Powerpoint, Neuroscience and Magic by Michael Newman

by Didier Marlier on Sunday March 6th, 2011

Earlier this week I had reason to remember a Management Meeting of a team I was coaching. I had asked this particular team to have a normal meeting so I could observe their dynamics, behaviours and processes. Inevitably there came a time when one of them wanted to use PowerPoint to support her part of the agenda; enabling me to observe a fascinating chain of events. The lady in question was highly professional, setting up her equipment during the break and having a quick run through of her 5 slides to check all the technology was working. Her slides were simple and followed the common principle of ‘no more than 7 bullets per slide’. Having met her before, I knew she was a master of her content.

After the break she started her introduction and I witnessed a 5 minute, highly engaging dialogue. The connection between her and the team was excellent, there was discussion back and forth, and she involved all seven of her colleagues and her boss with eye contact and a warm smile.  Crucially, at this time, the screen was blank. Then, she showed the first slide: A simple heading followed by 4 bullet points, each no more than 6 words. Immediately the attention of the team turned to the slide. It took me about 5 seconds to read the information, probably less for the others as they were familiar with the content. But their attention stayed on the screen; I watched eight intelligent people stare at a screen with less than 30 words on, for 5 more minutes whilst their colleague was talking.

The effect on the presenter was clear; even though she wasn’t committing the classic sins of reading her slides or talking to the screen, her voice became monotone and her pace became slower and unvaried. Her energy was dropping fast, and as a consequence the energy of the audience fell too. Eyes became glazed, heads dropped, some were forcing themselves not to look away (fortunately the team had a ‘no laptops or Blackberries’ rule).

In 5 short minutes, a purposeful energising, engaging dialogue had flipped to the ‘death by PowerPoint presentation’ we all know and hate

In our review session we unpacked the events. The lady was someone who was finding her way in a new role and was in need of reassurance. As an extrovert she needed to feed off the energy of others to be her best, and her high social skills meant she was very quickly able to read the body language and micro-behaviour of others. When a single slide so dramatically stole the attention of her colleagues and boss, it hit her hard and her energy dropped immediately. The group responded to her new state and a downward spiral began.

So how does this link to Neuroscience and Magic? This week I’ve been reading an excellent book ‘Sleights of Mind; What the neuroscience of magic reveals about our brains’ by Stephen Macknik, Susana Martinez-Conde and Sandra Blakeslee. It seems that only now has science has caught up with the techniques that have been employed for centuries by conjurors, illusionists and mind-readers. We are now starting to uncover how our brains receive, process and filter information, and can begin to understand how we can be so comprehensively influenced by a skilful magician. Try this 30 second test to see what we are up against.


There are many other wonderful examples in the book, but the one than relates to the PowerPoint phenomenon is how the Magician is a master at controlling you attention. Even in close-up magic, he or she can make sure you look anywhere but where the real action is; Maknik and his colleagues tell us why:

“Already neuroscientists have learned that attention refers to a number of different cognitive processes. You can pay attention to a TV show voluntarily (top-down attention), or your baby’s crying can draw you away from the TV (bottom up attention). You can look right at what you are paying attention to (overt attention), or you can look at one thing whilst secretly paying attention to something else (covert attention). You can draw someone’s gaze to a specific object by looking at it (joint attention), or you can simply not pay attention to anything in particular. Some of the brain processes are beginning to be understood. For example, you have a ‘spotlight of attention’, meaning that you have a limited capacity for attention. This restricts how much information you can take in from a region of visual space at any given time. When you attend to something, it is as if your mind aims a spotlight onto it. You actively ignore virtually everything else that is happening around your spotlight, giving you a kind of tunnel vision.”

Magicians deliberately exploit this feature of your brain to maximum effect. PowerPoint users often inadvertently exploit this feature to destroy value.

In the meeting I described earlier; it is clear how the introduction of the first slide grabbed the spotlight of attention away from the speaker. Joint attention (as well as group habit and social pressure) made it very difficult for anyone to overtly switch their attention back to the speaker after the 10 seconds it took to process the 30 words on the slide. The drop in her energy made it even harder to regain attention, so it was anyone’s guess where people’s minds were.

Of course, the team were still hearing the words being spoken; they were still getting some information. However, as so many psychological experiments have demonstrated, only 7-15% of the power and meaning of the message comes from the words. 15-25% comes from the tone of voice and 60-75% from the body language. When we cut off so much of the communication bandwidth by using a common ‘communication tool’, not only do we degrade the clarity of our message, but we trigger disconnection and other unhelpful emotional reactions. Recent blogs talk extensively about the need for authenticity in leadership; can people really experience your authenticity when their attention is elsewhere?

The ability to focus our own attention, and direct the attention of others is a critical skill. It impacts on all 3 Leadership Agendas:

Intellectual: If we give each other quality attention, we will more quickly and thoroughly understand the content

Behavioural: If I give you quality attention, when it is my time to speak, you are much more likely to attend to me; behaviour breeds behaviour

Emotional: When I give you quality attention, I make you feel significant (especially if you are my boss, a content expert, or my wife / husband / parent). Significance is a fundamental human psychological need.

Finally here is an example of further unhelpful PowerPoint habits. Have a look how the presenter has to exaggerate movements and amplify his voice to compete for the audience’s attention. The editing of the clip also helps us viewers by frequently moving away from the screen and forcing our attention onto the presenter.

If you’re still wondering about (or confounded by) Pickover’s ESP experiment, then try it again, but this time select two cards. Then run through it once more and notice all the ways your attention is diverted from what is really going on.

Finally, go away and re-write, or maybe even delete, your next PowerPoint presentation

Michael Newman

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