When I created a Slideshare preview of my book How to Fail... I worked with Dr. Carmen Simon at Rexi Media to get the slides just right, from a design and message standpoint, but also from a cognitive science perspective. I thought my blog readers would enjoy a peek under the hood to see what techniques we used. This is useful stuff.

Dr. Simon explained to me that it helps to think of your presentation in terms of these three elements.
  1. Attention
  2. Memory
  3. Decision
Drilling deeper, all three elements can be activated by emotions. And all three elements can be influenced by automatic or deliberate factors.

Automatic factors (examples)
  1. A shiny object grabs your attention reflexively 
  2. The sight of a red apple reminds you of a friend's cheeks
  3. After a sleep-deprived night, you decide to eat a donut even though you're on a diet
Deliberate factors (the stuff you care and think about)
  1. What you want out of life
  2. What you expect to see or hear
  3. What you already know
Now let's see how the science is applied to my slide show titled Passion is Overrated and Goals Are for Losers.


To get attention, your material must stand out in some way (e.g. through color, size, location, etc.)

The color palette for my slides (grayscale - including white - accentuated with red) puts emotionally powerful colors in stark contrast. Red has a deep psychological impact: It makes breathing harder, quickens the heart, and demands attention. The lack of competing color "noise" makes the color contrast more attention-grabbing.

The first slide in the deck is the most important for drawing-in viewers. We had a powerful color palette, but we also needed a title that grabs attention. Dr. Simon says the four title approaches that do this well are:
  1. Promise a story
  2. Promise a reward
  3. Provoke curiosity
  4. Evoke concern
My slideshow's title "Passion Is Overrated and Goals Are for Losers" provokes curiosity while evoking concern that one might have been doing things wrong until now.

We know from cognitive neuroscience that attention is rooted in emotion. So words that carry a strong emotional load (e.g. "overrated" and "losers") grab attention. Putting all of that together, on the very first slide we have powerful color contrast, curiosity, a reason for concern, and two emotion-charged words.

Balance Recognition and Surprise

Cognitive neuroscience nerds tell us that attention can be thought of as a clash between an object and its environment. One of Rexi Media's insights, based on research, is that any time you want an audience's attention, serve up something viewers expect AND something they did not expect. In other words, you want a balanced combination of recognition and surprise.  In my slide show, widely-recognized Warren Buffet has Einstein's hair, and Mark Zuckerberg has a Zorro mask.


The Benefits of Being Unclear

Conventional wisdom says that your slides need to be as clear as possible. This is not always the case. Research shows that when stimulation is degraded in some way, attention and recall are higher. For example, if I show you a word that is faded out, the cognitive strain in comprehending it leads to better attention and therefore better recall because "I made you look." Rexi Media applied this approach in several slides in my presentation. For instance, the phrase "terrible sound bite" is not written in a way that is easily digested. You have to strain a bit, and linger longer, giving it extra attention. This is not a practice you would repeat on all slides in a presentation. Use it only on a few phrases you consider important.


Violate a Pattern

One of the ways to get attention and re-energize the brain is to break a pattern that people have learned to expect. After the reader's brain gets habituated in my slides, the pattern is intentionally violated.

One of the reasons people don't pay attention to slides after a while is because they are too predictable. From an evolutionary standpoint, if we think we know what happens next, and everything is safe, we are better served by putting our attention elsewhere.

Rexi Media advises presentation designers to look at their slides in the view shown below (slide sorter view), because it tells you instantly two important things: Do you have a pattern and do you break it? The former is critical because sometimes slide designers fall into the other extreme where there is NO pattern. The brain needs sameness in order to detect the difference.

One way to break a pattern is by moving from slides that are visually intense to slides that are visually simple. Or you could move from a pattern of seriousness to something humorous. Or you could move from something appropriate for your audience to something inappropriate (e.g., the "bull$#!%" slide). All these switches guard against habituation and serve to refresh the viewer's attention.



Audience Engagement

Audience engagement is a great way to solidify memories. But how do you create audience engagement when you're not presenting the material in person? For my slideshow, we created engagement in two ways:

1. By not making everything so obvious (i.e. giving people the joy of "getting it")  

2. By inserting rhetorical questions. The latter works because every time you ask a question, even if it is rhetorical, the brain is mandated to answer. Do you think that's true? (See what I did there?) 

This slide combines the joy of "getting it" (when you realize which movie the graphics come from) and the power of a rhetorical question.


If we were to ask people which slide was more memorable from the deck, many would quote this slide because of its powerful combination of psychological elements.


If you want your audience to make some sort of decision, you need motivational drivers. In my slideshow, Rexi Media made sure I used two.

Principle of Reciprocity

Humans are social animals. When someone gives you a gift, it activates in you an automatic impulse to reciprocate. Salespeople have been using this concept forever. The approach works in presentations as well.

My slideshow has both entertainment and informational value. I put a lot of work into it and provided it to you for free.

Social Proof

We are more likely to act if we see that people who are like us have acted. That concept is embedded in the testimonials about the book in the end. (The 5-star reviews on Amazon.com have the same effect.)


I don't have a way of measuring how much the methods described here boosted views of my slides. There's no control on this experiment. But we can compare my slide show to a promotional video for the same book that I made at about the same time. The video was designed to be entertaining but it didn't employ this level of cognitive science. At this writing, the slide show has about 50% more views than the straightforward video.

Slide show: 33K views

Video: 22K views

To be fair, there are plenty of reasons that can account for the difference in number of views. The video was probably too long and that crimps the viral potential. It required sound, which is bad for office viewing.  And it was more commercially "needy" in its design. But it also came first, and one would expect some audience fatigue on the topic of my book by the time the slideshow came out. You can think of a dozen other factors in play as well.

That said, cognitive science would predict that the slide show would get more views than the straight-forward video approach. And it did, by far.

If you want to see more examples of Rexi Media's slide designs, here's a link to a video of me giving a speech at an IBM event recently, using different slides from the ones in the Slideshare deck. Backstage, the question I heard most often was "Who designed your slides? They're incredible." And that was from the people who do this work for a living. When I asked what they liked about the slides, no one could put a finger on it. Unlike you, they didn't get to look under the hood to see the design science.

I hope you found this interesting.

Here's a recap of the relevant links.

Scott Adams and Stephen Pastis Cartoonist battle Video (No cognitive science used)

Goals are for Losers Slideshare (with slides by Rexi Media)

Scott Adams' Speech to IBM, Jan 2014, 25 minutes (With slides by Rexi Media)

Rexi Media

Imagine a product that combines room lighting with wireless speakers. I envision these devices to be about ten inches tall. Sit them on a shelf or desk, or on their own optional floor stands. I'll call these devices Atmospeakers because they create the atmosphere for the room, both in sound and lighting. If you get the lighting and sound right, any room can feel special.

I want my Atmospeakers to have four lighting modes.
  1. Artificial LED candle mode
  2. Back light mode to accent a wall (with color options)
  3. General room lighting similar to a 60-watt bulb (full spectrum to avoid sadness)
  4. Art light: a focused light that can be aimed at a poster or art on the wall.
I want my Atmospeakers to have motion detection so they spring to life when I enter the room. A default radio station or other source will begin playing and the accent lights would power up as soon as my smartphone is detected in range. Working with a companion app on my phone, the Atmospeakers might greet me by name and optionally give me a random compliment when I enter.

I want my Atmostpeakers to be integrated with my phone's alarm clock function. When it's time to get up, the system plays the music or nature sounds you like while the lights gently get brighter.

When I get a text or phone call, I want the Atmospeakers to alert me by blinking.

When I make a Skype call, I want the Atmospeakers to be my speakers but also my microphone so I can walk around the room and the nearest one intelligently takes over while the others ignore me.

I want my Atmospeakers to know where I am sitting in the room, by triangulating my Bluetooth signal, so they can adjust their sound to optimize for my location in the room.

I want a smartphone app to control the Atmospeaker's lights and sound and to program the modes for various times of day. The lights should have different color options both for the artificial candle mode and for the back light. And of course the sound levels should be controllable by app.

I want my Atmospeakers to be so smart that you can add a third and fourth speaker and the new ones learn how to act from the ones already in the room. Just plug them into the wall and they are ready to go.

I want my Atmospeakers to have a rechargeable battery so you can just pick one up and take it with you outdoors or to another room. Perhaps they are smart enough to know what time it is and recharge at night when electric rates are low while using batteries during the day when rates are high.

I want my Atmospeaker to have a USB charging jack and a regular outlet as well so I can charge devices without looking for the wall outlet.

I want my Atmospeakers to have a headset jack. If any one of the Atmospeakers detects a headset jack in it, the others know to go silent.

One Atmospeaker is all you need to start. Let's say each one has internal stereo speakers to fill a room. But the more Atmospeakers you add to the room, the better the sound and lighting. Most people would aspire to having four in a room.

Imagine a companion app just for the parents of kids who have Atmospeakers. When it's time for dinner, the parent app can override the system and cause the lights to blink. Perhaps the parent can also create a voice message that plays in the kid's room, such as "Go to bed" or "Come to dinner."

Perhaps the Atmospeakers are designed to allow third-party add-on apps to work with it.

Now imagine the Atmospeaker has Apple-class design. The thing just looks magnificent sitting there.

This feels like a new product category to me. One can quibble with the specs, but doesn't it seem as if there is something here?

[Update: I'm wondering if the problem most people seem to have understanding analogies is the same thing prompting so many of the comments to say something like the Atmospeaker already exists while providing links to things that are very different. In my world, a car is different from a wheel. The iPod is different from the Walkman. And a sharp stick is different from a nuclear warhead. If those things all look the same to you, you have a problem. -- Scott]
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I like LED candles because I don't like being inside flaming buildings. My college dorm caught fire twice because of unattended candles. (Not mine.) Neither time was fun.

Some LED candles have 5-hour timers. That's a nice touch, but you never remember which button to push for the timer, or how long to hold it. And sometimes you might only want the candle on for an hour or two.

My solution (which probably already exists) is an LED candle with a base that is similar to wind-up kitchen timers. Just twist the base until an arrow lines up with the number of hours you want your candle to stay on. The candle will slowly turn as the timer winds down and eventually stops.

This seems like the easiest possible interface.

Now you tell me who is already making this exact device.

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Some have asked about my goal in producing Robots Read News on this blog.

I don't have a goal. Goals are limiting. I prefer systems (as I describe more fully in my latest book.)

A system is something you do on a regular basis to improve your odds of success - usually by making yourself more valuable - without a specific idea of where it all ends up.

For example, when I started blogging, my ex-wife asked why I was spending 50% of my time on something that produced about 5% of my income. What was my goal?

I tried, and largely failed, to explain that blogging was a system. I was practicing my writing every day. I was seeing what topics worked best. I was writing in different voices to see what people responded to. Every time I blogged I was getting more knowledge about what readers wanted and I was improving my writing skill. An important part of the system is that I was practicing publicly, which allowed whatever luck was swirling around in the universe to find me, figuratively speaking.

Blogging also helped me survive three-and-a-half years of not being able to speak. And blogging kept my energy up because I enjoyed the audience reaction. High energy has a good spillover effect on my other activities.

My blogging led to a publishing deal for a blog post compilation book titled "Stick to Drawing Comics, Monkey Brain." That book didn't work because I got the psychology wrong. I figured that if the writing was getting a terrific response on the Internet, there was a market for it in book form. Instead, my blog readers were repulsed that someone would try to package and sell what had once been freely available on the Internet. It was like I had pissed on a baby. Worse yet, my publisher asked, as part of the contract, for me to remove the original posts from the Internet. That seemed like no big deal to me because almost no one reads the blog archive. But removing free stuff from the Internet was perceived by readers as something similar to strangling a puppy. Lesson learned.

An editor at the Wall Street Journal saw some of my blog posts and asked me to expand on them for their readers. And I did. That improved my perceived market value.

After a few more years of blogging I discovered, quite unexpectedly, that people enjoyed reading my thoughts about systems for success. That insight turned into my latest book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big. It's currently the top-selling general career guide in the world.

When I was looking for technology partners for a startup idea, I blogged about it and several people emailed to say they would be interested. My business partner and I joined forces with BlueChilli out of Australia and launched CalendarTree.com. It's the simplest way to create a schedule of upcoming events and share a link so people can add the entire schedule to their personal calendars with a few clicks. That has gotten a great response so far. But what satisfies me more is that it solved an annoying real-world problem.

Then there was the incident about doctor-assisted suicide. As my father suffered in his death bed, I angrily blogged about my feelings on the topic and - I believe - forever changed the debate. I say that because my blogging on the topic got a lot of attention. In a follow-up post I demonstrated that there really is no one on the side the debate that says government should have the right to overrule the wishes of you, your family, and your doctor when it comes to end-of-life medical decisions. The alleged divided opinion on the subject was nothing but clever bullshit from creationist nut jobs. The reality is that almost no one thinks the government should have a veto over their own end-of-life medical decisions. That becomes clear when the polls ask the question correctly. So perhaps I helped that cause a bit. And that feels good.

That brings us to Robots Read the News. I have no idea where it is heading or what "voice" it might take. I've tried writing it with some harmless family humor, some political humor, and some R-rated humor. And I've watched the reactions. Patterns are starting to emerge.

I was drawn to the idea by wondering what sort of comic would be most popular in 2014 and beyond. We're probably five years away from the day when advances in robot technology will dominate the news, so it would be useful to have a branded character in that space. The media likes to put a face on the news, and robots don't have a high-profile representative. (By analogy, Dilbert's popularity was helped a great deal by the fact that the media put Dilbert's face and name to every story about the office workplace.)

I also hypothesized that in the age of Twitter, social media sharing, and short attention-spans that the perfect product would be topical, provocative, quotable, and brief. I wondered if anyone would care that the art was the same in every panel. (So far it doesn't seem to be an issue and in a weird way seems to be a plus.)

So I don't have a goal with the new comic. Nor is it an experiment. It's part of a system for improving my odds of success in a general way. If I learn something useful in the process that can be applied to future projects, I come out ahead. And if any of what you see is entertaining, we both win. I hope that's the case.

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