Quick: how many 3’s in the block of numbers?

Let’s test our cognitive skills today..


This summer, I’ve been reading up on storytelling and data visualization.

Hit pay dirt with a book called  Storytelling with Data: A Data Visualization Guide for Business Professionals.

One of the topics is how to leverage pre-attentive attributes – visual cues that can influence what information catches a reader’s eye on a slide or chart … think: “shiny objects”.

To demonstrate the concept of pre-attentive attributes: Observe the block of numbers below … how many 3’s are there in this block of numbers?


And, the answer is …


Of course, the answer is 6.

No big deal, just a simple counting exercise. right?

Still it required “cognitive load” … you had to work your way through the chart to read and count the 3’s.

If you’re like most people, you started in the upper left-hand corner, read across the row counting the 3’s, then moved down to the next row, etc.

That’s a lot of work.

Let’s make some simple changes to the display of numbers, asking the same question: how many 3’s?



The answer is still 6.

But, it required a lot less work, right?


Because the 2nd chart leveraged a pre-attentive attribute: color intensity … black is a more intense color than gray … so the 3’s – the shiny objects – popped out and the other numbers faded to the background.

Our brains pick up on that with minimal effort.

So what?

When you’re crafting slides and charts, think about pre-attentive attributes.

Use a shiny object  to set a reader’s entry point to your slide (or at least, predict where the entry point will be) … and then gently lead them around the slide’s other content with visual cues like connecting lines and pathing arrows.

You’ll be able to increase the odds that readers process your information in the logical sequence that you intend … and reach the same conclusion that you did.


Source: Cole Nussbaumer Knaflic,  Storytelling with Data: A Data Visualization Guide for Business Professionals, Wiley



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