Think back over the last few years…
What presenter managed to stand out most in your mind? Who did you think of right away and what did you specifically remember? A story? Profound point? An object lesson?
Sadly, most of us will struggle with this little exercise. After billions of dollars spent on presentation-related tech., tools and soft skills over the years – it would seem memorable presenters (for their delivery and message prowess) are far and few between.
As you read this, maybe you put yourself in the unremarkable category too.
But there’s hope for all who aspire to be the kind of presenter whose ideas actually penetrate the hearts and minds of busy and distracted audiences. Hope that comes in the form of a couple of important principles and what you can do differently in your next presentation to be a voice that stands out at the end of a long day.
Over the years my psychologist friend, Dr. Scott Lee, has been a great resource in understanding what moves us from the mundane to the memorable. The following will give you five practical ideas for helping your big ideas have greater staying power.
It’s the difference between watching a football game and being handed the football and sent onto the field to run the next play. Audiences are perfectly willing to be spectators if we allow them to be. But deep down in their hearts, most really want to carry the ball, even for just a play. They desperately want presenters to take a moment and consider them. They want to be enticed to share their collective experiences with the group – to become a part of the presentation experience, not be simply an observer. But it entails presenters giving up something most are reluctant to relinquish, even for a moment – control. (After all, they’ve got a huge deck of slides to get through!)
Application: Participation can be as simple as asking the audience to share their personal stories on a theme.(Within a framework you provide) It can also take the form of props. In one seminar, I wanted to get the point across of how hard it was for audiences to juggle all the points presenters throw at them during the typical presentation. To illustrate, I hit a single beach ball into the audience with zero instruction and they did what people instinctively do – kept it in the air. One ball, no problem. After introducing 5 more, it was a very different story. Point made without a single bullet.
Frankly, I didn’t count on the chaos created as water glasses got knocked over but the point seemed to stick. Two years later, I had someone recall the exercise but more importantly, remembered the point I was making. What are you willing to risk to get your audiences involved? If the ultimate goal is for people to remember later, how creative can you be to make a point stick?
Audiences also come complete with existing memories – good and bad. And otherwise good presentations can get undone because of some underlying understanding that some audience members share. Maybe it was a promise not kept by management the previous year. A product launch that failed to garner market acceptance or a much touted project implementation that was flawed. Audiences don’t forget these things quickly and occasionally a presenter will stumble into this dangerous minefield.
Whether through ignorance or arrogance, the result is often the same. The presenter thinks the presentation went reasonably well until they get to the Q&A and are bludgeoned by a number of audience members who also manage to poison your impact with those who had no clue. The answer lies in being aware and and also knowing when to “inoculate” our audiences early on to underlying issues.
Maybe you’ve seen the commercial on TV that starts out like this, “How can a bottle of diet pills be worth $139.95?” Honest, that’s the very first thing they say! The reason is that they know if they can get that obstacle on the table from the outset, they have 55 more seconds to make their case. If they played out that little detail at the end, they’d never sell a single bottle.
Application: For presenters, it requires an element of humility. “Last year I stood here at this event and told you we would roll out a product that would change your world. Frankly, our delayed launch caused us to miss an important market opportunity. But I’m here today to tell you why it was well worth the wait.” Defuse major issues early on so you can be heard. It takes courage. It takes planning. But your effort will create more fertile ground for your current message to take root.
Audiences are not typically a very homogeneous group. They come with different expectations, titles and views of the world. They also come with different ways of “filtering” our messages. (It’s a wonder sometimes that we get anything through to them.) Attribution is a way of giving a diverse audience a single, collective identity. This becomes an essential step for moving them all ahead together. And when they find this common ground, it will deepen their collective engagement with your message.
Application: Here’s what that may look like. “I appreciate the fact that you’ve taken time out of your busy day today. And as diverse of a group as you are this morning, we share something in common. Every one of us. We’re all constantly trying to get through to the very busy and distracted people in our lives and it’s a daunting task. By the time you stand there, they’ve sat through meeting after meeting – presentation after presentation. Today, we’re going to explore….”
Whether that was their initial thinking or not, heads begin to nod in agreement and a shared malady begins to emerge. Now by allowing them some “participation” (point #1) time in the beginning for a few audience members to share a tough audience story, other heads in the room nod in agreement. The stage has been set to move them forward in their thinking.
It’s simply a way we move our brains from the intellectual to the experiential in a way that can cause future change in behavior. I remember watching Dr. Lee once as he helped an audience of 300 visualize the ‘perfect presentation day.’ The process took a few minutes as he had them close their eyes in a guided experience. It was a powerful and for many, the first time they had ever “seen” themselves as more than mediocre presenters. This is where change in thinking begins – envisioning a future different from our past experiences.
Application: In your typical business presentation, having your audience close their eyes could be the kiss of death, but the principle is sound. Here’s what it might look like for one company. “Before we start today’s presentation, imagine you are having an issue with a new product you just received. You called customer service and something was different. There was no “press this” or “press that” instructions. (Pause) A real human greeted you pleasantly and asked you about the problems you were having. (Pause) After you finished your explanation, you didn’t get passed off a half dozen times but they personally stayed on the line as they brought other people on to help resolve your issue while troubleshooting resources showed up in your email. That’s the kind of world our software solution creates.”
We don’t go far enough in helping our audiences see past the present. We stay too much in the land of ‘what is’ and take zero time in helping them imagine what could be.
Maybe you’ve heard that for people to remember a message, they need to hear it 8 to 12 times. Psychologists now are telling us that may not be true as often as we thought. They reference a study where 600 undergraduate students participated in a study where they were asked to draw the face of a penny. Over a lifetime, they’ve repeatedly handled them tens of thousands of times but less than 5% could draw the basic elements in their correct locations (incidental impressions). It would seem just repeating something, an impression or a thought, is only part of the equation.
Here are some ideas for helping your audiences easily find their way back to your idea through practical encoding and how your choices impact recall.
Shallowest learning and recall potential – near zero recall.
Data + meaning of data
Improved slightly but still stored in left brain, short-term memory typically
Data + meaning + sensory hook
Touching, seeing or hearing (in a different way) further enhances the experience. Think props, video, tactile, physical interaction. Learning is now also encoded on right side of the brain to improve message retention significantly.
Data + meaning + sensory + emotion connection
Integrating all of the above plus adding an element that connects with the emotion (ie. personal meaningful story) drives it all home. Now, message retention is maximized and recall almost insured. The right kind of repetition during our presentations is a way of creating a well-trodden path to the information so the way is remembered later on.
Application: For example, seek to support your ideas with specific data illustrated through first hand experience story. (Video or in person). Then consider the use of tactile interaction (ie. handling an electronic projector the size of mobile phone). Edward Tufte made a decades long career using these specific techniques in his one-day course, “Presenting Data and Information”.
If there are three major topics in your 60-minute presentation, you may want to do a brief summary of key points at the end of each section. (Psychologists call this “over learning”) Don’t wait until the very end, the path will already be growing cold. If there was a graphical image that related to those points, place the very same image next to the line of summary text. This gives your audience a sensory hook that is the equivalent of a road sign that points the way back. Underscore previously made points (adding meaning).
Conclude your presentation and summarize with the same point and with the same images and close with a story to tie in the emotional component. (Maybe pull out that prop at the end that represented a critical point during the presentation) If your challenge is that there are way too many points to simply summarize… I think you already know the answer to that problem.
Maybe this has been way too much science for you and I get that. It really is so much easier just pounding out some PowerPoint slides and clicking through them in the allotted time frame. But if part of your reason for all the preparation (and anxiety) is that your audience would actually “get” and remember what you say, the science of memory (retention) may very well be one of the more important things you work on this year.
I started with a question and I’ll conclude with one. Are we memorable or forgettable? Can we afford the effort, planning and creativity to be exceptional?
The truth is we can’t afford not to be memorable these days (for all the right reasons).