Nigel Holmes at the Presentation Summit 2015

Nigel Holmes at the Presentation Summit 2015

Created: Wednesday, September 30, 2015 posted by at 9:47 am

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After delivering an amazing keynote session during the Presentation Summit 2011 in Austin, Nigel Holmes returned to this conference to present the first keynote of the conference in New Orleans in September 2015.

Nigel began by asking everyone to place a card that had a printed smiling lip over their lips — he then clicked a picture of the audience!


He then shared a humorous video about cheese and how cheese brings up romantic feelings!

Yes, that was humorous. Speaking of humor, Nigel talked about humor, good humor, good feelings, and feelings — and then emotions.

Nigel then shared a quote:

Your intellect may be confused, but your emotions never lie to you.
– Robert Ebert

Nigel shared some thoughts:

The best way to connect with people is to make them smile — not really laugh but just smile.

Humor has a close connection to human emotion.

Nigel then explained how you can save yourself from being eaten by an alligator. He certainly used a visual to explain this concept.


Now, making fun about how you can save yourself from an alligator while you are within the alligator — that may not appear to be too funny to some people! As Nigel added:

But — and it’s a big, heavy “but”, this is not trivializing information as some purists may fear.

He also added:

Here’s the dilemma. Just because it is serious, does it make it authoritative? Just because it is light hearted, does it make it not authoritative?

Sometimes, these situations may lead to unexpected results. A particular scientist was upset when his research was being presented as a cartoonish visual. He was offended that humor was being used with his work. He complained, “You are making fun, you are making fun of my life’s work!” But then, after the visual was published, he had a different opinion. He said, “Now my colleagues can see and understand better what I have been doing all these years!” And yes, the scientist said “thank you”!

Nigel clarified his thought process further:

Humor is not convincing others to be funny, but to be approachable.

He then quoted Confucius:

Tell me and I will forget;
Show me and I may remember;
Involve me and I will understand.
– Confucius, 450 BC

Nigel then asked everyone to do the paralysis test.

Paralysis Test

  1. With your ring finger extended, rest your hand on a flat surface.
  2. Press your hand down firmly.
  3. Now try to lift your ring finger.
  4. That’s what it feels like to be paralyzed.

He showed a hand poster from the New York Times.

Hand Poster from NY Times

He asked the audience to notice that the size of the hand on that page was essentially many times larger than an actual human hand. Why was it larger? To explain this reasoning better, Nigel asked 6 attendees to come forward and participate in a small exercise.

6 attendees participate

He showed them three pictures:

First, they were shown a picture of the facade of the hotel in New Orleans.

New Orleans hotel

He then also showed a picture of the Lascaux caves in France, from around 16,000 years ago.

Lascaux caves in France

Finally, he showed a picture of the Chauvet caves in France, from around 32,000 years ago.

Chauvet caves in France

Nigel then remarked that paintings were not too different 16,000 and 32,000 years ago. So that must have been one long art movement!

Why did Nigel talk about something that was millions of years old? That was because he wanted to explore differences between a million, a billion, and a trillion — especially between a million, a billion, and a trillion seconds.

Nigel used exercises for the participants to make these differences obvious.

Participants make these differences obvious

He also explained differences between a byte and zettabyte.

Bytes and Zettabytes

So why this talk about millions, billions, and trillions — or even a discussion about bytes and zettabytes? That’s because everything relates to context. This context explains and makes one understand better. Context also lets you visualize.

Getting back to context — and talk about millions and billions, Nigel opened up bundles of dollar notes — he actually had a million dollars! Were they real? Let’s leave that to your imagination and get to the context part now! So a million dollars, when stacked above each other in wads would go up a little higher than 3 feet. A billion dollars would be twice the height of the Empire Sate Building. And a trillion dollars may take us somewhere in space?

Millions and billions

Nigel then showed a visual of the moon. He compared the size of the moon to the size of USA or Australia. Nigel also showed a context based graphic that wondered how large other planets in the solar system would be if the earth was the size of a cherry tomato?

Earth is a cherry tomato

Nigel shared some more thoughts:

Context helps bring out the sizes of things and their relations.

You understand something better when it is compared to something you know.

Leave space — the eye can fill in space.

The eye can fill in space

Space creates a method to show something that’s important and directs the eye.

The key to a great information graphic is editing. Editing is not the same as simplifying. In fact, the word clarify is better than simplify.

Simplification means eliminating the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.
– Hans Hofmann

We cram in too much stuff into the spaces we are given.

It’s just not graphics, toothbrushes are complicated too!

Toothbrushes are complicated too

Pie charts may be a no-no now — but here’s a pie chart of a pyramid.

Pie chart of a pyramid

Looking at seemingly different images relaxes the mind. When we see different things, we relax. May be that’s why guitarists make those strange faces?

Guitarists make those strange faces

Nigel then spoke about a rainbow pencil that was made with paper of different colors. Sharpen the pencil and you will end up with lovely shavings as a result.

Pencil shavings

Nigel then showed a gift from his grandson, a carrot sharpener. He then actually used the sharpener to create shavings from the carrot — he gifted me one!

Carrot shavings

Nigel ended by paraphrasing whatever was explored in his keynote session, as shown in this slide below.


Nigel HolmesNigel Holmes moved to America in 1978 to work for Time Magazine. He became graphics director and stayed there for 16 years. Despite academic criticism, he remains committed to the power of pictures and humor to help people understand otherwise abstract numbers and difficult scientific concepts, whether in print or in presentations.

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