From the Lab: Direct Their Eyes

In a classic study by Alfred Yarbus, reported in his 1967 book Eye Movements and Vision (originally published in Russian in 1965), the eye movements of an observer were recorded while they viewed an image—Ilya Repin’s Unexpected Visitors (c. 1886)—seven times with different instructions.

Before we see the results of the study, let’s replicate it ourselves here.

As you complete each of the tasks below, pay attention to where you find yourself looking.

First, take a look at the painting below, and examine it however you desire (a).

Next, estimate the wealth of the family in the picture (b).

Then estimate the ages of each person in the room (c).

Now, figure out what the the family was doing before the “unexpected visitor” arrived (d).

Next, remember the clothing worn by each person (e).

Then remember the positions of the people and objects in the room (f).

And finally, estimate how long the “unexpected visitor” has been away from the family (g).

Of course, while you were completing each of these different tasks, your eyes followed different paths around the image. Below, you’ll find the eye tracks recorded by Yarbus of a participant completing each of the seven tasks you just did.


As you can see—and as you probably noticed yourself just a moment ago—depending on what someone is looking for, they’re going to process an image in different ways. Of course, this finding isn’t only true for paintings: it also applies to your visual aids.

So while you can—like most speakers—simply allow your audience’s eyes to wander around your visual aids, as in the free examination task (a) above, you may be able to do even better if you direct your audience’s attention by telling them what to look for. By doing so, you’ll make their job significantly easier, which as we’ve seen before, will lead to greater understanding. Although it sounds obvious, the easier you make it for your audience to understand you message, the better they’re going to understand it. As Yarbus’ experiment demonstrated half a century ago, directing their eyes is one easy way to do that.





From the Lab: Make It Human

In The Science of Speaking, I cite research showing that human stories are significantly more impactful than statistics. Here’s yet another study that sheds light on this bias, and suggests that it may be hard-wired in us.

In a 2007 study at UCSB, researchers asked participants to detect subtle changes in pictures, like those games in children’s magazines that ask you to spot the differences. When the changes to the pictures involved inanimate objects, 70% of the changes were noticed, in an average of 5 seconds. When the changes involved humans, however, 96% were noticed, and they were noticed even faster, in an average of only 3 seconds. Changes to other animals were in the middle, with a recognition rate of 83%. Interestingly, changes to animals were more recognizable than changes to vehicles, which suggests that these differences are evolutionarily hard-wired: despite that fact that vehicles are much more dangerous to us today, our visual attention is still more attuned to animals, which would’ve been dangerous to our ancestors.

When humans are involved, we pay greater attention. Therefore, the more human you can make your presentation, the better. Rather than simply citing statistics, tell human stories that make them come alive. And instead of simply showing the audience pictures of your product, considering showing them pictures of people using it, as humans will be more likely to draw their attention.


App for That: The Data Visualization Catalogue

Looking for new ways to visually present your ideas?

The Data Visualization Catalogue, developed by graphic designer Severino Ribecca, is a great resource for expanding your design language. It includes 60 different kinds of charts, complete with examples, explanations of what each chart is good for, and perhaps most useful of all, a list of applications that can be used to generate each kind of chart, even the most obscure.

In the News: The Importance of Data Visualization

While some people believe that data visualization is overrated, and that data can effectively be reduced to statistics, a recent project by Autodesk clearly demonstrated that this belief is misguided.

Building on prior work by Francis Anscombe and Alberto Cairo, Justin Matejka and George Fitzmaurice generated twelve datasets that have the exact same summary statistics, but very different visual qualities—and meanings!

The point is, it’s always important to visualize your data—and to present these visualization to your audience—rather than simply relying on numbers.

App for That: Font Map

Looking for a new font for your presentation, but don’t know where to find it? Enter IDEO’s Font Map, which organizes 800 different fonts in a 2D space, grouping them based on similarities. For example, here’s the corner of the map that includes the font that’s used in The Science of Speaking, Alegreya.

If you want to learn more about how Font Map was created, you can read this post about it by Kevin Ho on Medium.

App for That: Autodraw

According to Dan Roam, author of The Back of the Napkin, drawing is a powerful tool for improving our thinking and presenting.

But what if you’re absolutely terrible at drawing? It turns out there’s now an app for that!

Enter Google’s AutoDraw, which allows you to draw a terrible drawing, and suggests a more elegant drawing that was crafted by a professional, which its machine learning algorithms suggest is similar to yours. Then you can add colors, or modify the drawing, and download it for easy use. And best of all, it works on any device, desktop or mobile, and is absolutely free!

Here’s a video with more information and a demo of how it works:

From the Lab: The Power of Props

In The Science of Speaking, I note that props can be an effective supplement to (or replacement for) traditional visual aids. A 2010 study by Benjamin Bushong et al. suggests that props can be even more effective than visuals. In particular, when an item is physically present in the room, people attribute significantly higher value to it than when an image of the item is shown.

In the study, participants were presented with a food item, then asked how much they would be willing to pay for it. There were three different methods of presenting the food item: “1) a text condition, in which only the text descriptor (the product name) was shown, 2) an image condition, in which the high-resolution image of the food was shown, and 3) a real condition, in which an open package of the food item was displayed on a tray.” In the real condition, people were willing to pay 59% more ($1.13) for the food item than when it was presented through an image ($0.71) or text description ($0.68)!

Then they repeated the experiment with non-food items. Although the effect was not quite as great for non-food items, participants were still willing to pay 41% more for an item that was present ($1.42) than an item that was picture ($1.01) or described ($1.02)!

As this study shows, props can literally pay, so whenever you have one you can use, go for it!

From the Lab: Pics or It Didn’t Happen

In a 2013 study by Steven Frenda, et al., researchers found that when a fake news story about an event—such as President Obama shaking hands with the president of Iran, or President Bush vacationing with a baseball celebrity during Hurricane Katrina—was accompanied by a fabricated picture which purportedly depicted the event, almost half of the people who saw the picture believed that it had actually happened, with more than a quarter of the people who saw the picturing remembering that they saw the event on the news at the time it occurred. A 2015 study by Erin Newman, et al. found that the same principle applies to simple statements as well. For example, adding a picture of macadamia nuts to the statement “Macadamia nuts are in the same evolutionary family as peaches” makes the statement significantly more believable.

While I certainly hope that you’re not intending to use the science of speaking to mislead people into believing things that aren’t true, these studies underscore the power of pictures for bolstering your claims.

From the Lab: Easy to Read, Easy to Believe

In a recent blog post, we saw that when instructions for a task were presented in a font that was easy to read, people thought the task would be significantly easier.

In an earlier study by the same researcher, Norbert Schwarz (this time working with Rolf Reber), they found that when statements were presented in colors that were easy to read (i.e., dark blue vs. yellow on a white background), people were significantly more likely to judge them as being true.

For example,

“Osorno is in Chile.”

is significantly easier to read than

“Osorno is in Chile.”

and as a result, the former is more likely to be judged as true.

Once again, this finding underscores the importance of making your presentations easy to understand—in this case, by making your visuals easy to see.

From the Lab: The Power of Titles

In The Science of Speaking, I talk about Michael Alley’s “assertion evidence approach” for titling visual aids, noting that having good titles for your visuals can significantly increase what your audience understands and remembers.

Recently, I came across a great example of this. First, let’s see what you make of this paragraph:

The procedure is actually quite simple. First you arrange things into different groups. Of course, one pile may be sufficient depending on how much there is to do. If you have to go somewhere else due to lack of facilities that is the next step, otherwise you are pretty well set. It is important not to overdo things. That is, it is better to do too few things at once than too many. In the short run this may not seem important but complications can easily arise. A mistake can be expensive as well. At first the whole procedure will seem complicated. Soon, however, it will become just another facet of life. It is difficult to foresee any end to the necessity for this task in the immediate future, but then one never can tell, After the procedure is completed one arranges the materials into different groups again. Then they can be put into their appropriate places. Eventually they will be used once more and the whole cycle will then have to be repeated. However, that is part of life.

If you’re anything like the participants in a 1972 study by John Bransford and Marcia Johnson, this paragraph probably doesn’t make much sense. And if you were asked about it a few minutes from now, you probably wouldn’t remember much about it.

But what if I told you that the title of the paragraph above was “Washing clothes is simple and essential”?

Now, doesn’t everything immediately make sense? What Bransford and Johnson found was that when context was provided upfront, participants were much more likely to understand and remember what they read. (Interestingly, if the context was provided afterward, it didn’t help at all.)

Of course, it has to be a good title: adding a generic title that said “The Procedure” wouldn’t help. Which is exactly what the assertion-evidence approach is all about: rather than titling your slide “Results,” it says, you should put the results right in the title!

Note: Of course, this is only half of the process: after you come up with a good title, you’ll want to find visual evidence to support your assertion, rather than simple presenting a block of text!