Attention: Part 2

Last month, I commented on the fact that presentations are a fight for attention. I had the pleasure of attending a great lecture today at the Millennial Medicine conference that used the “invisible gorilla” to illustrate a point about attention. This lead me back to the website ( to get more information.

The presenter used a recent NPR article to highlight that we sometimes don’t see what is in front of us.

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Amazingly, when asked to look for subtle signs of malignancy, 83% of radiologists missed the gorilla

Here is another interesting video for any of those that have seen the original “invisible gorilla” video already:

Finally, here is a video of Daniel Simons, one of the researchers, from a 2011 TED talk.

There are many things you can say about these results. Quite simply for me, we have to be aware that attention is not just given, it has to be earned and we must find ways to keep our audience’s attention.

Learning from My Mistakes

So, I was recently asked to give a talk on Accidental Hypothermia. While I was making the talk, I decided to take a short-cut (aka, I got lazy) and put in a clipped portion of a graph from one of the key papers instead of recreating it myself or trying to use my supergraphic correctly.
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Of course, the slide looked great when I was making the lecture, but it projected horribly! I was standing about 1/2 of the way back in the room and I couldn’t read it myself. This got me thinking. How big is the font in graphics like these? Perhaps if I knew how small the font actually was, it would help motivate me from making this mistake again.

So, I cut out a portion of the graphic and decided to use the phrase “impaired consciousness” to test font sizes.

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As you can see, the font in the graphic is only 16 pt. When directly compared to larger fonts, it seems ridiculous to use in any slide or presentation.

Lesson learned.

Deep Thoughts on “Lectures” and the Learning Pyramid

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Ever since I can remember, I have been told that “lectures” are the worst way to for students to learn. I saw a great presentation recently that highlighted the learning pyramid and talked about lectures at the top of that pyramid. For this and many other reasons, lectures have gotten a bad reputation.

The trick is what is meant by “lecture.”

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Essentially, when you look at the pyramid, you see that audio-visuals, demonstrations, and discussions are among the techniques that enhance learning. However, I would argue that great presentations incorporate all of these techniques, and in the right settings, can even get to practice and having students teach other. I think that “lectures” in this setting represent the extreme of purely regurgitating (likely in a monotonous tone) information from a text to the learners. To further emphasize this point, Issa, et. al. has published two papers in the past 2 years showing both short term and long term learning and retention benefits using educational design principles in the presentation.

So, the way I look at it is like this: Presentations can have a range of effectiveness and it is up to us to break the “curse” of the pyramid and make great presentations that optimize learning and retention.


Issa, et. al. “Applying Multimedia Design Principles Enhances Learning in Medical Education.” Medical Education. 2011;45:818-26

Issa, et. al. “Teaching for Understanding in Medical Classrooms Using Multimedia Design Principles.” Medical Education. 2013;47:388-96


When I was growing up, my grandmother would occasionally say, “I’m gonna learn you [insert something I needed to know here].” It’s with that story that I emphasize to my students that learning is not done to others, it is a process that is experienced and leads to a change in behavior, knowledge, or understanding.

Two of my favorite quotes on learning:

“I never teach my pupils; I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.” -Albert Einstein

Learning results from what the student does and thinks and only from what the student does and thinks. The teacher can advance learning only by influencing what the student does to learn.” – Herbert Simon

Color blindness and presentations

According to estimates from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, somewhere around 7% of men and 0.4% of women are color blind. The most common is red-green color blindness. I always wondered whether the presentation rule of “never use red” in a presentation was true. So, I spent the a few hours on the website to find out. lets you upload images to see how they would appear with different types of color blindness.

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So, we can’t tell yellows from reds and greens, but we can still see the BOLD effect in the words clearly.

I decided to try a few of my own slides to see how they project:

These first two are from a lecture I developed before abandoning red altogether. I was very disappointed to find out my orange (2nd pic) suffered the same fate as red.

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Here is the effect in some of my more recent slides.

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So, the morale of the story is that it is likely better to just avoid red altogether, as well as green. However, they can be used with the following caveats:

  1. Do not try to contrast reds, yellows, and greens because they all look the same
  2. Consider using bold, italics, or other effects to give emphasis in addition to the color
  3. Used in isolation, a red or a green will appear yellow to a small portion of your audience. It will still stand out, just not the way you intended
  4. Checking your slides at a site like will avoid creating presentations that inadvertently diminish the learning of a portion of your audience


Howard Hughes Medical Institute (2005). Seeing, Hearing, and Smelling the World/Breaking the Code of Color: Color Blindness: More Prevalent Among Males.