How Google’s CEO Creates Brain-Friendly Presentations

Google’s Sundar Pichai gives a master class for creating simple, engaging presentations.

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BY Carmine Gallo - 24 May 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Google CEO Sundar Pichai recently announced that Google is "rethinking all our products" as it moves from a mobile-first world to an "AI-first" one. Pichai's presentation at the company's 2017 developers conference also reflects a rethinking of traditional presentation style.

Senior managers and executives at Google have told me that visual storytelling plays an important role in getting their message across. In fact, Google's own employees are being trained to present in a bolder, fresher style--less text heavy and more visual.

"Since stories are best told with pictures, bullet points and text-heavy slides are increasingly avoided at Google."

Pichai's slides are remarkably uncluttered. The first thing you'll notice in his presentation is the large amount of white space on each slide. Just as professional ad designers avoid filling up an entire page with text, Pichai doesn't clutter his slides with extraneous words or numbers.

One researcher concludes that the average PowerPoint slide contains 40 words. From the beginning of Pichai's presentation, it took about 12 slides to reach 40 words. The slides were mostly photos and animations. When text did appear, it would show up as a few words to describe the photo or image.

For example, Pichai's first slide has 7 logos of Google's primary products (search, YouTube, Android, etc) and the following text: 1 Billion + Users. The point of the slide is to explain that Google's products each attract more than one billion monthly users.

The brain can't do two things at once

Pichai and Google's slide designers are creating brain-friendly presentations. Cognitive scientists say it's impossible for us to multitask as well as we think we can. The brain cannot do two things at once and do them equally well. When it comes to presentation design, we can't read text on the screen and listen to the speaker while retaining all of the information. It can't be done.

University of Washington biologist John Medina has done extensive research into persuasion and how the brain processes information. His advice is to burn most PowerPoint decks and start over with fewer words and more pictures. According to Medina in his book, Brain Rules, "We are incredible at remembering pictures. Hear a piece of information, and three days later you'll remember 10 percent of it. Add a picture and you'll remember 65 percent."

If you want to create visually interesting slides, less is more. Slide design guru, Nancy Duarte, recommends following a 3-second rule. If viewers do not understand the gist of your slide in 3 seconds, it's too complicated. "Think of your slides as billboards," says Duarte. "When people drive, they only briefly take their eyes off their main focus, which is the road, to process a billboard of information. Similarly, your audience should focus intently on what you're saying, looking only briefly at your slides when you display them."

When is the last time you saw a billboard sign with a list of bullet points? Bullet points are the easiest design to create on a PowerPoint slide, and the least effective.

In his book, TED Talks, Chris Anderson writes "Those classic PowerPoint slide decks with a headline followed by multiple bullet points of long phrases are the surest single way to lose an audience's attention altogether...when we see speakers come to TED with slide decks like this, we pour them a drink, go and sit with them at a computer monitor, and gently ask their permission to delete, delete, delete."

According to Anderson, each bullet point becomes its own slide. A bullet point might become one sentence on a slide or replaced entirely with a photo. In Pichai's Google presentation on AI, slide number five carried the theme. There were five words on the slide: "Mobile first to AI first."

Pichai's slide obeyed the TED rule--delete, delete, delete. It works for Google. It will work for you.