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

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Mar 2, 2014
"The video was designed to be entertaining but it didn't employ this level of cognitive science."

At the time, you said that the video employed lots of juicy cognitive science designed to make it go viral. It's interesting to study you studying marketing.
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Mar 2, 2014
I had seen the video and now watched the presentation. I bought the book after reading the presentation. I read the book. thought it was great, and will be sharing some of the strategies with my students - especially the more skills you have the more it improves your odds which I have always thought but not expressed so succinctly.
Would I have bought the book anyway? Probably
Mar 1, 2014
The presentation was amazing. I liked both the video and the presentation (saw only the Rexi Media ones).

Someone who doesn't read blogs was also with me. Thought will let you know comments from someone who don't browse a lot or have read a lot of Dilbert.

It was mostly on the content.

Buffett was not a good example because he looks old and calm and it would probably come across as you did not understand the context within which he would've said what he said. He may have meant passionate in a sense which would encompass what you term as system as well.

Zuckerberg was a also not an appropriate example because he's obviously (!) lucky it seems. Maybe it is because of Facebook and a general image towards internet companies, it isn't looked at like a proper business, and they wouldn't be surprised if he becomes poor say tomorrow.

Branson looks like he perfectly fits the bill of a !$%*!$%*!$% and no question about the idols as well :)

Why only people who have money, could've included people from other fields like say Spielberg or someone like that.

On the presentation there was only one comment that the strips in general was fast and particularly very fast towards the end giving no time towards understanding what's said much less make out the joke.
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Feb 27, 2014
An interesting article about quitting Google:
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Feb 27, 2014

Lots to say, but one comment about the results. The number of views recorded, is a result of the previous advertising's success or failure, not the presentation's results. Did you get a visitor to click into your presentation? That has no bearing on the results of the presentation.
(But knowing the views shows what adjustment you need to make to get the results)

If one received 660 sales from 33,000 views (page views or unique visitors?) OK, 2%
If one received 660 sales from 22,000 views, That's better, 3%.

If one receives fewer sales from more work, I hope one at least enjoys the activity. Or as Scott would say, at least as part of your system and not make it a goal at which to fail.

Feb 26, 2014
Did Rexi Media tell you that these things are true? Did they prove to you that there are quantifiable, statistically significant (e.g. p< 0.05) benefits caused by "violate[ing] a pattern"? What do they mean by "Audience Engagement?"

I don't have reason to disbelieve anything you mention here (In fact, I tend they're correct), but the way you/they present it, it sounds like a bunch of marketing !$%*!$%*!$ I don't see any proof that anything of the things you assert here are actually true. Does Rexi Media have people that can prove what they're shilling has been backed up by studies?

I work in Marketing as an occupation so I have developed a skill at identifying manipulation when I see it, and this definitely does not pass my "sniff test" for truth. With a simple experiment (such as those you tried earlier on this blog) I think some of these ideas could be more definitely verified.
Feb 26, 2014
Sorry to be a meanie but I think those slides are pretty boring. Especially the first one. To stylized to be interesting.
Feb 26, 2014
Thanks for showing us how the sausage is made.

I predict a 25% bump in views as people re-watch the slides and pass it around with this new lens.

The hot topic in slide decks over the past 10 years has been Presentation Zen. And I think you just showed that there's a new and improved method.

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Feb 26, 2014
My first reaction was you're really over thinking this but as I kept reading there is a lot of interesting ideas. Thanks for taking the time to share this.

"The Benefits of Being Unclear" reminded me of a now infamous post from a former Amazon executive about his days at Amazon.

It's a really interesting post for a lot of reasons, but in the section "Amazon War Story #1: Jeff Bezos" he talks about the best way to make a presentation to Jeff Bezos. I won't quote the whole section here because it's long, but it's definitely worth reading.
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Feb 26, 2014
I wonder how many people took one look at this post and thought "tl;dr" as their own internal comment.

Was this payback for the people you paid to help you with that slide show, to help promote their business? It sure looks that way.
Feb 26, 2014
I was at that conference! I couldn't believe the irony of IBM, the ultimate pointy-haired corporation, inviting the chief satirist of its culture to give a keynote speech. Even more amazingly, all the other keynote speakers were prattling on about the importance of goals, vision and teamwork. Then Scott stood up and told us all of that was !$%*!$%* -- and nobody even commented on the dichotomy!

I'd been secretly hoping that Scott would veer from the script and start lampooning the other speakers or pull some kind of prank like he once did at Logitech. But he is too smart to bite the hand that feeds him.
Feb 26, 2014
Very interesting post, Scott. I do appreciate the explanation of the cognitive science behind the slides. From now on, I will definitely review this post when I am building my presentations.

My general comment on the slides: they were too dark. Light backgrounds tend to be more eye-catching and more upbeat. Even though I knew what was coming, I got the emotional impression that I was watching a eulogy. I kept waiting for a slide that said, "May he rest in peace."

I also found that the multiple fonts and point sizes in many of the slides were more distracting than attention getting. It caused eyestrain and made me jump around a lot to get the message on the slide. I can see how you think that technique may make people pay attention, but it was really exhausting. I suggest that you limit that technique to only a few slides: the ones you want people to focus on.

Back in the era when IBM had 70% of the computer market, they used to have a simple template for any presentation, to wit: "Tell them what you're going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you told them." Reinforcement works.

As to telling us what you were going to tell us, your first slide did that exceptionally well. Unfortunately, that wasn't what you should have been telling us.

From a sales standpoint, you introduced the book too late. I don't think you understood that you were creating a sales presentation, not an informational one. The ideas that Rexi Media used were good ones, particularly for an informational presentation, but lacked some structures and ideas essential to a sales presentation.

I recall reading some of the comments on the slide show. One that really stuck out was from someone who was intrigued by the ideas you presented, UNTIL she realized it was an advertisement for a book from "The Dilbert guy." Then she said something like, "Give me a break." She clearly thought she had been misled by your presentation. If you had introduced your book up front, then built your show around how important the lessons in the book were (rather than disconnecting those ideas from the book until the end), I think your slide show would have been more effective.

One thing non-salespeople think is that there's nothing, really, to sales. Just present your material in an interesting and psychologically-compliant way, and sales will happen.

That's one area where your systems versus goals analogy falls down. Sales and marketing are goal-oriented businesses. You either win or you lose - there's no partial credit. Either people decide to spend some of their disposable income on your book, or they don't.

Your presentation's goal (system?) was to convince people that goals sucked and systems ruled. It did that very well. But it should have been focused on convincing people that they should buy your book.

Next time you want to build a sales presentation, I have two pieces of advice:

1. There are places where goals aren't such a bad thing. A sales presentation is one of them.

2. Run your presentation by a sales professional, particularly one who is an expert in consultative sales. It will give you a much better chance of success.
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Feb 26, 2014
Great post. I first read about the "benefits of being unclear" in Taleb's book Antifragile. Apparently there is some truth behind that, hence, I will try it out in some of my upcoming presentations. Thanks for sharing the thought process behind this splendid presentation.
Feb 26, 2014
Having read the book, Scott does address your point @Znargh. It's not to finely parse the words, but more of the mindset of systems vs. goals. Of course, with weight loss example, there is the general goal of "not weighing as much as you currently do". The technique is to measure interim success based on executing the system, not hitting interim milestones. When viewed this way, you get to be "mostly successful" as opposed to "usually failing" in your daily measurement.
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Feb 26, 2014
I entirely agree that passion, by itself, is insufficient for success, and that a whole host of contributing factors both internal (e.g. aptitude, intelligence, determination) and external (e.g. inherited wealth, acquiring contacts by going to an Ivy League university, parental help and support) significantly improve the odds. (My examples.)

However, while a SYSTEM is clearly one of those potentially helpful external factors for success, what it does NOT provide is a general direction for one's endeavours. You still need a motivating reason to follow a given system (if you choose any at all) -- something your slideshow fails to acknowledge.

It seems to me that you're actually confusing means with ends. For instance, in your weight-loss example you're having it both ways when you talk about the worthlessness of goals. Your system says, in effect, "Eat in accordance with what is known about the nutritional values of particular foods. Your healthy-eating system will then automatically cause you to lose weight, which makes setting a goal to lose ten pounds unnecessary". That's all dandy, but an overweight person still needs to be MOTIVATED to eat sensibly in the first place, even if that motivation is based purely on rational grounds (such as the desire/necessity to avoid a collapse of their health). This implicitly involves at least forming some sort of INTENTION to lose weight -- in other words, a goal...

Or am I over-interpreting your assertion that "goals are worthless"?
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Feb 26, 2014
Your slideshow got more views because most people find online videos intrusive and jarring, whereas a slideshow or webpage is a more pleasant experience (much easier to jump around, pause if interrupted, etc.). Also, people on mobile devices with limited data will avoid video.

Unless I am specifically **looking** for something with sound or video, I steadfastly REFUSE to use any site requiring me to view video content, when another method would suffice.

The surprise here is how high the numbers were for VIDEO - they probably should have been lower.
Feb 26, 2014
Doesn't 'View' just count the number of people who started the slide show or video? Including something to click at the end would tell you how many people finished.

And the geek thing to do is to plot book sales vs. time. Was there a change in slope after the video came out? After the slide show?
Feb 26, 2014
You've stopped making RRN strips? Pity. It seemed you were making progress on making that a decent feature.
Feb 26, 2014
Thanks for posting the video Scott. I was at the presentation and enjoyed it a lot. My colleagues are delighted to be able to see it again. (I'm the one who had a quick chat with you in the hallway after your flight was delayed. Me: "I read your book." You: "Oh, you're the one.")
Feb 26, 2014
Impressive, but I feel mildly manipulated. Also, when I press the red triangle I get a mild electric shock and no peanut.
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