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.

 

Can You See What I ‘m Hearing?

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The more I learn about visual perception, the more I believe we don’t see at all, we perceive.

In the picture at left, Project Runway’s Season 12 Designer Justin LeBlanc is helping his model into a beautiful faux fur gown, right? Wrong. The gown is actually made from thousands of test tubes. But our brain translates this particular texture as soft fur because that is what we’ve experienced though both our touch as well as sight. Justin engaged our sense of touch (through familiarity) and fooled our eye.

In truth, while our eyes see, our brain’s perceive with all our senses, not just our eyes. And sometimes that means when other senses come into play, it can drastically change what we think we’re seeing.

For example, by simply adding a small sound you can completely change what your audience perceives. You can download the PowerPoint presentation to see what I mean from here: http://sdrv.ms/1eksk6r (and it must be downloaded since Web Apps will not support a looping slideshow). It has only one slide. This particular example was inspired by an episode of Brain Games, which I mentioned in a previous post. If you watch the slide with your sound muted, the two balls will appear to cross over each other. But if you watch it with sound on, the balls will appear to bounce off one another. Try watching it with sound and without sound and you’ll see how dramatic the difference is. Just by adding elements that engage our other senses, you can change (and enhance) what your audience sees.

Ironically, the designer Justin LeBlanc is deaf and this particular dress represents his adjustment to having a cochlear implant. I’d say he did an amazing job with that inspiration. And taught us all a little lesson in perception.

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

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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.

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

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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?

1 Picture – 1,000 Words, 1 Photo Mosaic – Priceless

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I’ve always loved collages and mosaics.  There’s so many aspects to appreciate.  From a distance you see the entire picture, but close up there’s all these wonderful details.

Previously I blogged about the Gestalt Principles of Perception and it’s these very principles that allow us to see these pictures, created with small tiles, holistically.  They are illusions become art.

I first saw a photography mosaic on a popular decorating show and was immediately captivated.  How wonderful to take a collection of images and create your memories as art.  After watching the show I knew I just had to find the software that would allow me to create my own mosaics.

Whoever said you can’t get something for nothing never encountered Andrea.  This wonderfully quirky person has created a tiny, well-behaved app that easily lets you create your own photo mosaics.  The application is, appropriately enough, called Andrea Mosaic. A version is available for virtually every operating system and professional versions are also available for a very small fee of $35.  You can even capture images from video and use them to create your mosaics. 

There has been some criticism because the interface isn’t elegant and the grammar is atrocious but who the hell cares? Anyone who figures out the algorithms to create these lovely little works of art and gives it away for free deserves a little leeway.  Andrea does accept donations and if you use his software I encourage you to contribute at least a small donation.

If you need more professional features consider Mosaic Creator for $99. In addition to photo mosaics you can create tile mosaics, video mosaics, text mosaics and ASCII art.

So the next time you’re looking for a creative gift, a unique banner or sign for an event or an interesting element to add to a presentation, consider a mosaic.  It’s sure to engage your audience’s attention and stimulate their minds.

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.