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Fast v slow thinking

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Those of you who've attended my seminars know I'm almost obsessive on the subject of simplifying data and slides. You might think it's because I simply prefer the aesthetics of pared down, simple slides but it's not. I prefer them because they are more effective.

To fully understand why this is, we need to understand a little about how the human brain works. The brain actually uses two completely different processes for thinking. Most of the time it uses a quick, rather slap-dash one which is intuitive and is perfectly suitable 90% of the time. In the other 10%, when it faces a situation that requires rather more brain power, it calls on the second process, which requires concentration and effort. For the sake of simplicity, I'll call these two different processes 'fast' and 'slow' thinking.

This has significant implications on the way we should structure our presentations and slides, so let's look at the two processes in more detail:

Fast thinking is intuitive, automatic and involuntary. At the risk of sounding slightly tongue-in-cheek, you do it without even thinking. It requires no effort, and you can be doing something else at the same time (e.g. holding a conversation). We use it automatically as we go about our everyday lives.

Some of the things we use fast-thinking for include:

  • Recognizing perspective, i.e. which of several objects is the furthest away
  • Knowing when our own language is being spoken
  • Orienting ourselves to the source of a loud noise
  • Doing basic calculations such as 2 x 2
  • Immediately recognizing simple printed words
  • Cooking a simple meal
  • Reading a simple novel
  • Driving a car on a quiet road
  • Interpreting someone's body language
  • Picking up hostility in someone's tone of voice
  • Completing the phrase "too many cooks spoil the . . ."
  • Watching TV
  • Recalling that the capital of the UK is London
  • Reading the sports pages of the newspaper

All this is perfectly fine for calculating 2 x 2. But how about 36 x 27? The fast-thinking process immediately tells you it's a maths problem, and that it's probably within your ability to solve (although you might need a little time to do it). You also intuitively know the answer isn't going to be between 100 and 200, or over 1,000. But a precise answer doesn't leap to mind. So you call up the slow-thinking process to help you out.

To arrive at the answer you'll have to concentrate, think of nothing else and go through a series of relatively complex mental steps, momentarily storing information in your head while you do the calculation, and keeping track of where you are. It requires effort and concentration. You certainly won't be able to hold a conversation whilst doing it. And although you won't be consciusly aware of it, your body will also be involved. Your heart rate and blood pressure will increase (only slightly, but measurably) and your pupils will dilate.

Some of the things we use slow-thinking for include:

  • Counting the number of times the letter 'f' appears in this article
  • Playing 'snap'
  • Looking out for a familiar face in a crowd
  • Parking in a small space
  • Memorizing a telephone number
  • Searching our memory for animals that begin with the letter 'l'
  • Making a turn against heavy traffic
  • Performing complex calculations (e.g. 36 x 27)
  • Learning a foreign language
  • Studying for an exam
  • Bracing ourselves for a starter's pistol at the beginning of a race
  • Filling out a tax form
  • Following a complex argument
  • Playing Cluedo
  • Completing a Sudoko puzzle

While fast-thinking runs automatically and can't be switched off (if you see a word in a language you're familiar with on a screen, you'll read it. You can't not do so), slow-thinking is kept in standby mode until it's needed. When fast-thinking runs into difficulty, it calls upon slow-thinking process to help out. It's a division of labor that is very efficient and works extremely well.

Why do we normally use the fast-thinking process instead of the slow one? Because deliberate, concentrated, analytical thought consumes a lot of energy. And tens of thousands of years of evolution have taught our bodies to conserve energy whenever possible and expend it only if we really, really have to.

Unless we are extremely motivated to do something (e.g. study for an exam) we only have so much mental energy to devote to any particular task. Performing a complex mental calculation might be fine for 20 seconds, but can you imagine doing it for several hours? Nobody but a maths prodigy could do it. And we can all remember how physically draining prolonged periods of studying were at college.

Once your brain starts to hurt with a mental task (a figure of speech by the way; there are no nerves in the brain to recognize pain, so it can't happen in the literal sense; if your head hurts it's probably because of eye strain or tension in your neck), you simply think 'this is too hard' or 'not worth the effort'. And you switch off.

The slow-thinking process closes down, and the task is left unfinished. Which isn't the end of the world when a crossword is abandoned uncompleted, but what about in the middle of your presentation?

Because THIS is what happens when your presentation isn't logically organized and easy to follow, your argument is rambling or your slides are too detailed or complex. Your audience will attempt to follow you for a while, and then after a bit, think 'no . . . this is just too hard' and simply switch off. You've lost them. Their attention wanders to something else (maybe they start to check their emails). And you might not get them back.

Your objective is to keep the audience in fast-thinking mode 90% of the time. Because every time you force them to switch to slow-thinking for more than a couple of minutes, you risk losing them.

So what can you do to ensure this doesn't happen?

1. Make sure your presentation has a definite structure with a logical flow and is easy to follow.

2. Explain this structure to them at the beginning so they know 'where they are' in the flow at any particular point.

3. Give them a compelling reason to put in the effort and pay attention (see Answering "What's In It For Me?" - The Importance Of Having A Compelling Audience Benefit (C.A.B.)).

4. Make sure they never have to ask 'why's he telling us this? What's this got to do with his subject?' Constantly relate things back to the CAB using hooks such as, 'Why is this important? Because . . .' or 'Now you might be thinking, "What's this got to do with X?" Well . . . this is what . .'

5. Make your slides easy to read. Bold, dark colors out of a light background and a large enough font to be legible. Avoid strange color schemes, CAPITAL LETTERS and multiple fonts.

6. Avoid 'fancy' language in an attempt to sound intelligent or professional. Use simple sentences a 12-year old can understand (see 'How to sound less formal and more normal').

7. Simplify your slides. Only include the data that is necessary to make your point. If it's not really needed, take it off! Don't include it 'just in case someone might ask a question about it' (see How To Avoid The 'Data-Dump' : Keeping Your Slides Simple).

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