to apply the work-around to their blogs and, rather than reinvent the wheel, I encourage you to check out their posts:

Jerky Animations in PowerPoint 2010 and 2013

Stop PowerPoint from Getting the Animation Jitters!

Many thanks Troy and Geetesh for the posts and Amy, Chris Mahoney and Steve Rindsberg for the work-around.

Don’t feel comfortable editing the registry yourself?  Run OfficeOne’s handy SpriteClipping utility.  It will automatically make the change if you’re using PowerPoint 2010 or PowerPoint 2013.  Make sure PowerPoint is closed before running the utility.  Thanks for making it easy for us, Chirag.

A Little Steampunk for the Holidays

http://steampunkrevue.blogspot.com/2011/12/macys-steampunk-christmas-window.html

Macy’s isn’t the only one who can spread a little steampunk holiday cheer.  After becoming a fan of Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series, I knew I wanted to create a steampunk themed template for PowerPoint 2010. The opportunity (and challenge) of animating a bunch of Victorian-era whirly gigs was just too much to resist. And if Macy’s can share a steampunk theme for the holiday, so can I.

I’ve created a sample presentation using the template (shown below.)  Click on the image and then choose the menu option to Open in PowerPoint since the web apps cannot support video. You can download the template to use for yourself and create your own steampunk themed presentations. After the slide show opens, click File, Download a Copy.

Have a hankering to create your own steampunk animation to share for the holidays?  Download the template, add your layout and send me a link to the file. I’ll add it to the template and credit you on the layout.

SteamPunk

The Presentation Thespian

PowerPointNascar

I have a jacket that showcases badges and pins recognizing my expertise in PowerPoint. I always wear my “PowerPoint Nascar” jacket when attending events even if I don’t wear it when presenting. This jacket, combined with my techie clothes and trademark long ponytail, creates a brand that immediately identifies me as a PowerPoint technical expert.

Multiple studies have found that speakers who are perceived as credible, attractive and trustworthy are much more effective at persuading an audience and having them retain their message.

This provides presenters with an easy opportunity to capitalize on these findings.  By simply recognizing the theatrics of presentations and dressing the part, presenters can gain instant initial credibility.

I taken this idea and made a fully interactive tutorial. Through this tutorial you’ll learn how to use theatrical concepts to increase your appearance as a credible and trustworthy presenter. Click the icon in the lower right of the tutorial below to run it in full screen mode. Once the presentation starts, I recommend you click the SkyDrive link to Start Slide Show or you can start it directly from this link: The Theatrics of Presentations.

The PowerPoint Magic Trick & How the Brain Works

crystalballA few months ago I posted a blog article about why presenters should care about the psychology of the senses.  In that article I explained why mouse-overs can be used to fool an audience into thinking they’re seeing one slide when they’re really seeing two slides with a small difference.  I also posted a PowerPoint presentation which demonstrated the mouse-over technique.  Included in that presentation was the PowerPoint card trick which I said I would explain later.  I didn’t want to explain the trick until after I had posted the Gestalt of Slides because that tutorial covers a lot of the reasons why the card trick works.

If you haven’t seen the card trick, I’ve recreated it below.  Click the icon in the lower right of the presentation to run it in full screen mode. Or you can start it directly from this link: The PowerPoint Card Trick.  Don’t read below the embedded presentation until after you’ve watched the trick or you’ll spoil it for yourself.

Pretty amazing, yes?  Of course the trick doesn’t work for everyone, but it will fool most of us because of the way our brains are wired to process visual information.  A magician would tell you the trick works because of misdirection.  Typically, that means someone would be distracting your focus of attention so they could do something else, but that’s not really the case in the PowerPoint Card Trick.  I can instruct you to focus on a single card, but that’s the extent of the misdirection.

In this case the trick works mostly because of the Gestalt Principles of Perception.  If you went through my Gestalt of Slides tutorial you learned that we view our world holistically and our brains are predisposed to perceive patterns.  Once our brains perceive a pattern we tend to not pay attention to the details.  So in the case of the cards we perceive the red/black/red/black pattern and fail to pay attention to the rest of the details of the cards (except the one we focus on.)  This makes it appear as if I used PowerPoint to make your card disappear when, in fact, all the cards changed.

Interestingly enough, scientists are now realizing that magicians have a lot to offer in helping us figure our how our brains work.  I recently watched a NOVA special and to paraphrase one of the neuropsychologists, “We know how the brain processes visual information, but we don’t know what it pays attention to.”  In the special they use magicians to help them determine just that.  As a presenter this is very valuable information for you to know.  Imagine how much more effective you can be if, like a magician, you can direct (or distract) your audience’s attention to be exactly where you want it.

The biggest revelation of the study was how very much we pay attention to movement.  Basically if it moves, our eyes are going to follow it.  So if you have an item that you particularly want your audience to focus on then move it, move it, move it.  With PowerPoint animations this is so easily accomplished there’s no reason not to take advantage of it.  Even if you choose not to use the animations, simply moving the cursor, a pointer or even your arm can have the same effect.  Even moving your eyes will work because studies have shown we will automatically turn and look to see what the other person is looking at.  We track the movement of each other’s eyes.

Why do we do this?  It’s not too hard to imagine how helpful these traits were to primitive humans when they needed to see a predator in the bush and even today to avoid that oncoming car.

A word of caution, as far as our senses are concerned everything has a very fast extinction rate.  This means we’ll quickly quit paying attention to something that repeats.  Generally speaking, as far as our brains are concerned, if something is repetitive it’s probably not a danger and therefore not worth paying attention to.  So if you use too much movement, you’ll quickly lose your audience.

This is just one small thing covered by the special I watched so I happily post the link for your own viewing.  I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

NOVA – How Does the Brain Work?

Scratch and Sniff PowerPoint?

imageNow that’s an interesting idea, isn’t it?  It’s pretty easy to imagine a time in the future when a presenter can, with a click, allow their audience to smell, as well as see and hear, their presentation.  Even Microsoft associated its products with the sense of smell in their recent blog post.

Well, it turns out there’s a method already available for presenters to engage their audience’s noses and it’s a lot easier to do than you might think.

Let me start by saying I love audio books.  It affords me the opportunity to listen to books as I drive back and forth to work (~2 hours daily) and learn wonderful things during otherwise lost time.  I was recently listening to Lawrence Rosenblum’s excellent book “See what I’m Saying: The Extraordinary Powers of Our Five Senses” and learned the most fascinating things about our sense of smell.  It turns out we smell a whole lot more than we consciously realize.  And it’s not too hard to use this knowledge to enhance our audience’s experience of our presentations through their sense of smell.

According to Rosenblum, research has shown that subliminal smells (smells we don’t consciously notice) can influence how we feel about a person, place or item associated with that smell.  For example, a room infused with the positive scent of lemons at an undetectable level will seem more likable than that same room infused with the scent of body odor (again at an undetectable level.)  Even though the smells are undetectable to our conscious minds, our nose knows the difference.  Interestingly, if the smells are detectable the effect is completely negated, most likely because we’re aware and therefore conscious of our responses.

So why would we want to add smell to our presentations?  It’s long been thought that smells are better for recalling memories.  This is known as the Proustian Hypothesis because of Proust’s book “Remembrance of Things Past.”  But the truth is sight and sound help us recall memories just as much as smell.  However, smell memories are shown to be be more vivid and emotional.  Smell memories are more evocative, providing your audience a higher degree that the memory makes them feel they are back experiencing the event.  The research supporting this is covered in Rachael Hertz’s book “Scent of Desire.”

Smell Report - download full report in pdf formatAnd how can we use this knowledge for presenting?  It’s quite easy with a simple bottle of air freshener.  Approximately 15 – 20 minutes before your presentation, simply lightly spray the room with air freshener that has a positive scent.  It’s imperative that the scent has time to dissipate to undetectable levels before your presentation or your efforts will be wasted.  For maximum benefit, choose a positive scent such as lemons, lavender, vanilla, etc. that your audience is likely to experience as positive and also be exposed to later.  It’s also more effective to use scents tied to the color theme of your presentation, for example cherries to red, lemons to yellow, etc.  For ideas, refer to The Smell Report shown at left.

It’s worth noting there was quite a bit of controversy about the use of this phenomenon in the 90s when hotels and retail chains began hiring smell consultants for their businesses.  But the truth is, decorating to please the sense of smell is no different from decorating to please the sense of sight.  It heightens the positive response of patrons but not to a level that they would take actions they otherwise wouldn’t.  I tell you this so you won’t feel like you’re unfairly manipulating your audience with the sense of smell. Just as you want to have a beautifully designed presentation, there’s no reason not to have your presentation smell good too.

Give an Itch, Scratch a Back

facebookcartoons

Why do some messages resonate (per Nancy Duarte) and some messages fall flat? This is what I wondered as I watched a recent movement on Facebook go viral. The concept was simple, you changed your profile picture to a cartoon from your childhood and then copied and pasted a statement in your status requesting all your friends do the same. The statement said this movement was to raise awareness of child abuse. And the response was phenomenal.

After two months of research on the psychology of motivation and persuasion I have the answer to my questions. Basically, there were three reasons why the cartoon profile pictures campaign worked:

  1. It was challenging, but not too challenging
  2. There was social pressure to participate
  3. It was for a good cause

While there’s no challenge to changing your profile picture, the challenge lay in finding a picture of a childhood cartoon that satisfactorily reflected your personality to your peers.

Peer pressure is fairly self-explanatory and in this instance self-perpetuating. The more friends who participated, the greater the pressure became to comply. One of my friends freely admitted the only reason she (finally) changed her profile picture was because she was succumbing to the social pressure. She also noted that she couldn’t see how changing her profile picture to a cartoon actually did anything to prevent child abuse.

Which brings me to the third point. A little research shows the raise awareness for child abuse comment was not part of the original campaign. And the original campaign had only moderate success. It wasn’t until this statement was added that the campaign went viral. We not only wanted the fun of portraying ourselves as cartoons and playing with our peers, we also needed to feel good about doing it. Happily enough, it did work to raise awareness of child abuse as the many news stories and articles on the campaign attest.

Its also worth noting that its unlikely this approach will work again. Persuasive tactics have a very rapid extinction rate. You’ve probably already seen similar status requests on Facebook with little to no success. Basically they’re viewed as a pale knock off of the original and the more they’re used, the less effective they become. A great example of this is the T-mobile vs. AT&T commercials that will never have the same success as the original Apple vs. PC commercials.

I wanted to share what I’ve learned with you so I’ve taken this research, selected the theories that I felt were most useful to presenters and made a fully interactive tutorial. Through this tutorial you’ll learn what moves us and how to make your message more persuasive. Click the icon in the lower right of the tutorial below to run it in full screen mode. Once the presentation starts, I recommend you click the SkyDrive link to Start Slide Show or you can start it directly from this link: Give an Itch, Scratch a Back.

I hope you enjoy learning about what moves us as much as I did.