I have always suspected that the human species has not evolved much physically and mentally in the last ten thousand years or so, although the social evolution has been amazing. Watching David Phillips’ superb TEDx talk recently I discovered that there is a discipline called Evolutionary Psychology which investigates that very topic. This is about the hard-wired human behaviour, evolved to keep us alive in primitive times, that is still influencing our behaviour now. So why not tap into it?
David’s talk was about PowerPoint, not cave painting, but he shared some fascinating information that made some of my own PowerPoint “best practices” fly out of the window. Here’s why.
Triggers and survival
Imagine you are back in time 10,000 years ago, walking through tall grass out on a hunting trip. Your nerves are on edge, you have to hunt to survive, and you also have to avoid being something else’s lunch. I have walked through long grass in Africa and I can promise you it is scary even now.
Your eyes (our most sensitive sense) are on full alert. There are four key visual triggers that we have evolved to watch for to keep us alive: moving objects; large objects; signalling colours and content rich scenes. All these triggers are still deeply fixed in our brains, and still kick in when we see things – like PowerPoint slides.
Triggers and PowerPoint
Tip 1: Moving objects could indicate sudden death or survival. Moving grass could warn of a lion about to pounce, or a distant movement could be a deer feeding – meals for the whole family. This is why video can be so distracting. We can’t help watching, in fact we filter out other information to allow our brains to concentrate on moving objects. There is no point talking over video, slide builds or multiple transitions because the audience will have filtered out your voice. It’s instinct working. On the other hand, carefully managed video can make a powerful point for the same reason. Just don’t mix it up – and now you know why.
Tip 2: The second trigger is large objects. Rather obviously, large objects that make the sky darken are the things that may kill you. Our brains know that and focus our attention on large objects rather than the small objects around them. Now think about your presentation. What is the largest object in the room? Probably a great big screen showing a slide with a glowing white background, and little you next to it. On that slide, chances are there is a title line, with Big Letters and some smaller text below. By now you are probably ahead of me – yes, the audience is reading the screen title and not taking much else in. Two lessons here: firstly try using a dark background for slides so you are not dominated by a large white light next to you. Secondly, either have a title with a very strong message, or be brave and make the slide title smaller than the content messages, if they are more important.
Tip 3: Signalling colours are the bright ones or those with high contrast that we instinctively watch out for. Nature helps us by putting bright colours on dangerous things like wasps, or attractive things like berries. On slides we can show highlights in red or bold text, and contrast boxes – we kind of knew that already but perhaps without knowing why. The lesson here is to use signalling only when you want to draw attention, and recognise that using it in the wrong place will be distracting.
Tip 4: The fourth trigger is content rich landscapes. Our eyes are irresistibly attracted to busy images and our brains instantly get to work filtering out the important from the unimportant. 10,000 years ago we would be quickly separating threat or food opportunity from the mass of visual information around us, and we had to do that quickly before it was too late. Now, if we show a busy slide either full of graphics or text, our brains go into overdrive while we work it out, and no, we are not listening at the same time.
Tip 5: Another interesting fact David mentioned was to do with the numbers we can assimilate at one time. Some people are exceptions and can process larger numbers than average: the abnormally intelligent, or savants like Dustin Hoffman’s autistic character in “Rain Man” who could count 247 toothpicks. For the rest of us, the upper limit is six. To keep messages crystal clear, don’t even go near that upper limit. Keep messages on slides to one. PowerPoint is not (so far) licensed by slide – you can have as many as you need. Lists can have more than one item but at six items you are on the edge of the turn-off zone.
I have been using PowerPoint since it was first launched, and I thought I had a pretty good approach for design and content. This TEDx talk made me stop and re-think a few of those, and make some changes I never expected to. Thank you David Phillips, I think you just taught this old dog some new tricks. If you want to watch the video you can see it here: TEDx David Phillips
Ascent Learning provides communications workshops and coaching including guidance on developing presentations that deliver a powerful message, and presentation coaching to deliver with impact.
By Neville Merritt,