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Present like a pickpocket

Over the last couple of years I’ve been giving a presentation to various groups on how to work with our visual systems of perception and short term memory to better communicate with data. This involves concepts such as the pre-attentive attributes of visual perception, the limits of a person’s working memory and the implications of these for understanding and communicating with data.

So I was intrigued to run across a Ted Talk starring a pickpocket (for entertainment purposes) named Apollo Robbins, who demonstrated for his audience how he and others like him can misdirect your mind long enough to empty your pockets. It was astounding, and as he explained his expert practitioner’s understanding of how this misdirection works, I realized that I had been talking about essentially the same things to people, but in terms of avoiding misdirection of the mind, so that they could perceive the magnitude and meaning of data clearly.

Apollo Robbins uses a metaphorical worker in our heads named “Frank”, in charge of switching one’s mind from one thing to another, as a way of illustrating how our minds become overloaded and basically drop or ignore information, depending on what is coming in and how. As Frank switches files, there are fleeting moments of reduced awareness; blind spots and glitches in what we think we see and perceive.

This knowledge, passed from generation to generation of pickpockets and magicians is now being described in scientific terms. The excellent “Sleights of Mind” by neuroscientists Stephen Macknik and Susana Maritnez-Conde provides a fascinating account of this emerging scientific understanding.

My knowledge of similar principles, related to how we perceive quantitative information visually had come from investigating the writings of Edward Tufte, Stephen Few and Colin Ware, and taking training from Few. Concepts such as the pictorial superiority effect, pre-attentive attributes and Gestalt principles, working memory and data-ink ratio are critical for understanding how to make an audience really see quantitative information well.

I have started to incorporate Apollo Robbin’s YouTube clip in my presentation and in my new course. This brings another line of evidence to the importance of understanding how we perceive quantitative information visually, but also brings a sense of possibility and excitement.

Learning how to present data effectively is a matter of learning some magic. Learn to work with your audience’s inner Frank; they may not know how you create such great presentations of data, but they will know that you do.


1) http://www.ted.com/talks/apollo_robbins_the_art_of_misdirection?language=en

2) Macknik, Stephen L. and Martinez-Conde, Susana, “Sleights of Mind”, Picador, Henry Holt and Co. New York, 2010

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