Daily Archives: November 15, 2009

Evolutionary psychology and faces for better presentation skills (whether you use Keynote or Powerpoint)

Two popular blog writers in the past few weeks have noted the importance of faces in presentations and advertising.

My colleague in doing away with Death by Powerpoint, Garr Reynolds (Presentation Zen) noted the advertisement below on his Posterous blog.


Garr notes on his blog:

We notices faces just about more than anything else, especially the eyes. Beauty is highly subjective (obviously), but there is a lot of evidence that we are more drawn to faces with greater than average symmetry.

This is one aspect of our attraction to faces, and certain types of faces.

Turning to another popular presentation blogger and twitterer, Andrew Dlugan who notes a Toastmaster’s current blog entry, called “Look this way, please”.

The author of the entry, John Zimmer, notes the important of where eyes in portraits look and how to best complement for adding text to a slide. Have a look at this part of his blog entry with an example of how not to mix portraits with text:


Here, Zimmer is adding to the conversation the idea of split attention, where our visual processing is confused: Where should I look? At the text or the picture?

What he’s getting at is: there’s a way that works better than another.

It won’t come as a surprise to regular readers of this blog and attendees of my Presentation Magic workshops that I place heavy emphasis on visual processing, and how, by understanding the underlying neuroscience, you can construct slides which have a much better chance of helping you get a persuasive message across to your audience.

In a recent full day workshop for psychologists I gave (which I am half way through writing up for you) I placed much emphasis on understanding the visual system. Now you might think psychologists know this stuff, but if you judge their knowledge by their presentations, then you’d conclude whatever knowledge they may have hasn’t been translated into their presentations! And the same goes for medicos and other scientists!

In my original presentation to Macworld in 2008 (you can see the evaluations on this blog) I asked the audience what they thought was the first visual pattern we human beings attended to…  it is of course, mother’s face. We have an innate ability it seems to search out faces, and we see faces in inanimate objects, so powerful is this ability.

Moreover, when there is a failure to have emotional reactions to certain faces with which we ought have a reaction, a psychopathology can develop, as in Capgras Syndrome, so well illustrated in this TED talk by Vilayanur Ramachandran: “A journey to the centre of your mind”.


As a psychologist, I’m aware of the long history of studying the brain which is based on when things go wrong. This has been the way forward for centuries, although it’s only in more recent decades when a much clearer understanding has become available. This has been accelerated through the use of normal subjects being tested in fMRI instruments which can show areas of the brain in action in normal (and abnormal) subjects.

Whenever abilities or attributes seem universal or exist prior to early learning or language formation, I take it to mean they have evolutionary significance, hence their automaticity. Presenters need to know about such things so as to cut through filters and biases, inattention and distraction and capture their audience’s imagination and gaze.

So, when a baby looks at its mothers’s face, it is learning the patterns of her face (as well as her voice) based on an innate ability to recognise her major features: her eyes and her mouth and their relationship to each other (and other facial characteristics). Our faces are extremely expressive, with more than two hundred muscles and ten major cranial nerves supplying it.

Clearly, this bond is extremely important to form for the baby’s survival, and a baby’s big eyes (in comparison to the rest of its face) elicits reciprocal feelings of bonding in the mother. We know for instance that a failure to bond in these early months can often lead to a baby’s failure to thrive and later onset psychopathology.

So nature does what it can to set up as much as possible a bond between mother (as initial primary carer) and offspring. And in setting up this bond, we humans carry around with us predilections to act in a certain way, which presenters can ethically act upon. (I say ethically because there are enough shonks out there who also take advantage of these human traits to deceive us).

If you’ve been to a Presentation Magic workshop, you’ll know I illustrate this aspect of human behaviour using visual and motion illusions which prove irresistible even when you know how they work. Not just is their use a humorous  part of the workshop, but having the audience experience for themselves what I’m talking about really drives the point home, as well as further illustrating the importance when presenting of involving your audience using a variety of fun methods. This is the meta part of the workshop.

There is a little more science to this to elaborate on the blogs so far mentioned of Garr, Andrew and John. You see, taking a cognitive neuroscience and evolutionary psychology approach not just has great explanatory value, it can be hugely entertaining and educational at the same time. And if you can use your slide show software of choice to illustrate both the how and why, your audience gets bonus learning points!

If there’s something I really enjoy doing in a Presentation Magic workshop, it’s emulating something Malcolm Gladwell does so well: Taking ideas and activities we take for granted and building up a case using very disparate evidence sources to build up another and usually surprising way to undertand the so-called “bleedin’ obvious”.

This is my self-titled, “Huh?… Ah, huh!” method. It is taking your audience on a journey away from their comfort zone of knowledge (thus causing an emotional shift) and just when they think you’ve lost the plot, pulling it all together in a “Eureka, now I get it.. It’s so bleedin’ obvious!” manner.

Speakers who don’t use slides, by the way, do it with their story telling and ability to use their voice and body to create a theatre of the mind experience.

I want to direct your attention to the idea behind putting words and faces together on a slide. We learn at an early age, if all is developing nicely, to watch where other people gaze.We appear to be unique in this ability. Almost no other animal can direct its attention by looking at where another animal is looking.

The only animal that comes close are domesticated dogs of the working breeds, like my German Shepherd Dog, Shrek. Here he is in a photo I use in my workshops to illustrate this point:


There have been a number of recent experiments examining the cognitive abilities of dogs (border collies appear to be the smartest breeds to work with) to see if they can first follow hand pointing, then eye gaze). Most dogs will keep looking at your eyes even you point to something they find interesting, such as their toys or food. Shrek seems to be able to follow my pointing although I wonder if I give something away without knowing it, but to which he is extremely sensitive, quite typical for “one-owner” breeds.

In humans, children with deficits in their social and communication skills also find it difficult to follow pointing hands, and they don’t look at faces either for emotional information. These children often are described as having an autism spectrum disorder. Other children including those with low IQ such as Williams Syndrome, a chromosomal abnormality, go the other direction and can’t stop looking at faces and are overtly friendly and love telling stories, something their IQ would not normally predict.

Again, these conditions help inform us of how visual processing exists in combination with other important social and survival functions.

Now perhaps by now you might be asking why this ability to track others’ gaze is universal in normal humans, and what by extension might be its evolutionary significance. (When you see evolutionary, think importance for our survival, at one time in our development at least).

One way to think of this is to examine our visual system’s characteristics. As John Medina writes in his book, Brain Rules, and You Tube video (below), “Vision trumps all other senses.”

Compared to many other species, we have superior visual capacity for recognising depth and distance, colour, shape and size, and movement, amongst many characteristics. Dogs’ visual systems are not as well developed as ours, but their ability to detect and discriminate hearing and smell are way out in front of ours.

There are two obvious and almost unique characteristics our peripheral visual data detectors (our eyes) possess. Can you guess what they are?

Here’s a hint: Think about your pet pooch or cat, and compare their appearance with your favourite cartoon animal, be it Mickey Mouse, Pluto, the Coyote and Road runner, Jiminy Cricket, Nemo, etc.

Well, what do you notice?

Ok, here’s the answer. When cartoonists draw animals which have human characteristics (“they can be more human than humans” according to a documentary I once saw about the work of Chuck Jones), they make the animals eyes huge and with “human qualities”.

What are human qualities? There are a few of note:

1. Humans are one of the few species where the eyes are located in the front of the face, rather than the side as in so many other species. This gives us poorer peripheral vision, but superior depth perception.

2. Humans tend to move their eyes within their orbits, while other animals tend to move their entire heads to gaze in a certain direction.

3. Humans appear to be unique in that our sclera (the whites of our eyes) are visible at all times. When dogs show us their whites, we tend to think of them as more cute (i.e., more human-like) and more expressive of emotions (we imbue in them).

Now would be a good time to ask of the evolutionary signficance of all this, and thus get a little closer to what this means for our presentations (You are currently in the midst of the “Huh?” part of my Presentation Magic mini-workshop).

Having good depth perception but poor peripheral vision (and the latter gets worse as we age) is the outcome of having our eyes at the front of our heads. Poor peripheral vision means predators or enemies can come creeping up from behind us undetectably. Our forward facing ears (which our dog companions can swivel to hear from behind) don’t help much.

So in order to survive, humans developed social collaborative mechanisms to warn each other of impending danger, as well as other survival opportunities needed for hunting, such as letting our hunting team mates know where we’re looking without making a sound. If we can’t point, we can use our eyes. Think about how your favourite comedian uses his or her eyes to get a laugh from their audience without saying a word. Jack Benny was a past master of this:


To make this a little more obvious, do you remember as a child playing a game where a group of friends would look up at a building (at nothing in particular) and note how passers-by would also stop and take a look? It would be evolutionary advantageous to look where others are looking either to be forewarned of danger or opportunistically note where food, water and yes, chances for sex might happen (more likely of you’re male, which is why so much pornography made by men for men features so much “visually oriented” material. Perhaps if I do a Presentation Magic workshop in Sweden one day, I’ll be able to illustrate this point… just kidding!)

By having the whites of our eyes always on show, we instantaneously know when someone is looking at us, or looking away, and we can be quite good at tracking where they’re looking. This has huge survival benefits for a species that must utilise its intelligence rather than brute strength to survive.

So if you want to draw attention to something on your slides, whether it be an object or words, you can increase the chance of it being noticed by having people look in that direction.

Advertisers have known about this for decades, as they are the most studious of persuasion agents.

Take a look at this advertisement for baby products, below (I wish I could remember the webpage source):

baby one

A few things to note: This is a measure of how much time experimental subjects spent looking at various areas of the advertisement. Red is greatest time, followed by yellow, then green. In other words, red is a “hotspot”. In airliner weather radar mapping, red hotpots are water-filled thunderstorms. Now you might think they would use blue which we tend to more associate with water than red. But the point is to bring pilots’ attention to a zone, and red is a better choice to get attention than blue. I spend a fair bit of Presentation Magic time discussing this with examples, but this blog entry is too long already!

In any case, it’s not a satisfactory outcome for the advertiser as potential buyers look at the cute baby but ignore the text selling the product, before they turn the page. But now look what happens if the photographer changes the baby’s direction of gaze:

baby two

By having the baby look at the text, metaphorically speaking, the readers’ gaze follows the baby’s and they are much more likely to notice and hopefully (if you’re the advertiser) read the text, and get a little closer to making a persuasive argument for purchasing.

UPDATE: Reader Alexander Fell has kindly located the source of these most interesting screenshots: http://usableworld.com.au/2009/03/16/you-look-where-they-look/ The author is James Breeze, a website useability expert.

I’m guessing quite a few people are using this little device in their presentations, and now you know why your intuitive design tendencies are more likely to work than having portraits looking away from text or an object. And by adding a little human emotion to the picture, you can be even more persuasive and suggestive, as I created for a project on stress in the workplace I’m currently working on…


Hopefully, by now you’re in the “Aha” phase of this blog entry. I’ll be elaborating much more on these ideas, and how I use software like Apple’s Keynote to do so in Macworld’s Presentation magic Powertools conference in February, 2010.