We all know it’s important to be engaging when delivering a presentation, but that’s easier said than done. Understanding some of the neuroscience behind engagement can help.
Your boss has just asked you to present the latest results to the entire department. The idea is daunting, but not because you feel nervous in front of a crowd, but because you know that no one really cares about the company results. Everyone is just there because they have to be, including you.
So, how can you make presenting more than just a ticking-a-box exercise and actually add value? These two experts have a few ideas.
Understand how the brain works
If you had a dollar for every time you sat in a presentation letting your eyes slowly dry up as you stared at jargon words like ‘bottom line’ and ‘actionable’ on a PowerPoint, you’d probably have enough money to retire early.
Often the presenter knows they’re losing you. So, in a bid to re-engage the audience, they play around with their tone of voice and perhaps try incorporate an anecdote. They’ve used some “fun fonts” and alternate between different coloured backgrounds to keep things visually appealing.
It turns out they’ve done double the amount of work needed to, because the human brain can only properly take in one form of information at a time: visual information or oral information.
In his new book, ‘Stop Talking, Start Influencing’, author and neuroscientist Jared Cooney Horvath explains that there are three areas of the brain that allow us to interpret and understand speech:
- The auditory cortex which processes the characteristics of incoming sounds (pitch, volume etc.) This appears on both sides of the brain, meaning you’re able to hear more than one thing at a time.
- The Broca/Wernicke network which comprehends incoming sounds. This only appears on one side of the brain, meaning information collected through both sides of your brain – through the auditory cortex – eventually gets funnelled to this one place. So you can listen to the lyrics of a song that’s playing on the radio and hear the words your friend is saying to you, but you can only comprehend one.
- The left inferior frontal gyrus which takes this bottleneck of information and determines which part to block out and which part to send through the Broca/Wernicke network.
“Any information that does not immediately make it through the bottleneck disappears completely – there is no backlog or waitlist. All oral speech blocked by the left inferior frontal gyrus is, for all intents and purposes, gone for good,” writes Horvath.
So, if one of your audience members starts listening to the incessant whispering of one of their colleagues during a crucial part of your presentation, you can safely assume they’ll never, ever remember that truly amazing point that you made.
While the eager might feel the need to take notes during your presentation, you should encourage them not to. Horvath says there are two types of note taking: ‘shallow’ (writing down as much as you can) and ‘deep’ note taking (a mind map that identifies interesting themes/ideas/follow up points etc.).
While ‘shallow’ note taking doesn’t cause a bottle up in the Broca/Wernicke network, it also doesn’t contribute much to the retention of information. ‘Deep’ note taking can cause the bottleneck to occur, but it also allows for better understanding of the parts that have been written down. “You may learn less, but you can expect to learn better,” says Horvath.
So before you begin your presentation, let people know that you’ll hand out summary notes at the end or allow them to record your presentation. That way, they can sit back and take it all in.
“When you create tension you make people uncomfortable, and when people are uncomfortable they want to do something about it.” – Shane Michael Hatton
Get them out of their own heads
While you might consider reading to be a silent activity, Horvath says that up until the 7th century, reading was done aloud. He refers to an old form of writing known as scriptura continua where there are no spaces or punctuation marks throughout text; it’s hard to comprehend when read silently to yourself but much easier said aloud. Fun fact: Horvath says spaces were added between words in the 8th Century by Irish Monks.
To give you a sense of this, quickly run your eyes over the following sentence. Then try reading it out loud.
Which was easier?
Another presentation no-no is reading what you’ve projected on the screen. Other than being widely recognised as boring, the presenter is also unknowingly competing with another voice in the room – the one in your own head.
And as the audience has an in-built tendency to want to read aloud, this creates another barrier for engagement. We’re likely to hear the information we’re reading in our own voice, says Horvath, with the exception of some well known voices – Horvath uses this example: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”
You read that in Bill Clinton’s voice, didn’t you?
It’s not something we’re always aware of, but take the time to think about it. Unless you know me really well, you probably hear your own internal voice speaking the words I’ve written.
So when we’re reading text on a screen and a presenter is relaying that same information verbally, it can confuse our poor brains; we’re forced to choose between two streams of different information, causing a bottleneck.
“If you were to select a single stream (say, your silent reading voice), you’d be able to understand that just fine, while the speaker’s voice is blocked out and becomes meaningless noise,” writes Horvath. “More commonly, however, we attempt to take in all the information we can – continuously jumping back and forth between the slides and the speaker.”
This means people walk out of the presentation feeling even more confused, says Horvath. Obviously, that’s not ideal.
So, what’s the solution? It’s simple. If you want your audience to be truly engaged, learn your speech off by heart and deliver it verbally with minimal text distractions (Horvath says anything less than seven words on the screen at a time is fine).
Including images is a good way to cement the information into your audiences’ brains; Horvath says memory can increase by 20 per cent when images and speech are presented together, and the audience will deem you more professional and prepared when you do this. That said, keep the images to a minimum. Too many at once can have a similar effect to a combined oral and visual approach.
With these tips in mind, here’s a picture of an adorable labrador puppy – now you’ll never forget what I’ve said.
Create “healthy tension”
The truth is unless you’re someone like Beyonce or Brad Pitt, when you walk into a room to present, all attention will not be on you. You’ll always be fighting to gain people’s attention. We can even be our own worst enemy when it comes to concentration – it’s taken me five minutes to write this sentence because I’ve been too busy staring at the cute dog above.
Leadership and communication expert Shane Michael Hatton has a trick to put the spotlight back on yourself – he calls it “healthy tension”. While the word ‘tension’ might cause your mind to wander to things like a clenched jaw, stiff shoulders or an uncomfortable silence between friends, it can actually be used to your advantage.
“You can try to take people somewhere, but it’s much more effective when people want to go with you. When you create tension you make people uncomfortable, and when people are uncomfortable they want to do something about it,” says Hatton.
He offers three ways to do this:
- Raise the level of the problem: Highlight the problems so your audience wants to change something. If you have a practical solution don’t give it away too soon, take time to help people understand the real problem first.
- Raise the level of curiosity: Highlight specific questions so your audience wants to know something. If you want to educate people or give them an answer, then start by helping them ask the right question.
- Raise the level of expectation: Highlight the vision so audience wants to be something. If you want to take people somewhere, paint a picture of what the future could look like if they decide to listen and contrast it with their current reality.
Perfecting the message
So that’s style, but what about the balance of content. Different presenters have different preferences. Some regale an audience with entertaining stories, while others prefer to let data do the talking. Hatton says it’s important to find the middle ground.
“If you prefer to focus on detailed analysis, you may disengage the people in the room who want to hear context. If you love telling stories, you may end up losing people who are interested only in the facts. If you spend all your time sharing your abstract ideas, you will frustrate people crying out for practical learning.
“A great presenter acts like a translator, taking the data and bringing out insights and stories that connect with both the head and the heart.”
So next time you’re charged with giving a presentation, keep these tips in mind. And, if all else fails, just try delivering the information in Bill Clinton’s voice, at least that will get them out of their heads [editor’s note: do not do this].
Learn practical strategies that will assist with building and developing effective communication within your team with AHRI’s Ignition Training course ‘Communicating Effectively’.