Neuro Presentation Design: How Eye Path Control can dramatically improve your presentations
When you create slides, start thinking about what you want to say. You identify the information you want the audience to capture, and include them in the slides. Most of the information is necessary to the audience, so you keep most of it, and very soon, you realize that your slides are overcrowded.
On the other hand, how many times has it happened that you include all the information that you don’t have the time to tell, directly in your slides?
By doing so, you end up squeezing the contents. You reduce the font size, you reduce the image size and you come up with things like this:
You’ll find yourself giving the speech while your audience will be looking to your slides, and not paying attention to you. However, the slides will appear a complete mess, and this will cause the audience’s eyes to get lost among the contents.
Do you see how you get caught with the same slides you created? It’s not you leading the speech anymore, the slides are. They replaced you!
There are 2 main problems in the described scenario:
- Trying to fit too much onto the slides
- The contents are not organized
Let’s try to tackle both.
Trying to fit too much onto the slides
Having too much content can be a problem. As I said before, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a problem. I know this sounds awkward, being said by a presentation designer, but, as I always teach during my classes, I think that we need to keep contact with reality, and understand that not all presentations are made to be presented.
The lean presentation design principle says (image below):
>> YES! YOU SHOULD SHARE THIS WITH THE WORLD 🙂 [CLICK TO SHARE IT NOW]
However, this does not apply to self-standing presentations. We often use PowerPoint to create presentations that aim to be sent by email. It is not the best solution, because it would probably work better than a written report in Word or, eventually, a detailed email, but this is what happens worldwide every day.
Therefore, if you have a presentation aimed to be presented, the amount of contents in a single slide needs to be reduced as much as possible, ideally to a single key message. On the other hand, if you are working on a self-standing presentation, the amount of content won’t be the main problem.
Finally, it is crucial you never end up creating a full-contents presentation for a speech (causing death by PowerPoint) or an essential contents presentation to be sent by email (incomprehensible presentation).
I’ve been working hard to come up with the matrix above. Keep it in mind, share it with the world and strive to be up to the right or down to the left and everything will be alright!
Contents are not organized
Even though you can prepare slides to be sent, this doesn’t justify you creating disorganized slides. If you send a business proposal to a potential client, you don’t want to bore them. You’d like your client to read the presentation quickly and to immediately understand core messages.
If they like the presentation, they will be probably more likely to follow up and maybe to accept your proposal. So, if you make slides to be presented or to be read, you want the layout to be as effective as possible.
For presentations to be presented, you’ll have only essential contents on your slides. Therefore, if you synthesized them correctly, you’ll have a few elements per slides to organize. However, if you work with self-standing presentations, you’ll have a lot of contents on your slides, and organizing them will be more challenging.
In both cases, you’ll be always able to leverage some presentation design techniques to boost the effectiveness of your presentations.
To do so, I need to tell you more about how your slides are seen by your audience.
How does your audience see your slides?
Let’s suppose you are presenting to an audience, like that shown in the figure below.
In an effective presentation, the audience’s eyes should focus on the speaker and only have a quick glance at the slides. In this way, the speaker will have most of the attention during the speech, and the slides will just support him allowing the audience to visualize the information and to retain them longer.
The human brain is like a computer that only understands images formats. It can retain information, but it needs said information converted into images. The conversion process takes time. Therefore, the longer the conversion process, the less effective the stocking process.
However, if you use visuals to support your messages, you dramatically reduce the effort required to convert contents, and the brain will focus on the stocking process. As a result, the information will be kept for longer.
Visual slides, during the speech, help your audience to remember and allow the rebound of their eyes back to you (Picture Superiority Effect).
If you don’t build slides properly and, for example, you end up creating full content slides for a speech, the audience’s eyes will get lost. Check the example below.
Every ineffective slide will take longer to be analyzed by the audience, and you’ll literally see their eyes going back and forth, searching for what you are saying in the meantime. But humans are not very good multitaskers, and therefore they will soon be lost in the slide and not paying attention to you anymore.
Introducing the reading patterns
Your audience doesn’t necessarily see the slides the same way you expect. Even though it might make sense to you to distribute contents in a certain way, would your audience read the contents in the exact same order you would like them to do so?
According to Steven Bradley, there are 3 famous reading patterns you should take into consideration:
The Gutenberg Diagram is a well-known 4 quadrants matrix that describes the behavior of a reader of full text pages, but it also helps for very lean slides.
According to the Gutenberg Diagram, the reader will start up to the left and then will move horizontally to the right and vertically to the bottom (reading gravity). This will naturally create blind areas up to the right and down to the left. The blind areas are called ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ fallow areas.
When you design the slide, you need to fit the most important contents in the primary and terminal areas. Moreover, you need to choose what you want your audience to check first. You really need to prioritize information.
Suppose you are creating a lean slide for a speech about ‘Made in Italy’, and you start from the initial slide I showed you above. You could simplify it in the following way:
In this case, we can suppose that the audience will first process the typography on the upper left corner and then the image of the coffee.
As a speech dynamic, this slide supports you well. The audience will start from you, then they’ll enter the slide from the top left corner, then, drawn by reading gravity, they’ll see the bottom, and finally, they’ll be back to you.
The Z-pattern is the typical layout humans follow to read texts. Left to right then down to left and finally to the right.
If you chain it you’ll immediately recognize yourself reading a book!
Can you see it? Does this sound familiar to you?
Bradley also suggests that if you stop at the first diagonal and close the path you get the so called Golden Triangle. The triangle defines an area of attention inside of it.
Now let’s learn how to use this new pattern on to your slides. The first, most important, point of attention is that you need to know this diagram gives you the direction of the eyes and the different steps in a clear and prioritized order. However, this does not give you any information about the height of each diagonal.
This is because you manage how this diagram stretches vertically, depending on the contents that you put on your slide. For example, it could be applied to a simple title + subtitle structure as shown in the image below:
Or it could be used to design the entire layout.
As you can see, I didn’t edit previous contents that are already in line with the Gutenberg Diagram, I have just added some details in the bottom left corner where the eye will pass by before going straight to the coffee. I prioritized the Italian Style and I decided to keep the keywords food, fashion and coffee as a detail.
What if the slide were a self-standing slide, so you couldn’t remove or synthesize the text?
You would just need to keep all the text, to introduce a nice and semantically relevant visual and you’ll be done in a matter of seconds!
Look how I designed the slide. The first element you read is the title, then you go to the subtitle and you skim through it. Afterwards you go to the bullet point and you make a quick jump on the image (one quick snapshot is enough for a picture). Of course, it’s hard to be 100% accurate without testing the slide on an audience with specific neuro-marketing tools, but we can imagine that this is what would realistically happen when applying the Z-pattern.
You can immediately understand how self-standing slides require longer to be processed than lean slides. This is okay if you send them by email and you expect your audience to read them, but it would not work if you presented them because, as said, they would steal your audience’s eyes from you for too long.
However, engineering the Eye Path can make the contents appear more organized and can support the eyes to effectively go through the slide. Therefore, in both cases, knowing how to use Eye Path can really make the difference.
The F-pattern has been firstly discovered by Jackob Nielsen analyzing 232 users looking at thousands of web pages.
Eye-tracking visualizations show that users often read Web pages in an F-shaped pattern: two horizontal stripes followed by a vertical stripe – J. Nielsen
The F-pattern suggests that readers start reading the first line and then they vertically descend along the page. They look horizontally for a second time in the middle of the page, creating the F shape effect.
This has been tested on websites. What are the key learnings to apply to your slides?
- The left side is always the most important one because it is where people start reading and where they focus most of their attention
- Users first read in a horizontal movement
- Users skim read contents and this is even more true with slides than with web pages
As you can see, the 3 main learnings are totally in line with what we have seen so far with the other patterns. However, the F-patter adds one more interesting consideration regarding the skim reading that adds value to our design thinking.
Why do reading patterns fail?
Reading patterns are a formidable tool that you can use to design effective layouts. However, nothing is perfect and reading patterns aren’t an exception! When designing a presentation, reading patterns fail most of the time. By failing, I mean that, based on the context, they might not be applicable anymore. There are some situations in which the users just do not follow any of the patterns, and jump from one element to the other with no apparent logic.
When does this happen? Simple, it happens when you create a visual hierarchy on the slides.
Remember: reading patterns predict Eye Path only when a visual hierarchy is absent.
The problem is that you often create visual hierarchy on the slides, just by adding elements to them. The question is, are you aware of the changes you make to the Eye Path when you add elements to the slides? If so, you can clearly break the rules, force the reading patterns and take control of the Eye Path. If your answer is ‘maybe’ or ‘maybe not’, then keep reading [and share this article]!
Let’s see what happens when you create a random slide. Where do your eyes go when looking at the following slide?
To answer this question, I ran some eye tracking test, creating different versions of this slide. Let me take you through the results:
The test started with a setup slide that instructed the users to just look and change slides. On the left-hand side, you’ll see the original slide and on the right, you’ll see the result of the eye tracking.
The users went from left to right and just read the text with a focus on one of the so-called PowerPoints (we’ll see this more in detail later). In this case, the title is bigger than the subtitle, therefore it gets attention first. Then there is no other hierarchy, so the eyes just follow the Gutenberg pattern. What do you think happens on the “Italian style” slide?
The result is a confused path that focused the attention on the black text. This probably happened because the text is always the first thing people read and, compared to the title, it has a stronger contrast.
Since the title should be the first thing I wanted the users to read, I decided to make it bigger and changed the color to red, in order to give it more contrast than the text. Let’s see what happened:
As expected, the title gets more attention and it gets it first! So, take note, contrast can alter the Eye Path.
The slide still had a problem, because after the title, the eyes were lost. I have some text I want the users to scan, so I need to reorganize the bullet points, creating 2 reading levels. Also, there are too many images that confuse the eyes and do not add any value to the meaning.
After creating a visual hierarchy for the bullet points and reducing the images, the result was outstanding! The users started from the title and then focused their attention on the text. A vertical scanning of the keywords and finally a quick check of the image followed. This works better than the previous slide, and I kept all the text. However, the more information the user must process, the longer it will take per slide. If you are preparing lean slides for your speech, you could go even further with a full redesign (as shown below). Let’s see what happens when you completely redesign the slide:
With the redesign, users checked the title first, then they jumped on the image, and finally scanned the 3 keywords I selected to support the message. The main difference? They processed the slide 10 times faster! This shows that redesigning the slides allows you to improve the processing time so the slides fit better for a speech, as they won’t steal the attention from you as a speaker.
With all these examples, you learn that putting elements on the slides alters the Eye Path of your audience. Moreover, if you introduce a visual hierarchy, you can address the audience’s eyes towards a desired path. Finally, it is fine to break the standard patterns if you are aware of the effects and the consequences of your choices.
Start controlling the Eye Path
Forcing the standard patterns and controlling the Eye Path demonstrates to be a very effective technique that can optimize the processing time of every slide: lean slides and self-standing slides. But how do you control the Eye Path? Let me show the top 8 techniques design teaches us to control the Eye Path for presentations.
The design guru Robin William describes 4 principles as the pillars of design in her book The Non-Designer’s Design Book.
The distance between each element on your slides defines their relationships. Often, if elements are close, they are probably related. This can instruct the eyes to treat a specific area of contents in a specific way. Take a look at the following bullet point:
It appears disorganized. You know something is wrong and you struggle to process it. Why is that? Because you are forced to analyze the points separately since they are split by random distances, so you don’t understand which goes with which.
Now let’s quickly stack them vertically. PowerPoint doesn’t allow you to quickly stack items, so I’ll have to use the MLC PowerPoint Addin to do so:
- CTRL+A I select all the text boxes
- In the MLC Ribbon, I choose the stack vertical function
Now check the difference compared to what you had before:
The slide naturally appears easier to process, so to understand. It will take less time and your eyes are subconsciously instructed to relate all the points of the bullet and rank them as peers. This tells you how to process the data and you won’t get lost.
Every item on a slide needs to be aligned with some other element. Imagine like there were invisible lines that link items to each other. In the following situation, every text box is aligned on its own, ignoring the others:
Your eyes have probably gone back and forth to try to process the contents of the slide, causing you unnecessary stress. Align the textboxes altogether, and you’ll see that it will suddenly work much better:
If you had 2 separated blocks of points (proximity principle), keeping them aligned would allow you to show a relationship between them and to keep the slide more organized:
In your mind, this will sound like: “you have 2 contexts, described by 3 points each and both the context refer to the same topic.” Do you see how you are starting to create the first reading lectures?
The famous photographer Conrad Hall would say that, “Contrast is what make the photography interesting.”
This finds application in presentation design as well. Contrast is probably the most important design principle, because it allows you to create points of attention on your slide. It also allows you to prioritize contents and create the steps for the Eye Path.
You have many ways to introduce contrast in your slides:
Uppercase vs Lowercase to create contrast
Reworking the previous slide, just seen in the alignment principle, you could want to reorganize the contents in a more meaningful way. For example, 3 sub-groups to which you could give a name:
As you can see, this intervention introduces a new reading level. The uppercase titles tend to get noticed before the points in the bullet. The design suggests to your eyes that reading the titles, you’ll have a first overview of the contents and then, if you like, you could get deeper into detail. The alignment principle creates a relationship between the titles, so it works complementarily with the contrast principle to constitute this new reading level.
Create contrast bolding the text
The previous slide was not bad, but the use of more contrast could improve it. Let’s give more contrast to the titles by bolding them:
What do you think? Is it better? Is it enough, or could we do more?
Combine different font families to create contrast
Typography is a deep and interesting domain for designers. The way we get in touch with this fabulous world is through this apparently disorganized full list of fonts.
There are many different opinions on how to categorize fonts and different schools of thought have created different families to group them. However, all I need you to know for now is the difference between serif fonts and sans serif fonts.
Serif fonts are more refined and help the eyes reading letter by letter more comfortably. This is the reason why they are largely used for books. Sans serif fonts instead have a straighter look and feel and a stronger impact. Therefore, we use sans serif fonts when designing presentations.
The 2 families of fonts can be used differently, to contrast each other.
Big contrasts small
If we wanted to only keep one font on the presentation, but we still want to enhance the contrast between the titles and the bullet points of the previous, slide we could resize the text.
In this case, the font is the same but the size is different, and this creates enough contrast to put the text on a secondary reading level.
Colors – the most ancient way to create contrast
Since the era of time, color is the easiest way to create contrast between items:
Greying the bullet points, I’ve just sent them to the background and this allows the titles to better stand out.
In this case, I strengthen the titles, giving them more importance through a full black background.
Colors are a powerful technique to create contrast. Using them might look very simple, but it is often more complicated than you think. Why is that? Simple! Because not all colors contrast each other. So I’m going to ask you, “How would you find the color the most contrasts the one you are using?”
Take this rule. “On a color wheel, complementary colors maximize the contrast.”
My recommendation about colors is to always use darker colors for the backgrounds (secondary reading levels) and brighter colors for the foreground, because the latter tend to stand out better and it often gives the feeling that they are about to come out of the screen.
This principle stands as the basis of all good presentations, as this is what makes the presentation consistent. Repeating colors, elements, fonts, etc. allows you to create a sort of fil rouge across your slides, and the presentation will look more organized and easier to process.
Imagine if in the previous slide, I used 3 different colors to highlight the titles:
Technically speaking, I’ve correctly applied the principle of contrast, the alignment and the proximity, but the slide looks messy. The 3 titles should be related, but something tells you they are not. The titles stand on the same reading level, so they should be treated the consistently. Therefore, the following design would work much better:
You could create repetition (or similarity) playing at different levels:
I showed you the effect of repetition on just one slide. Consider that this principle rules the presentation. Be consistent when you develop your slides and consider each of them as part of a whole presentation. Respect the guidelines from the top to the end.
Robin William references the 4 illustrated principles as the basics of graphic design. I want to add some more visual hacking techniques learned from my experience and from the digital world, that you can easily use to create trigger points and to focus the attention to the audience.
Look where they look
Imagine you are walking in the street. There are many other people walking in the opposite direction, as it is midday and everybody is out for lunch. All of the sudden, the people in front of you, coming towards your direction, stop and begin staring at the sky. What would be your first reaction?
If you were wondering what they were looking for in the sky, then you are among 99% of the human population.
Humans tend to be influenced by the glance of the others. Look at the following slides, which one do you think is more correct?
Alternative “A” looks weird, it gives you a sense of confusion. The girl is looking outside the slide and not to the key message, so it takes your eyes away. Alternative “B” instead leverages the presence of the girl to play an important role: rebounding your eyes towards the key message.
Have you noticed how powerful the glance of a person on a slide is? I’ll tell you a secret… the same is true also for animals!
Recently, my squad has been very busy with the hiring process of a new designer for my agency. During the selection day, we ask the candidates to show their skills, redesigning some slides that we brief them.
One of the candidates came up with the following design:
Let’s look at it with your new eyes: contrast works quite well, repetition is ok as all the arrows and the icons are related through the same color, proximity is working as every icon is close to its arrow, and alignment could not always be respected because the icons are placed on the map on relevant places. However, this slide doesn’t work. Why is that?
It doesn’t work because those small orange arrows push your eyes in all directions, with no priority or apparent logic. Arrows are what I call a directional item: objects that have the power to direct the eyes to specific parts of the slide.
Finally, arrows can be very powerful, but you need to be aware they alter the Eye Path so, use them wisely!
Rule of thirds
The rule of thirds is a simplified and applicable version of the golden ration. Some artists and architects believe the Golden Ratio makes the most pleasing and beautiful shape for more than 2000 years.
To apply the golden rule in your PowerPoint slides, the best way is to build the rule of thirds grid:
This grid gives you 4 points of intersection named “the PowerPoints”! Those 4 points are focal points for everybody. If you notice professional pictures, for example, never show the main subject in the middle, it is always a bit on the left or on the right. This happens because the attention is voluntary brought to the subject by positioning it on the PowerPoints.
This means that every time you need to create slide and you want to make sure your message will be seen, you just need to position it close to one of the PowerPoints. Moreover, based on what I show you about reading patterns, we can assume that the most important PowerPoints (the first to be read) are those on the left. Check some of the slides from the MLC Training Academy:
Now it’s your turn! How to get the exact grid in PowerPoint? Follow this procedure:
- Create an empty slide
- Insert a 3×3 table
- Stretch the table to fit the slide (this works in 16:9 and in 4:3)
- Activate the guides from the view Tab (Unzoom – CTRL + Mouse scrolling to manage the guides more comfortably)
- Drag and drop the vertical and the horizontal guides overlapping the table lines and you’ll get the first PowerPoint
- To duplicate the guides, hold the CTRL button on your keyboard and drag again the guides
- Remove the table and enjoy the rule of thirds!
When you create slides, you need to make sure the slides hit the original communication objective. If you are creating slides to be read (self-standing), then they’ll need to pass the message to the reader without any speaker. If you are preparing the slides for your speech, then you need lean slides, and they will probably be incomprehensible without the speaker.
In any case, you need to optimize the time the users need to process your slides. To do so, you need to be aware of traditional reading patterns and how those pattern behaviors change when you insert elements on your slides.
Learn how to control the Eye Path and start engineering effective slides for your users.
Is there some technique you use and you would like to add? Comment here below.
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