Active Audience Mind – Context and Accessibility by Justin S. Kahn

3 11 2009

Theabc1.jpgs  of Presenting

During every moment of your presentation the receiver’s mind is active and unconsciously thinking…”Compared to what?” or “What’s it mean?”  Even if the receiver is sitting there, the mind is actively making comparisons and analyzing the information presented within the context of the presentation and with what information is accessible.  As the presenter, you need to be aware of this active and invisible process.  To convince, you need to provide context and make critical information easily accessible.

When you do this correctly, the receiver’s mind fills in the blank without you having to say anything or even being aware that a blank was filled in.  The receiver get’s the feeling that they came up with the idea.  Because it’s their idea, it’s more credible.

Just like the handwritten characters above…you did not even hesitate to believe that what you saw was the first three letters of the alphabet.  The process of coming to that conclusion was invisible to your conscious mind.  You were unaware of the fact that your mind was actually analyzing the drawing and looking at that picture in the context presented.  Your mind was analyzing material made easily accessible to it.

If I asked you what do you see below?  Without having seen the above, you would quickly say, without any perceived hesitation, “12 13 14.”


In reality, the middle character of both sets of characters is exactly the same.  But, when presented with the information in front of and behind it, in the context presented and with the accessible information available, the mind came to the conclusion that the middle character was part of a series of similar characters.

Here are the characters directly above and below each other.


Just because the image or thought may be obvious to you does not mean you can assume it is for the receiver.  For example, assume you wanted to make the point A 13 C or 12 B 14, the point would have been obvious to you, but the receiver would have been actively creating their own idea about what was seen.

You must look at the information as it is unpacked and think to yourself, with the information I have made available, is the receiver going to jump to the wrong conclusion?  If so, you need to unpack the information differently (another order, more slowly, smaller pieces, etc.) so that the receiver’s own conclusion is the goal you were trying to score.

According to Daniel Kahneman, “an ambiguous stimulus that is perceived as a letter in a context of letters is seen as a number in a context of numbers. The figure also illustrates another point: The ambiguity is suppressed in perception. This aspect of the demonstration is spoiled for the reader who sees the two versions in close proximity, but when the two lines are shown separately, observers do not spontaneously become aware of the alternative interpretation. They “see” the interpretation that is the most likely in its context but have no subjective indication that it could be seen differently…perception is a choice of which people are not aware, and people perceive what has been chosen.”  A Perspective on Judgment and Choice, American Psychologist, September 2003.

Simply stated, once one perceives a certain way, one sees that way.  “Believing is seeing.”

In order to persuade, you must work to unpack the information in an order such that the receiver understands the point without you having to state the conclusion.  For the receiver / perceiver, your presentation needs to be as easy as…




One response

11 11 2009
Victor Medina


You might also want to reference (and comment on) a recent TED talk that focuses on the value of context in processing information. It dealt specifically with the reception of visual information, but it was a very good illustration of the power of context and the way humans are programmed to process information. Here is the iTunes link –

Hope you keep this blog up – I love this stuff!


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