Sunday, June 17, 2012

What Jurassic Park Can Teach Us about Giving Presentations

You remember this scene from the movie Jurassic Park.  Paleontologist, Dr. Allan Grant, tells young Lex Murphy not to move because T. rex cannot see you if you remain motionless.  No, this is not a continuation of how to protect yourself from con artists (see previous posts).  This scene occurred to me as I was pondering a Powerpoint presentation that I was preparing for an upcoming talk.

Let me explain.  I was attending a conference a couple of weeks ago, and someone remarked to me how they were impressed with how I used animation in my presentations to introduce elements in a complex slide one at a time instead of showing a complicated diagram or graph all at once.  I nodded, satisfied that someone had noticed how I strive to help the audience understand what I'm talking about and avoid bombarding them with too much information too fast.  Then, this person said, "I would do this in my presentations, but I just don't have time to learn how to do that animation stuff in Powerpoint."

I did not say this, but thought, "So you expect your audience to do all the work and also pay attention to what you are showing them?"

Humans evolved on the African savannah and survived by responding quickly to threats or opportunities for food....anything that moved captured their attention.  Early humans (and other predators) were sensitive to motion and mostly ignored objects that did not move such as trees or rocks.  Something flitting through the grass or hopping behind a tree caught their immediate attention.  You see where I'm going with this....

Modern humans have changed very little in their visual attentiveness to motion.  An audience at a scientific conference is not unlike a band of early humans scanning the horizon for that bit of movement that tells them something of interest is going on.  Granted, the changing of slides (or introduction of text line by line) does satisfy that motion-directed focus to some extent.  However, when we show a complicated graph or diagram in its entirety, the audience basically reacts as if they were faced with a complex landscape in which nothing is moving.  Their instinct is to feel that there's nothing of interest on the screen.

You need to show them that there is something of interest and where to look for it.  Introduce the slightest motion or contrast: an arrow zooming in on a datapoint, a number suddenly highlighted in a contrasting color, or a key value increasing in size to fill the screen, and you instantly have the audience's attention.  Their eyes focus like lasers on that point.  If those objects move (appear/disappear, wipe in/out, move across the screen), then it's almost impossible for your audience to avoid paying attention to it.  Not only that, but you have guided their attention to the bit of information that you wish them to understand and remember.  If it moved, they will remember it.

If you really want to get people's attention and have them remember your point, illustrate it with a photograph that is introduced by animation.  Think about how the audience perks up when you show a photo of your fieldsite or your laboratory setup after having sat through innumerable text and data slides.  I think some very basic instinct is triggered when we are shown a scene, especially a landscape or some other natural setting.  Suddenly, we are back on the African savannah.  Our eyes scan the image looking for something of interest:  a predator or a prey, an enemy or a potential mate (subconsciously, of course).  Your audience will remember those photos longer than your data slides.  When I give my summary or list of conclusions at the end of my talk, I don't just provide a bulleted list of items.  With each item, I attach a photo or diagram from earlier in the talk to drive home a visual image that links back to a key piece of information I discussed.  Sometimes, I only show the image without text.  I always animate these lists so that the items are introduced one by one.

Yes, you can carry the animation thing too far.  Powerpoint provides a tempting array of entrance and exit motions that you can apply to your objects.  Don't be tempted.  Stick with the simplest: appear/disappear, dissolve in/out, wipe.  Once in a while, you might use a zoom or spiral motion, especially if it makes sense to the object you are introducing.  Don't animate just to be animating something.  There must be a reason to add motion to your slides.

Going back to my conversation with my colleague....I find that the most effective use of animation is to explain complex concepts or illustrate conceptual models.  Typically, I am trying to show the complex interrelationships among the components of an ecosystem.  I start with a photo of the ecosystem and overlay a diagram in which components and arrows are grouped; then each component can be introduced in sequence so that the audience is guided along a logical path to eventually see the whole system.  Most presenters simply show the diagram in its full complexity and then proceed to explain it (usually badly).  The audience is turned off long before the presenter gets to the point.

So, if you are faced with a T. rex at some point, then it makes sense to avoid making any movements and hope s/he ignores you.  On the other hand, if you are speaking to an audience and want them to pay attention to and remember your talk, you might want to imagine them as a band of early humans wandering the vast, ancient plains of Africa and looking for some signs of movement in the distance...

Photo Credit: Still image from Jurassic Park, Universal Picture and Amblin Entertainment

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think the most interesting part of the story is when your commenter said he/she didn't have time to "learn Powerpoint." Did that person learn the lab techniques used in his research? Did he learn how to write research papers? Not only is presenting something that is part of science, but it can be learned and improved: people often think they are either good at presenting or bad, and nothing can be done about it.