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.

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.