Presentation Pitfalls #6 – Bent logic

As I was strolling around Paris this week, I came across the kind of film poster ad which annoys the hell out of me. It annoyed me so much that I thought I would capture it and share it with you. (I’m sure the film company won’t mind since it’s a little extra publicity, and while I haven’t seen the film, it might be quite good.)

Now, what’s wrong with this? OK, it may not be the best photo of Ludivine Sagnier who usually looks very attractive, but that wasn’t the problem. I can just about live with the mix of fonts and the fairly ugly yellow colour, since at least there’s a theme which is consistently followed. I also don’t mind that there’s no real attempt to sell the film – we have no idea what it’s about, whether it’s had a good review, or why we should go and see it, other than the two lead actresses and the director, none of whom is a big enough draw on their own. (French cinema is well enough subsidised that it doesn’t actually need to sell many tickets.)

No, the problem here is that the two lead actresses are the wrong way round. The actress on the left is Kristin Scott Thomas, and the one on the right is Ludivine Sagnier. I asked a colleague what he thought I hated about this ad, and he didn’t get it because he didn’t know either of the actresses. (In which case neither of them is going to be a good selling-point for the film anyway.) But for cinephiles like me who know the actresses, it just looks plain daft to see two actresses, each with the other’s name above her head.

Does nobody check this first? What do the actresses think of it? It may be fair to suggest that Sagnier’s name should be the first we see (reading of course from the left), since she’s slightly more of a box-office draw nowadays than Scott-Thomas, but in that case, surely the poster should have Sagnier on the left and not on the right?

In any case, it just looks plain wrong to me and doesn’t inspire much confidence in the quality of the film. I should stress that this is far from the first time this has happened. There have been examples in the past where an actor and actress have appeared with each other’s names on their heads, which would look silly even to people who don’t know either of them.

Right, so what has this got to do with presenting? It’s all about avoiding what I call bent logic. If you use slides which don’t appear logical, they won’t be clear to your audience, and they will pollute your message instead of enhancing it.

Here are some examples.

Right to left

In most Western countries, we are used to reading left-to-right. This means that we will tend to look at the left of a slide first, and follow it to the right (equally, we’ll start at the top-left and work our way down to the bottom-right). So if you produce a slide with a sequence which starts at the right and works its way leftwards, this won’t be obviously logical, and won’t therefore be easy to understand.

All over the place

Equally, if you scatter things all over your slide with no obvious logic, this is hardly going to be clear for people. Perhaps you have too much information on that one slide, and would be better advised to split it into multiple slides.

Mixing positives and negatives

If you are trying to show something positive with a graph, make sure the graph looks positive. The audience will get a first impression from looking at the graph before fully understanding what each axis and item represents, and if it looks negative (even if that shows something improving), that may confuse the audience – another example of bent logic.

Here’s an example: talking about the efforts to reduce the attrition rate (the % of employees quitting in a year) in a consulting firm, the HR department wanted to show how attrition had dropped in 2007.

However, the graph looks negative, and it takes a little moment of cognitive dissonance before the viewer realises what each axis represents, and that things are in fact improving. During that time, they are not listening properly, and consciously or subconsciously they may resent the effort required to understand your message.

Far better, therefore, to switch things around and to talk about retention (the % of employees choosing to stay), which allows you to show an upward, positive trend.

Inconsistency between slides

It is also important to maintain consistency between slides. Just as each scene in a film needs to be taken in the context of what went before it, each slide needs to consider the previous slides, videos, props, key messages, etc.

I recently saw an example of bent logic in a slidedeck which the perpetrator had not noticed – luckily, before he inflicted it on an audience. He had three slides comparing a typical solution with his company’s innovative solution. Each slide used the good technique of putting the solutions side-by-side to illustrate key differences, and each slide showed different aspects. So far, so good. Unfortunately, while the first two slides had the ‘standard’ solution on the left and the company’s ‘innovative’ solution on the right, the third slide then showed them the other way round. The labels were correct (unlike the film poster above!), but the audience would be left with a moment of cognitive dissonance again, because they would naturally expect the solutions to be shown in the same places as before.

My first reaction (and sometimes the first reaction to a slide is the only one you’ll get) was not to read the labels but to look simply at the pictures, and it looked to me as if something was wrong – something was inconsistent and I needed to search to find out what it was – and I then discovered that the solutions had been switched. When I pointed this out to my client, he quickly realised and made the change.

If you are going to try to use parts of your slide for ‘bad’ and parts for ‘good’, at least be consistent. Just as ancient dramatists always had the evil characters entering from stage left (hence the word ‘sinister’ which comes from the Latin word for ‘left’), you should use your slide real-estate in a consistent way. I would recommend having the ‘recommended’ or ‘good’ solution on the right in such a situation, because it is more logical and appears less pompous to point out what’s wrong with the status quo or existing offerings, and then to offer a solution, than it would be to showcase your great solution and then boast about its superiority compared to inferior competitors. Of course, this goes back to the ‘left-to-right’ rule explained above.

RECAP

We’ve seen just a few examples of ‘bent logic’ here. There are countless. Remember, your slides should be simple, clear, and relevant, and if you don’t make it easy for your audience to follow your logic, you’ll fall down on the clarity and your message will suffer. Worse, if they spot things which should have been clearer or more logical, like the error in the film poster at the top of this post, they will respect you less – and therefore they’ll be less likely to accept your message, remember it or act upon it.

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5 Responses to Presentation Pitfalls #6 – Bent logic

  1. Phil, your poster is an example of very common situation, but it is not a mistake or “bent”.

    The order in which actors are named on the poster (and in the credits) is the subject of heated negotiation and wheeler-dealing. Almost always, the highest paid actor is named first, ie on the left, then the names continue down to the newbie right.

    So, if a Harry Potter film poster showed the names (they don’t), it might be RADCLIFFE WATSON GRINT.

    Now, the graphic designer does not want to be bound to this order. Although a poster showing the stars in this sequence is possible (http://bit.ly/8YGxNd), it is an unusual image and would be boring if always repeated. More usually, the main star needs to be more prominently or heroically featured – which often means going in the middle giving Watson-Radcliffe-Grint (http://bit.ly/c9GmLA).

    Put another way, the order of the names is a legal decision, the order of the images a graphical one. And the two do not often match.

    In your French poster (I also saw it in France this week – I wonder if you are nearby?), the designer will have made a decision on where to place the two actresses. He or she will have quickly decided to place the younger actress Sagnier in the foreground, either because she is considered more attractive or because she is the sympathy figure for the intended audience. The question remaining is then where to put Scott Thomas. And this gets into deep body-language and iconography waters.

    The position behind the left shoulder usually feels like “side-kick”, “junior buddy” or “girlfriend”. I think of it as the “Pirate’s parrot” position. An example is Leia in the classic Star Wars poster (http://bit.ly/96qifp).

    The right-shoulder position feels more powerful, and is used when the relationship is more complex, mentorly, or even antagonistic. An example might be Han Solo in the same Star Wars poster, or the Neo-Morpheus relationship in Matrix (http://bit.ly/d3aNqv). This, I guess, is what the Crime d’Amour designer was going for here.

    (We do feel more vulnerable if someone comes at us from the rear right – for right-handers, it means that our powerful right arm is useless for defence.)

    These are not hard and fast rules, and vary enormously based on the shot, pose, facial expression, age, costume etc. But they do work, and they are important to the designer.

    And he has responsibilty to make a powerful poster, no matter what the legal department say about name order.

    All the best,

    Adam
    Actorly type

    • Phil Waknell says:

      Thanks Adam for that very detailed comment – a helpful explanation which confirms what I feared: there are many interests at play here, trying to please everybody except the actual intended audience.

      I have seen countless examples of corporations taking dumb decisions in this way, either lowest-common-denominator consensus decisions or politically expedient ones, but which completely forget the end-customer. It’s then always fun trying to explain those decisions to customers.

      The imagery of the photo is fine, for all the reasons you evoke, but if that ends up with the #1 actress being on the right, then find another way to show their names – for example, in the middle, one on top of the other.

      Why do they even have to mention the names if both actresses appear in large photos? People who know them don’t need to be told their names, and the names won’t mean anything to those who don’t know them. The same is often true of perfume ads nowadays…

      The end result in this case is an actress with another actress’ name on her head, and it looks dumb to me. If a presenter uses slides which look dumb to the audience, no amount of explaining will change their first – and perhaps only – impression.

      It’s an example of the old-but-great maxim: “Take decisions with the customer in the room.”

  2. Phil,

    they need to mention the names because the actresses will insist on it in their contracts.

    I think the poster looks dumb to you because you are used to analysing visuals for their information transfer quality. You have an unusually discerning eye. The purpose of this poster – and the intended audience – is another.

    All the best,

    Adam

    • Phil Waknell says:

      Well Adam, you may be right about me being a special case, although this kind of mix-up got my goat long before I started specialising in communication.

      I’d welcome other comments to see whether I am alone in finding it odd to have the names inversed. For me it’s like showing a picture of a hammer and a saw, with the labels on the wrong tools.

      Perhaps also I can throw it back at you Adam: is it possible that with your inside knowledge of the profession, you instinctively understand why the poster ended up like that, realise it was a logical result, and thus accept it? Maybe neither of us is really Joe Public on this one!

      Can anyone else please weigh in here?

      Phil

  3. Phil Waknell says:

    I found some interesting comments here:
    http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?t=72152

    Seems I’m not the only one perturbed by such name-switching although there seem to be many who accept it as a necessary evil, or as no evil at all.

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