Did you know that there is a crucial skill to elevate your presentation design that you may acquire from role playing games? That skill is worldbuilding. The concept of worldbuilding is not restricted to RPGs, but it is fundamental for any player and even more important for a game master to create a satisfying gaming experience.

Worldbuilding is the process by which writers and other professional storytellers construct a fictional universe. Be it in the scope of a room or a whole set of galaxies. These constructions provide the set of rules, much like the laws of physics, that govern the narrative events to take place in the world. They also provide the history and context from which the actions of inhabitants of this world derive their meaning in a grander scheme of things.

Why do writers go to great lengths to build fictional worlds? They sometimes even invent whole new languages in the process, like J. R. R. Tolkien famously did for the Lord of the Rings! The answer is the same as to why worldbuilding is so important to presentation designers.

Build the right patterns to communicate

It is because our audiences are human beings. Human beings are, on the whole, one of the most proficient pattern recognition machines we know. Hence, our audience has a very keen sense of when things are off. They spot things that look out of place or contradict the rules that they came to build in their mental model of the universe.

In the real world, it is our shared experience with the laws of physics and our culturally shared experience with of history that enables us to communicate efficiently. Problems of communication largely arise out of situations in which the participants do not share a common mental model. Our shortcuts in communication depend on the assumption that everyone knows the shorthand we use to describe certain things, but sometimes this just is not the case.

That’s why in some situations it makes sense to explicitly rebuild the mental model that everybody has for a given conversation. It certainly is necessary when people sit around a table to pretend they are a band of elves, dwarfs, knights and thieves on a quest to slay a dragon. They are relying on magic to work consistently and not let them down because the rules change without notice.

Recreating the mental model for everyone is also very much helpful for the fine details of a sales conversation when people from different backgrounds come together who may not have the same experience or even share the same business lingo. They are relying on words and images to mean the same to every one in the room.

In presentations we need to make sure that we speak the same language as our audience, which means that avoiding specialized jargon is often a good start. A good start is not enough, however. We want to make sure that the message we mean to communicate is very clear. Nothing should distract or confuse our audience.

That’s why we manage our audience’s attention. Here at BrightCarbon we are quite keen on creating slides and structuring presentations to guide the attention of our audience to the information that is relevant to our message. We take care to present information in a way that leverages the cognitive processes by which human minds process information.

For example: We avoid bullet points like the plague because an audience can not pay attention to what you are saying and to what they are reading at the same time. By introducing information via different channels, visually and verbally, and by carefully managing the sequence by which new information is introduced into our presentation, we help our audience follow our message more closely and remember more of it afterwards.

Attention management and cognitive capacity

One thing that is rarely mentioned about attention management is that it entails eliminating noise obstructing the uptake. When I say noise in this context I do not only mean irritating sounds that make me difficult to hear. I mean all sorts of information that is in conflict with my message or vying for the attention of my audience and thusly competing with my message. Often noise stems from disconnects between our audiences expectations, their mental model of what our presentation is going to look like, and the world we are actually presenting to them.

This is where the concept of worldbuilding becomes really helpful to presentation designers. We manage not only audience attention, but audience expectations. And we achieve that through consistency. We establish patterns that our audience begins to trust once it has become clear to them that these patterns are meaningful structures to guide us through our world. Unlike for fantasy novelists our worldbuilding probably entails very few laws of magic. Instead, our magic lies in the way that we imbue our visual representations with meaning:

We make contrasts meaningful. We take care that whenever something deviates from an established visual experience, there is a reason for why it is different. An internally motivated reason that is, not one dictated by our tools or budget constraints or other external factors. External motivators are just an excuse, really, and not a reason for why slides look the way they do.

Human minds are excellent at finding things that look differently and then wander off trying to rationalize why they are different. Let’s not give them reason to wander off. We as presentation designers have an obligation to establish consistency:

First we create a visual backstory of sorts for the pieces of information that are going to be the protagonists in our world. We also decide on the rules by which those pieces interact. Only then do we move on to introduce the protagonists to the story.

Information that reinforces known material is immediately recognized as familiar because it adheres to familiar patterns. Likewise every piece of information that does not conform to the established set of visual cues signals that there is new information to be processed.

Managing audience attention and audience expectation go hand in hand. Creating a world that sets the stage from which our audience may draw conclusions about what to expect is the key to success. The mental models of both the presenter and the audience can be aligned so that we all know not just what we are talking about, but also what we are looking at. Thanks to solid fundamentals, thanks to worldbuilding that is, there is less noise to distract us and more focus on the message.

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Written by

Vincent Thompson

Principal design consultant

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