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Unforgettable presentations

By Focus7 min read

Imagine you never forgot anything. How great would that be? Wrong. A perfect recall would be akin to madness. Forgetting is one of the most useful things the brain does. In a world where we are bombarded by so much information, so many experiences, forgetting is one of our best ways of filtering the useful and relevant from the not; the interesting from the dull.

Now imagine you’re standing in front of a room full of people as forgetful as you. The simple fact is that few people, when designing or delivering a presentation, give their audience the credit they deserve: they are world class forgetters. This blog is about simple strategies you can employ to get your messages remembered. Having interesting and relevant content is clearly important in making a memorable presentation; but it certainly isn’t everything. You don’t have to become more confident, extrovert or funnier to make more of an impact either. Simply play to the strengths of the brain – or more specifically the Working Memory – and you’ll create lasting memories.

Working memory has four elements: a central executive and three slave systems with horrible names (phonological loop, visuo-spatial sketchpad and the episodic buffer). Each element has preferences; things that arouse it more. Arouse them sufficiently and you’ll create enough of a neurotransmitter called glutamate to make a memory. Bingo! You’ve succeeded.


The Central Executive: Attention

The Central Executive is summarized in a single word: attention. Unless you have the full attention of the brain, you will not be remembered. The problem with attention is that there are so many competing demands for it at any time, but fail to grab it, and you’ll simply be blah-blah-blahing at a sea of politely nodding blank faces. I have a 30 second rule. I do something unexpected or make an unexpected request within the first half minute of any presentation. Why? The novel or unexpected causes the anterior cingulated cortex to fire. This is the brain’s error-detection mechanism. The message your audience picks up is that they cannot fully predict what will happen in the presentation, so they had better pay attention. This doesn’t have to be crazy. It might be as simple as starting talking from the back of the room; asking everyone to look under their chair (for something you placed there before the presentation); or standing up and doing something relevant (maybe just shaking hands). It matters less what you do, than you consciously break the norm in some way.

Ever found that you remember routes much better when you were driving than when you were in the passenger seat? This comes to the second principle of attention: our attention naturally focuses when we are doing something. No matter how wonderful an oration you are giving, if your audience is in a passive role, like the passenger in a car, their attention is less strongly focused. Every presentation should be sprinkled with activity, where people have to engage. Ask reflective questions (and then pause); give people time to discuss with their neighbour; ask people to write something down. For example, the NHS (the UK Health Service) found that patients are nearly 30% less likely to forget appointments when asked to write down the date and time rather than simply being given a pre-written appointments card.


Phonological Loop: Words

The phonological loop is the brains short-term store for words and sounds it hears. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you how difficult listening is (and I’m not saying that just because I’m male). Words arrive quicker than you can process them. To convert these sounds into memories, the listener has to interpret what is being said and summarise it for themselves – and in doing this they have to switch off their attention to the incoming new words, missing stuff. You need to make life easier for your audience.

I used to work with Dell. They had a principle for presentations called ‘Answer First’. The idea is that rather than building suspense through your presentation until you finally reveal (to trumpet blasts) your killer idea at the end, tell the audience your idea – your central message – right at the start. Psychologically this works really well. Firstly, it’s this idea you want people to remember and you probably have their attention most at the start. More fundamentally though, by telling people ‘the answer’ you are removing some of the hard work needed to process, interpret and summarise what you are saying. They effectively know the punch-line, so what you say after is just filling in the blanks. This means they can listen to more words.

Once you have your one big idea which you present at the start, repeat it a lot (and key elements of your argument). We know the phonological loop thrives on repetition. Don’t feel the need to constantly entertain by keeping every word fresh. Repeat, reinforce and re-state. And don’t say a lot. If you think of a scale of how much content you should include. At one end are all the things you want to say because you they are interesting and they make you look clever. At the other end are all the things people are able to or want to take in. There is a huge gap between the two points. Think what you want to say and halve it, and repeat it.


Visuo-Spatial Sketchpad: Images

The visuo-spatial sketchpad (the VSS for short) is where images are held for processing or forgetting. Like most of the Working Memory, the VSS likes novelty and simplicity. Keep any visuals varied: use different colors and styles. Clearly you don’t want your presentation to look a mess, but when you hit your key slides, you might do them with a different background i.e. change white to black.

The biggest mistake people make in presentations comes from a misunderstanding of the use of visuals like powerpoint. People often mistakenly think the presentation is the slide deck. The presentation is what you say, the visuals are there to support you. Let’s take the example of a presentation where there is a lot of text on the slide, or a complicated data table, and the speaker is also talking. The Working Memory cannot deal with both the Phonological Loop and the VSS being hammered at once, it feels over-whelming, so the listener switches off or at best scrambles to make sense of all they take in. The rule should be simple: either you’re talking or the slide deck is. Not at the same time. If you have a quote or text you want people to read; shut up!

Use your slides to help the listener summarise what they are hearing, making it easier to remember. A slide with a single word on can powerfully reinforce what you are saying. A strong and relevant image can do the same thing. Done correctly, your words stimulating the Phonological Loop and the image firing up the VSS will synchronise and you’ll create a memory.


Episodic Buffer: Connections

The process of learning is a process of making associations between existing memories and new information; of weaving what you experience into a meaningful whole; a story. The episodic buffer is a key focal point for this, looking explicitly for the connections. Your job is to help people make those connections. Refer to experiences they may have had (‘Like last year when…’), ask questions to have them relate your content to what they know already (‘This is similar to what we already call…’). Most of all, the episodic buffer loves stories. Stories work at visual, verbal and emotional levels; they convey lots of information and they are interesting. Give anecdotes, share examples, paint scenarios; tell stories.

In a far-away land aboy was helping his father sell carpets in the market. In truth he was far more interested in what he saw and heard than in selling. He wandered through the stalls, watching, smelling, touching and tasting, but most of all, listening. He loved to hear the stories people had to tell: stories of life and of love, stories of their day, funny stories and imaginary stories. He listened, he pondered, he learned. Over time he took each of these stories and wove it into a beautiful carpet.

One day, he sat down on his carpet in the market. The threads he had woven started rising around him, entwining with other threads making beautiful new patterns, wondrous new stories. As patterns emerged, he told what he saw. Crowds arrived, enthralled at his stories; their stories. He had created memories.


People are built to forget, so anyone who can deliver messages that are remembered has a huge advantage.

How will you create memories?

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