Every presenter’s goal is that their information is remembered, used, or applied in some way. But how can presenters change memories? How can they access the long-term memory of their audience?
An interesting article from the Harvard Business Review entitled “Getting an Audience to Remember Your Presentation” by Art Markham states that the purpose of presentations is to influence the explicit memory of the audience. Markham argues that, for presentations to have high impact, speakers need to be aware of how information gets into memory.
One of the most effective ways to influence memory is through conversational delivery. The best presentations emulate good conversations—whether someone is presenting to an audience of one or one thousand.
Markham identifies three factors than can be used to improve what people remember. The first is to follow the right sequence.
Information presented at the beginning and end of a talk is always best remembered, he says. This is why it’s critical to state the call to action up front. The audience should be encouraged to either apply the information or take action on it, and this should be clearly stated at the beginning of every business presentation.
It's important to set the tone for the sequence. According to Markham, “many speakers open their talks with an anecdote that is engaging, but only tangentially relevant to the topic of the presentation. The audience may easily recall this anecdote later, but it won’t help them to learn what they really needed to know.”
Opening with jokes or anecdotes that distract from the main topic is always risky. Do you want the audience to remember your jokes or how to apply or take action on your information?
Markham's second factor is to draw connections. To make his point, Markham uses a peanut analogy: “If you take peanuts out one at a time, you get three peanuts when you reach into the bowl three times. But, if you pour caramel over the peanuts, then when you pull one out, you get a whole cluster. After you draw from the bowl three times, you may have gotten almost all of the peanuts out.”
He states that memory works the same way and “making connections among the key points in your talk helps pour caramel over the peanuts in memory and increases the amount that people remember from what you present.”
The third factor is to make the audience work. Markham states that presentations must “provide opportunities for audiences to think for themselves.” The more the audience thinks about the ideas in the presentation, the greater the likelihood they will remember those ideas later. It is important to control when the audience thinks and what they think about. As anyone who as attended one of my workshops or presentations know, pausing is essential. Pausing before you speak allows you to formulate the idea in your mind before articulating it. Pausing after each idea allows the audience time to think about and absorb your information, one idea at a time.
Think of the best presentations you have attended. What made the presenter memorable? It is the feeling that the presenter is speaking to us individually, even if we are in a room with a thousand other people. It is the feeling that they are having the same conversation with a group of people that they would have one-on-one.
This is how presenters achieve their business and communication outcomes. This is how they change memories.
There is one nightmare that nearly every presenter has both experienced and witnessed—one thing of which audience members are terrified when they walk into a presentation.
Not only do presenters often bore audiences, but in the worst circumstances, presenters bore themselves.
An interesting article in the Harvard Business Review entitled “The #1 Killer of Meetings (And What You Can Do About It),” Peter Bregman describes the journey he took to stop boredom and enhance engagement during his presentations. His conclusion is simple. If you don’t want anyone to be bored during your meetings or presentations, there is one simple thing you can do: turn off the projector.
Bregman’s transformation began after a two-day off-site meeting several years ago as he both watched and delivered slide-based presentations. In each presentation one of two things occurred: the audience tuned out or they poked holes in the presenter’s content.
“People tune out because nothing is required of them,” he explains in the article. “Or they poke holes because, if they don’t tune out, it’s the most interesting thing to do when someone is trying to prove there are no holes.”
After his experience, Bregman was determined to find a better way. “Over time,” he says, “I identified a single factor that makes the biggest difference between a great meeting and a poor one: PowerPoint. The best meetings don’t go near it.
“PowerPoint presentations inevitably end up as monologues,” he continues. “They focus on answers, and everyone faces the screen. But meetings should be conversations. They should focus on questions, not answers, and people should face each other. I know it sounds crazy, but I’ve found that even the hum of the projector discourages dialogue.”
Bregman’s findings directly support a recent experience I had with a group of emergency physicians from the Toronto area. Prior to this one-day workshop with a group of very experienced presenters, each participant was asked to bring a presentation with them to the training session. One by one, they stood up, loaded their slides, and began their presentation. After a few minutes, the projector was turned off and they were asked to and continue their presentation, using their slides as notes.
The results were amazing. As soon as the projector was turned off, everyone’s full and undivided attention shifted to the presenter. The audience immediately became engaged.
The tone of each presentation shifted from a monologue to a conversation and the audience started asking questions. The presenter became focused on answering questions and building understanding, rather than going through the pedantic exercise of marching through one slide after another.
Presenters began to think more before speaking, bringing more precision to what they said. They paused to allow the audience to think and absorb their information. They connected with the audience more effectively because they were looking at them, instead of at a screen.
All of which are aspects of a good conversation and, ultimately, an effective presentation.
Some people think that slides are not the problem. They believe presenters that don’t use slides properly is the reason we experience Death by PowerPoint. But, slides don’t bore people, people using slides bores people.
Throughout the last thirty years, I have watched the evolution of slides. I have never seen the use of slides improve the skills of any presenter, but I have frequently seen the use of slides make good presenters less effective.
If you wish to reduce boredom at your presentations, the answer is simple: Turn the projector off. Carry on a conversation with your audience.
Over the years, I have had some interesting conversations with organizations, such as municipalities and school boards, that have delivered presentations to upset and disgruntled community members.
Prior to the presentation, they know the community is upset. Often, they know why.
To prepare, the team spends days (and sometimes weeks) putting their presentation together. They assemble the best, most logical ideas possible. And, when they deliver the presentation, they wonder why it fails to reduce the tension in the room.
I have often used an analogy to help them understand why the audience doesn’t “get it.”
I ask them to imagine their bank has made a major mistake with their account. They try to call and email the bank, but are told they can only fix the problem at their local branch.
By the time they get to the bank, they are agitated. When they start explaining their perspective, the person on the other side of the counter interrupts and says: "Before you go any further, I’d like to tell you how we do things here at our bank."
Compare this to the presentation delivered to the community by a municipality, school board, or other organization. The team knows the people in the room are upset or downright angry. This anger may even have been the catalyst for the public meeting being organized in the first place.
Like the misguided employee at the bank, the team is talking rather than listening. When you make an audience (especially an angry one) wait any length of time before answering their questions and/or listening to their concerns, it doesn’t matter how perfect the presentation. Nobody is listening.
Let’s examine how the core values for the practice of public participation can guide a more successful approach. The first of those states that public participation is based on the belief that those who are affected by a decision have the right to be involved in the decision-making process.
To bring this value to life, the team needs to open a receiver-driven dialogue at the public meeting. The needs of the audience outweigh the needs of the team. Because they are upset, the audience is like the disgruntled customer at the bank. They are not ready to receive information. They first want their questions answered and their concerns addressed.
Without a receiver-driven process, it is impossible to achieve the second core value: Public participation includes the promise that the public’s contribution will influence the decision. If the team’s desire is public participation, they must listen closely to what the community has to say, and directly apply this information to their final decision.
Within any aspect of public engagement, the organization should be willing to listen more than it speaks. Demonstrating good listening skills within a receiver-driven dialogue is the surest path to achieving the values of public participation.
The next time you face a potentially disgruntled audience or community group, keep a couple of concepts in mind. Listen before you talk. And when you talk, communicate. Don’t transmit.
It’s the best way to prevent public engagement from resembling a bad day at the bank.
Eric Bergman is the author of The Engaging Public Participation Presentation. For more than thirty years, he has helped his clients shape their stories and tell them effectively.
He left government in 1985, and has since been self-employed as a communications consultant. As a significant part of his consultancy for nearly a decade, he wrote hundreds of speeches for executives in the private, public and not-for-profit sectors.
In the early 1990s, he shifted his focus to providing presentation skills training in workshops and seminars, and one-on-one coaching. Over the ensuing years, he has helped his clients develop strategic, compelling content for a host of presentation challenges, and provided his unique insight to also help them deliver that content effectively.
I was once asked by a pharmaceutical company to provide one-and-one-half hours of presentation skills training to a group of urologists. These physicians had gathered to put the finishing touches on a continuing medical education (CME) program.
As a presentations skills consultant, my role was to help them understand how they could effectively communicate their knowledge when they later fanned out to conduct workshops across the country. I was scheduled to speak from 10:30 to noon.
From 8:30 to 9:15 a.m., one of the urologists who was leading the content stood at the front of the room and took 30 or so of his peers through the information they would later be asked to present. To my very pleasant surprise, he was a brilliant communicator. He didn’t use slides. He showed two short videos.
He created a conversation with 30 of his colleagues. In 45 minutes, he provided incredible insight and answered close to a hundred questions. It was a case study in communication effectiveness. Everyone was engaged.
During a short break after his talk, I circulated through the room and noticed that people were talking in small groups. There was a buzz in the room. Everyone was commenting on how much they learned, and how the session was one of the best (if not the best) they had ever attended.
After the break, they broke into groups to put the finishing touches on their slides.
This exercise took longer than anticipated. When they reconvened at 11:40 a.m., I had twenty minutes remaining for my session before we had no choice but to break for lunch. I could have given a short version of my presentation, but I didn’t.
These are highly educated individuals, I thought to myself. I’m going to challenge them a bit.
I focused their attention on the presentation we had witnessed earlier. They agreed it was brilliant. Everyone learned a lot.
I then asked how many slides were used. This caught them by surprise. It took a minute before they realized their colleague hadn’t used any, which he verified (he was still in the room).
Then I asked if they were going to use the slides they spent the past two-and-a-half hours working on when they delivered their own CME sessions. They said yes. I asked: “Why?” At first there was silence. Then they pushed back.
To say that this evolved into a spirited conversation would be an understatement. Anyone watching would have thought I had refuted the holy grail of urology without a single shred of evidence.
“That’s the way CME programs are delivered,” one physician commented. Another told me that CME programs had been delivered that way since speakers actually carried carousels of 35-mm slides from presentation to presentation. That’s the way it’s done, and that’s the way it’s always been done.
Perhaps, I said. But is that the best way? Wouldn’t it be better to re-create what we all witnessed earlier?
My parting thought was that I hoped they would bring a similar analysis to the communication process that they bring to their profession.
There’s no doubt that communication is an art. But make no mistake, there’s a growing body of social science research around communication. Three credible studies have shown that you can increase communication effectiveness by up to 30 per cent by delivering the same information without showing a single slide.
This research needs to be understood and properly applied, because it clearly shows what we all know in our heart-of-hearts: that slides impede communication.
The bottom line on communication effectiveness is simple. What someone says to an audience is less unimportant than how the audience applies the information or takes action on it.
I have no doubt that the 30 urologists I observed learned things they will be able to apply to their practice by participating in their colleague’s 45-minute presentation.
But could their audiences do the same? If they showed the slides they spent all day developing, the research is actually quite clear.
I believe that six seemingly innocuous words have been decreasing the quality of conference presentations for nearly 20 years now.
These words are so common that you’ve probably written or seen them a hundred times without giving them second thought. Yet every single conference I’ve spoken at during the past 20 years has included these six words in their instructions to presenters and subject matter experts:
Why are these words so damaging?
￼The reason is simple: They make the assumption that slides are necessary and expected in all presentations delivered at the conference. However, as research now shows, this assumption decreases communication quality, ultimately leading to lower comprehension and retention among conference attendees.
According to three separate studies from universities on two continents, if each presenter delivered the same information without showing a single slide, conference attendees would receive 20 to 30 per cent additional educational value.
Researchers from Purdue, Barcelona and Munich tested understanding and retention when exactly the same information was presented with and without slides. Depending on the study, those who receive information without slides being shown score 20 to 30 per cent higher on quizzes administered after the presentation.
And, all three studies confirm that what is lost in oral retention during regular slideware presentations is not made up anywhere else. “It is remarkable,” the Munich researchers wrote, “that this suppressive effect of regular slides on retention of information from speech could not be demonstrated to be the downside of a trade-off in favour of the retention of information on the slides.”
What Alternatives Exist?
Ultimately, the best way to eliminate this problem is to simply encourage conference presenters to turn off the projector, leave their laptop open and deliver their presentation—delivering exactly the same information without showing a single slide. I talked someone into this exact approach at a professional development event with excellent results. But to help others ease into a new paradigm, I have a few other suggestions.
First, let speakers know that they can use a projector, but they’ll have to pay for it themselves. This works particularly well with not-for-profit organizations. You can generate significant savings and your audiences will ultimately learn more. (I recently helped a client save $10,000 by removing projectors from breakout rooms.) You may not want to ask your keynote speakers to pay for their projectors, but you can encourage them to focus more on telling compelling stories than showing slides.
Second, ask speakers to contribute articles and information that can be sent to participants to “prime the pump” in advance of their presentation, rather than slides as handouts after the presentation. When everyone gets together, tell stories about how the information can be applied. Case studies, examples, anecdotes and comparisons aid retention. Bullet points kill it.
Third, make sure flip charts and/or whiteboards are available in each presentation room—particularly breakout rooms. If someone has 30 to 50 participants in a breakout room, a flip chart will work well when a visual is needed (and any visual used in that medium can be precisely adapted to the needs of the group and that conversation at that moment in time). Consider removing projectors in breakout rooms with fewer than 50 seats.
Fourth, encourage dialogue. Again, if someone has 30 to 50 participants in a breakout room, why should everyone wait until the end to ask questions? They should be able to ask questions throughout. Everyone benefits when the process becomes two-way and receiver-driven.
These are a few suggestions; there are many ways in which dialogue can be enhanced (panel presentations that encourage structured dialogue with all the speakers, for example). But the bottom line is simple when it comes to “Please send your slides in advance.”
Please don’t ask. And, if asked, please don’t.
When reading blogs on the subject, or by simply talking to people and asking them what they think, there is often some confusion as to what actually constitutes a presentation.
But let's be absolutely clear: for a presentation to exist, the presenter is the only essential element. Everything else is secondary.
To put this into perspective, let's suppose your senior management team has assembled to attend a presentation that will be delivered by an outside consultant. When the presentation begins, the projector suddenly breaks down. PowerPoint is unavailable.
Could the presenter still deliver the presentation? Of course.
In fact, according to three research studies that measure audience retention when slides are used versus simply talking to the audience without the use of slides to convey the same information — one from Purdue University, one from the University of Barcelona and one from the University of Munich — the audience will understand and retain up to 30 per cent more information from the presentation if the projector does break down than if the slides are actually delivered.
(Hint for future presentation effectiveness: Turn off the projector to deliver your next presentation and you’ll achieve 30 per cent greater audience retention.)
Now, imagine another scenario. The presenter is on a flight that has been delayed and he or she can no longer deliver the presentation in person. Instead, the slides are sent via email. Would the presentation still exist? Would the senior management team assemble in the boardroom to go over the slides and discuss the information? No, probably not.
If slides are sent in advance that can be understood without the presenter, a horizontal written document has been circulated. A presentation has not been delivered.
Let's be clear. A movie is not a presentation. A slideware file is not a presentation. A presentation deck is not a presentation, no matter how often some people use the words 'presentation' and 'PowerPoint' interchangeably.
And that brings us to the original assertion.
If there is no presenter, there can be no presentation.
It is common knowledge that Steve Jobs set an extremely high standard for the presentations he delivered. But how did he do it? How was he able to give presentations that not only provided valuable information, but also potentially allowed people to apply that information and teach it to others?
The YouTube video below is a clear demonstration of how and why Steve Jobs was so successful. And there are lessons here from which every presenter — and indeed every leader — can learn.
First, Mr. Jobs matched the needs of his audience with his business objectives. In this example, he clearly defines the future direction of Apple computers for developers, and how that direction will influence the ways in which developers can support Apple's hardware with meaningful products.
Second, he carefully structures the conversation. It would be easy to imagine him having this same conversation with three people sitting around a boardroom table, or with 3000 software developers in an auditorium. He pauses between ideas to allow the audience to absorb what is being said. By delivering his ideas conversationally, he is able to convey his message and personality effectively.
Third, he minimizes the visual aids he uses. While one could make the case that one or two of the visuals did not add value (were the binoculars really necessary?), most did not distract from what was being said, and indeed directly supported his objectives. Rather than bombarding the audience with words on a screen, he minimizes the number of words and carefully selects a few images that help the audience follow his ideas.
By using these strategies, Steve Jobs presented a completely new direction to developers in a way that enhanced understanding. By simply paying attention, developers could go back to their office and effectively explain his vision to their colleagues.
And that is the true test of presentation success. If you’d like to test the power of this approach, watch the YouTube video now, and see if you can explain his vision to a colleague tomorrow morning over coffee in relaxed conversation.
Then try that with the “average” presentation you attend this week and compare the results.
A study conducted at the University of Munich has confirmed the results of two previous studies I’ve written about—a study from Purdue and another from the University of Barcelona.
And the news is truly bad for the 30 to 40 million slide-driven presentations, lectures, workshops, seminars, and training programs delivered worldwide each day.
If slides are your crutch, it’s bad news for you, too.
There is now absolutely no question that your audience misses large portions of what you say when you show your slides and talk at the same time.
The Munich study confirmed that “the retention of oral information was significantly lower in the condition with regular slides than in the condition without slides.”
Of course, if you believe that what the presenter says isn’t important, perhaps it makes no difference. But there is a critical question to ask of those who believe the presenter isn’t absolutely essential to every effective presentation: If what the presenter says isn’t important, why is she or he taking up our time in the first place?
In another objection to the research, some might ask: “If the audience loses a large portion of what’s said, isn’t there an offsetting gain by showing the slides?”
According to the researchers, the answer is no.
In other words, if you use what the researchers called “regular” slides in your presentation (like the one to the right), your audience is going to miss large portions of what you say, no matter how well you say it or how hard they struggle to absorb it.
Logically, this would apply even more to charts and graphs, which require more reading and more concentration to decipher than the regular slide shown here.
And there is no question that what you lose by asking your audience to read and listen at the same time is not regained in any way by showing your slides.
Regular Slides vs Concise Slides
The regular slide format contained a total of 12 slides: a title slide; a structural slide; and 10 additional slides. No slide in this series contained more than eight lines (excluding the heading) or six bullet points.
Conversely, concise slides used six slides to explain the same information: a title slide, a structural slide; and four additional slides. The researchers also used “black” slides between the regular slides. No slide in this series contained more than seven lines (excluding the heading) or five bullet points.
While their research confirmed that the “retention of oral information is higher with concise slides or without slides than with regular slides,” they could not state that the overall retention of concise slides was any better than not using slides at all.
The Bottom Line
In 5 Steps to Conquer ‘Death by PowerPoint’, the third step is: “Minimize visual aids.” I am 100 per cent confident that the research from Purdue, Barcelona and Munich supports the logic of that suggestion.
There are three things to keep in mind when minimizing visual aids, two of which were dealt with directly in the research.
First, to enhance your success, you must absolutely minimize the information on slides if you cannot overcome your PowerPoint addiction and eliminate them altogether (or only use one or two where needed). If your slides look like the regular slide shown here, turn off the projector, use your slides as notes (visible to you, but not to the audience), and talk to your audience.
Second, you must absolutely minimize the number of slides you use. As the researchers demonstrated, by cutting the number of content slides by 60 per cent, and by using blank slides between content slides, retention of information increased.
There is a simple test to determine this. If someone can read your slides and understand your presentation, you have too many slides and too much on each slide.
Third, don’t be afraid to use other visual aids. Whiteboards, flip charts, blackboards and pieces of paper are not only excellent visual aids, they are not slides. Each one is a different tool; each one has a different purpose.
Finally, don’t be afraid to turn off the projector and talk to your audience. If you believe that what you say is important, the research is clear:
Simply talking to your audience, while minimizing your visual aids, is absolutely the best way to be heard, understood and remembered.
Like the Purdue study, the Barcelona results are bad news for the 40 million people each day who deliver “standard” slideware presentations.
Their slides are getting in the way of the communication process, leading to lower understanding and retention by the audience.
However, the study indicates that presenters can achieve better outcomes by turning off the projector, talking to their audience, and using a chalkboard, whiteboard or flip chart when needed.
205 Students in Four Classes
Researchers conducted their study with a base of 205 students registered in a course entitled the Psychology of Education during the 2010-2011 academic year—a compulsory course for those working toward a bachelor’s degree in psychology.
The course was divided into four groups and led by two professors. Each professor taught one course in the morning and one in the afternoon. For this test, each professor used slides for one class and a blackboard for the other.
The two professors worked together to develop a 19-slide presentation for the class in which slides would be shown. The number of lines in each slide did not exceed 13. The number of words per slide varied between 42 and 93.
This is actually a “light” treatment of the use of slides by industry standards (as this page of conference handouts clearly demonstrates).
The professors prepared a 10-question multiple-choice test to evaluate the knowledge acquired by students during the class. The test was administered immediately after the presentation. The questions and their correct answers were based on information taught during the class.
During the first 40 minutes of class time, the professor delivered the presentation (lecture). The remaining time was devoted to allowing students to complete the quiz.
Results Are Significant
There is no question that slides impeded the communication process. The students who weren’t exposed to slides scored higher on the quiz than those who were.
The average score for those who didn't see slides was 8.21. The average score for those who were exposed who did see the slides was 6.73.
In other words, eliminating slides enabled students to score 22 per cent higher on the quiz.
“The evaluations of contents presented without PowerPoint yielded better results (more correct answers and consequently fewer mistakes) than when the same contents were presented using the PowerPoint methodology,” the researchers concluded. “If we take the class taught without PowerPoint as a reference, the effect of this technology used according to the procedure described is to lower learning by 18%, which can be considered a significant effect (or defect).”
Verifying Step Three: Minimize Visual Aids
The researchers are verifying step three of the 5 Steps to Conquer ‘Death by PowerPoint’: Minimize visual aids.
If presenters need a visual to explain a concept, they should use a visual (and, as the Purdue study indicated, there is no added value to developing a slide versus simply drawing a diagram with a whiteboard or flip chart). Once it’s no longer needed, remove the visual from view and talk to your audience.
But if presenters feel compelled to always have something in front of the audience, they are negatively impacting their ability to communicate effectively.
For those who believe that communication, understanding and retention are important to their personal and/or professional business success, there is a lot to be gained from the Barcelona study.
According to a recent article in Symmetry magazine, a group of physicists working on the Large Hadron Collider project at Fermilab has banned the use of slides at biweekly meetings in favour of whiteboards.
The result of the ban? The physicists say the move has led to more “interaction and curiosity,” made it easier for the group to discuss the project’s “ongoing work and future goals,” and enhanced the connection between speaker and audience to improve decision-making.
Are there lessons here that can apply to others?
- As I’ve written before, Amazon and LinkedIn have banned slide-driven presentations at their meetings, resulting in enhanced productivity and improved decision-making.
- I have long believed that boards of directors should ban slideware presentations at their meetings to achieve the same results: save time and enhance the overall quality of decisions made.
- Most conference organizers I know would like to enhance engagement. It’s a bold move, but banning slides (not just PowerPoint, but Keynote, Prezi, SlideRocket, Haiku Deck and others) would force speakers to use a variety of tools that lead to greater engagement.
- A recent Gallup survey indicated that only 30 per cent of employees are engaged. Fewer than one in three! Care to make a wager on how most of those employees receive information from their leaders? What has an organization got to lose by banning slides at internal meetings?
- Planning a sales meeting? Why not ban slides? The sales force undoubtedly has knowledge to contribute. Like the physicists, if the sales force was more engaged, wouldn’t the group benefit from the collective experience of others?
It takes courage to implement a ban. But it appears that those organizations who do are gaining significant benefits as a result.
Two of the business world’s top CEOs—Jeff Bezos at Amazon and Jeff Weiner at LinkedIn—have eliminated slide-driven presentations from their meetings.
“All of our meetings are structured around six-page memos,” Bezos says, pointing out that this also eliminates bullet points. “When you have to write your ideas out in complete sentences and complete paragraphs, it forces a deeper clarity of thinking.”
Bezos believes that slides make it easy for the presenter but difficult for the audience. As a result, his meetings may start with up to 30 minutes of silence while everyone reads the documents.
The result of separating the written word from the spoken word? “It saves a lot of time,” he points out.
In a blog post, LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner points out that “at LinkedIn, we have essentially eliminated the presentation.” Information is sent 24 hours in advance, giving people an opportunity to review it. However, not everyone can find the time, so five to 10 minutes is set aside at the start of the meeting to give everyone time to review the written document.
"Once folks have completed the reading, it’s time to open it up for discussion,” Weiner writes. “There is no presentation.”
Are these leaders are on the right track? Absolutely. Cognitive science tells us that humans cannot read and listen at the same time. In fact, trying to do both is absolutely the least effective option and a virtual waste of time—terrible news for the “average” slide-driven presentation delivered in boardrooms, meeting rooms, training rooms and conference halls.
Organizations that wish to regain lost productivity, and to communicate most effectively to make the best decisions, should learn to separate the written word from the spoken word. There is a time to read and a time to discuss. For best results, those times should never, ever be the same time.
Let’s hope more leaders have the courage to follow suit.