What the designing of the Boeing 777 taught me about how to use Apple’s Keynote to give memorable presentations

My attention this week was partially taken up with the news that the Boeing Corporation had completed tests on a core component of its newest design, the 787 Dreamliner, below.

Boeing 787 roll out at Everett

Boeing 787 roll out at Everett

The Dreamliner is Boeing’s answer to rival Airbus’ giant A380, which recently commenced service from Melbourne to Los Angeles with QANTAS. Smaller, and with a longer range, Boeing believes it is a better match for what the flying public desires than the Airbus competitor.

Built of new lightweight but very strong materials, some of the parts being assembled here in Melbourne, the Dreamliner is undergoing many tests before taking its first ever flight. This week on its website Boeing showed video of a very important test outcome: the destruction of the wing box, the central part of the aircraft to which the wings will be joined as well as the fuselage. It needs to be able to withstand huge forces and strain. You can see the test here.

In my work with fearful patients, especially those who believe severe turbulence will rip the wings from the aircraft, I show a similar test performed by Boeing more than ten years ago when its 777 was being tested before entering service. In this case, Boeing built a plane just for the purpose of destroying it, to see what forces the wings could withstand before breaking. To do this very strong steel cables were attached to each wing tip and pulled up in increments, with the hope the plane’s wings could withstand 150% of the worst the weather and a pilot’s poor handling could throw at it, as well as test it in advance of heavier versions being built.

In regular flight, wing tips can flex above or below the centre line by six foot. In the test, the wings bent twenty four feet from the horizontal before an explosive compression took place. You can see the video I show below:

It’s a pretty impressive video, and can start the cognitive shift fearful flyers need in the quest to feel safe on board commercial aircraft. (Touch of irony: The guy in the frame above holding his neck is former Boeing Commercial VP Allan Mullaly who was initially in charge of the 777 program. Later, he was cherry-picked to become Ford’s CEO and it was he and the other Detroit CEOs who copped huge ridicule when each flew in their company’s corporate jets to Washington DC seeking automotive bail-outs this week.)

I first saw this video, narrated by actor Peter Coyote, after a visit to the Boeing plant in Everett, Seatte, WA, and purchased the five-VHS tape series, made by PBS.

The design and manufacture of the 777 set new principles of collaboration for Boeing, between various departments as well as launch customer, United Airlines. (In the wing destruction video, above, the guy who puts the binoculars to his eyes, at 1’27”, is United’s liaison staff member.)

But the design of the airliner was also a first for Boeing in that it used computer workstations to perform many of the designs previously performed by hand on paper. Different departments  designed various systems, such as air-conditioning, hydraulics, moving control surfaces, interior design, etc. At various times in the past, full-sized aircraft mockups were designed, often out of wood or clay (much like cars are designed) to see how the various systems “came together”.

Every so often, a hydraulic element would “interfere” with the positioning of say an air conditioning duct. Then it was back to the drawing board for each department to eliminate this “interference”. Call it stamping out the bugs, to use a coder’s lingo.

What they had to do was design “affordances”, room for piping and other elements like wiring to co-exist in the same space. The advent of large and powerful computers and CAD/CAM software allowed engineers to make redesigns easily achieved while calling up other departments’ system designs to make sure of their shared affordances. (If you go back to the Boeing website and look at the middle video describing the undercarriage, you’ll see how many systems are involved and the close tolerances needed to allow the gear to move into position.)

It is here that I learnt of this concept of affordance, and I now apply it in my presentation magic training.

If you got to Wikipedia, here, you will see a variety of definitions of affordance, some of which contradict each other.

But if you’re reading this while toying with your iPod, then you’re likely to experience the kind of affordance I have in mind for my presentations. It’s an aspect of industrial design that leads the eye and hand to act in a certain way. The iPod’s scroll wheel and menu system were designed such that no manual was needed to operate the device, and learn its nuances.

Indeed, just this week, I was showing a colleague an iPod for his first time. He wanted to borrow it to record some lectures, and I was happy to lend it to him together with attachable iTalk recorder hardware. Within a few minutes, with me guiding him with words, and he using his fingers and thumb, he caught the essentials and reproduced them on his own without my advice.

This is affordance at work, and it has perhaps reached a near-zenith with the iPhone where again one needs very little instruction as to its use, and the design implicitly guides you into action. Contrast that with how Steve Jobs described its so-called “smart phone” competitors at the iPhone’s release almost two years ago, and you will also understand the concept of “interference”, where the menu system seems to be conspiring to make your use of the competing phone difficult and thus stressful.

Users, and audiences for that matter, give up if the task they are being asked to perform is too stressful or interfering with how they usually do things. Sometimes they know what they should do, and other times they don’t understand how things operate but that doesn’t matter as long as they get the main message. This is how magic becomes entertaining, when we know we are being fooled, but don’t know how the trick is done.

In presentations, I use my knowledge of neuroscience, and the social psychology of persuasion, to create affordances leading the audience where I want them to go. This is why the use of colour, pleasing animations, movies, sounds, text which matches voice, and other affordances make for engaging and memorable presentations.

It’s why I choose to use Keynote rather than other software because it better matches my desire to create affordances, not just for the audience but for slide design, while say, Powerpoint seems more intent to my taste on creating interferences.

This is why I so often describe Keynote as eliciting creativity because it seems to reduce the likelihood of interferences, even though at times I wonder what the programmers were thinking about. For instance, in Keynote 4, the addition of Instant Alpha has changed the way I work with Keynote. Look at the video below to see what I’m talking about.

Using Art Text’s wonderful icons, I wanted to use a paper clip to create a special effect, which most in an audience wouldn’t notice (but a Keynote user would).

Here’s what it looks like when I try to place the paper clip onto the picture in a way that emulates the real thing:

All that happens is that the picture covers up the clip. Of course, if you send the Clip forward of the picture, you will simply see the clip sitting on top of the picture, not doing its job of being a paper clip.

But with some use of a new affordance introduced in Keynote 4, Instant Alpha, a photo retouching device previously only available in third party software such as Photoshop, and somes screen shot magic, I can fool the eye into believing the photo is being placed between the loops of the clip – a 3D illusion in 2D, seen below.

It’s a very simple illusion which many wouldn’t bother to notice because it’s something they do most days (using paperclips) and is hardly outstanding. But those who create presentations will momentarily wonder how I did it, knowing it’s doable, but which “magic” was elicited to do so.

If you got a hold of the original Keynote file I created, you could “reverse engineer” my actions by looking within Keynote’s Inspector at the actions I created and seeing each step. In my Powertools session at Macworld 2009, I’ll be creating features like this, some more complex, and showing how to use Keynote’s abilities to elicit illusory acts which take quite some time to plan and execute in the design phase, and which may only last a few seconds in the audience’s attention span. So be it.

The whole idea about knowing the secret of affordances is that you are abandoning the cognitive style of Powerpoint (which is about making life easy for the presenter with bullet points, copy and paste text, and chintzy clip art providing a dumbed down message), by making your slides tell a story to make life for the audience easy, allowing your central message to penetrate and stick.

You see, if your presentation contains interferences – jarring transitions, pixelated images, written text competing with what your saying, and smartass animations for the sake of it – your messages are compromised and won’t stick. What will stick is an idea that will spontaneously form within about three minutes (the length of a speaker’s “honeymoon” period after commencing their presentation) which is that the audience will first check their watches, then their iPhones or Blackberries, and then how covertly they can leave the auditorium.

Affordances, if you know how to create those that sync. with how the brain works, will engage your audience. The best affordances involve the audience. Some presenters choose to do this, depending on their personal style, by asking questions directly of the audience, or having them chat to the person next to them, or have them close their eyes and imagine a scene, or break people up into small groups and have them do tasks. All well and good, and I’ve used each of them and more in workshops.

But I take particular pride in involving audiences without their knowing I’m doing it by my cognitive style, supported by what I can do with my voice, my body, and my slides.

In my Powertools workshop, we’ll look at all these factors and how to (hopefully) seamlessly integrate them while always keeping a focus on the central story. Indeed, telling stories is a major affordance by my definition, tapping into the human hard-wiring for story telling.

While it’s great to become extremely competent with your presentation software, knowing its in’s and out’s and becoming technically proficient, the danger is that this same competency can become an interference if all you do with it is to show off your prowess and thus lose your message in the process.

I’ve seen this happen when some have seen my presentations, taken some of the effects and devices, and applied it without suffcient thought to why I did what I did. What’s left is a pastiche of clever animations, funny cartoons, and an audience that leaves amused but not persuaded.

And a presenter who thinks they’ve abandoned their old traditional means of presenting in exchange for something for the 21st Century, but they’re only part of the way there. As are we all!

5 responses to “What the designing of the Boeing 777 taught me about how to use Apple’s Keynote to give memorable presentations

  1. Les – the best presenters can hold an audience rapt without slides. Good presenters use slides to grab and hold the attention of their audience. Average presenters rely on slides as a crutch to cover up for deficiencies in their storytelling abilities. And poor presenters use slides instead of having anything to say worth listening to. http://tinyurl.com/5t5lcj

  2. A little OTT for my liking, Victor. I much prefer the quiet confidence, and gentle humour, again without slides, of Sir Ken Robinson’s talk at Ted.com on educators. But no doubt a hugely entertaining presentation in the right context.

  3. Hi, Les.

    I recently attended several weeks of workshops which consisted of a trainer showing slides that duplicated handouts and then reading paragraphs that were either on the slides or in the handouts. I would suggest that this was not a good use of slides, handouts, or of the presenter’s or audience’s time.

    IMNSHO, I would suggest that an effective way of presenting is that the slides-presenter-handouts triad might better be seen as a symbiotic relationship, where the dominant member is the presenter and the slides and handouts add to what he or she is presenting.

    This, in turn, creates a powerful dynamic where the audience literally goes into a receptive trance state, allowing for easy understanding and acceptance of the material being presented. Time seems to stand still and the audience goes away informed, wanting more, and yes, entertained.

    It would seem to me, then, that the old paradigm of the Southern preacher (first I tell them what I’m going to tell them, then I tell them, then I tell them what I told them) exemplified by the over-texted bullet points of PowerPoint should be replaced by the more awareness-focused paradigm (Tell me and I’ll forget, show me and I might remember, involve me and I’ll understand) exemplified by Keynote.

  4. Bring up the use of jets by the executives by the politicians is a trick. They are not like the politicians whose time can be wasted standing in lines at the airport check points while traveling among the various operational sites of these globally distributed companies. As far as Mullaly is concerned he was brought by Ford to change the culture of the Ford Company. You can already see these changes in the Ford Company’s product line up. Mullaly’s problem is he has to rub shoulders with the executives of GM and Chrysler and be tarred with the same American Automobile Industry Culture brush. The mentality of GM and Chrysler executives is ingrained in the well trenched US Automobile Industry culture of adding chrome to attract the average dumb american automobile consumer culture of bigger is better.

  5. The political trick certainly was effective given how much coverage it got worldwide.
    But so much of what is happening now is about perception that it would be fair to say that when everyone is hurting it’s a bad look to arrive in three private jets. Yes, in terms of time saved it’s a no brainer but a very worried and angry public doesn’t think in these terms.
    Intersesting larry king and michael Moore interview I saw the other day where he has mixed feelings about what should happen in Detroit.

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