Communication effectiveness

How presenters can best influence audiences

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?
Silhouette with question marks and lightbulbs inside

An interesting article from the
Harvard Business Review entitled “Getting an Audience to Remember Your Presentation,” by Art Markman of the University of Texas, states that the purpose of presentations is to influence the explicit memory of the audience. Markman argues that, for presentations to have high impact, speakers need to be aware of how information gets into memory.

Markman 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 Markman, “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?

Markman’s second factor is to draw connections. To make his point, Markman 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. Markman 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.

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.

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. And, to paraphrase Professor Markman, this is how they change memories.

sweller meme 2.001

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Your brain prefers stories over bullet points

woman leaning on hand, bored
When the world locked down for COVID-19, I attended nearly fifty webinars. The topics ranged from the economic impact of the pandemic to defining an important question: Where have all the insects gone?

In the vast majority of these presentations, speakers simply presented information as a stream of ideas (bullet points) instead of telling stories to put ideas into perspective for the audience. As the author of this Inc. article points out, shopping lists of bullet points engage only a small portion of the brain, making ideas difficult to retain. There is no engagement.

The article points out that ideas put into meaningful context through stories (the how and why of it), is much more enjoyable and memorable for audiences. As the author states: “It’s yet another reason why bullet points shouldn't be the default” for any presentation.

Read the article in Inc.com.
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The Mehrabian Myth

mehrabian cover
When it comes to the use of body language in presentations and broadcast interviews, most of us have seen a statistic that seems to support the notion that:

  • 55% of the overall message is how the person looks when delivering the message.
  • 38% of the overall message is how the person sounds when delivering the message.
  • 7% of the overall message can be attributed to the words the person uses.
If we take these numbers at face value, they seem to imply that 93 per cent of communication is non-verbal. It isn’t. If it was, we’d be able to watch a foreign movie without subtitles. By simply observing how two actors converse, we’d be able to listen to how the words sound, watch the actors' gestures and get 93 percent of what transpires.

However, we all know that this is not the case. We will recognize emotion, but if you don't understand what is said, you comprehend significantly less than 93 percent of what transpires between the actors.

The numbers 55, 38 and 7 first appear in a 1971 book entitled Silent Messages, written by Albert Mehrabian and based on his research at Stanford University. But the way these numbers are now commonly mis-stated bears little resemblance to what Professor Mehrabian originally intended.

Mehrabian was examining trust in communication. He would have someone say “no” but nod “yes,” for example. If there is a disconnect between words and gestures, which does the receiver of information rely on to determine trust in the message.

Mehrabian uses two equations in Silent Messages (on pages 44 and 45) to describe the results of one section of his research, in a chapter titled "The Double-Edged Message":
  • Total liking = 7% verbal liking + 38% vocal liking + 55% facial liking
  • Total feeling = 7% verbal feeling + 38% vocal feeling + 55% facial feeling
From his research, Professor Mehrabian's assertion is that words, voice and body language must be consistent with each other. If there is an inconsistency between what’s said and how the person looked saying it, the receiver of the message relies on more than the words spoken to get the overall message.

Mehrabian’s outcome is clear. If you attempt to be someone other than who you are in a presentation or broadcast interview (i.e. by trying to create the right image to get as much as possible out of the 55 per cent), the audience will sense this inconsistency and will be less likely to believe what you're saying. As Mehrabian writes, "when actions contradict words, people rely more heavily on actions to infer another's feelings."

This emphasizes the importance of "be yourself" as a fundamental principle of effective presentations and/or broadcast interviews. You certainly want to be on your best behaviour, but if you use gestures when you're engaged in a telephone conversation (and virtually all of us do), you should bring those gestures to your presentations and broadcast interviews. Let them happen naturally. They are an integral component of who you are as a human being, and therefore fundamental to the concept of "be yourself."

Using gestures naturally is the best possible way to ensure consistency between the words spoken, how they sound when they're spoken and how you look when they're spoken. In that scenario, total liking and total feeling will be as close to 100 percent as possible.

And your effectiveness at influencing others will be enhanced.

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Article says beautiful slides a waste of time

Conversation pattern with background.001
This author believes too much emphasis is being put on developing “snazzy presentation slides.” He believes it “is a waste of time and elicits a deluded sense of accomplishment.”

In his opinion, spending “days and days doing up a colourful slides with funky animation or photoshopped images” is not an optimal use of time.

Read the article.


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I Tried Jeff Bezos's PowerPoint Replacement at My Company—and It Actually Worked



woman seated, applauding
In this LinkedIn post, Robert Glazer, CEO at Acceleration partners, talks about his journey as he eliminated PowerPoint presentations at meetings.

Doing so has provided his organization with five distinct competitive advantages.

Read Robert Glazer’s article.

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If you’re showing PowerPoint, you’re missing the point

screeen up
This review of One Bucket at a Time, by Jay Robb of The Hamilton Spectator, makes says that “there’s only one good reason to bring us together for a meeting on Zoom or in a room.

“Showing us PowerPoint decks isn’t it.”

He concludes with: “Many of us are closing in on our first anniversary of working from home. One way to combat Zoom fatigue is to have a little less information and a little more conversation in 2021. Bergman can help make that happen.”

Click this link to read Jay Robb’s full review of One Bucket at a Time, which is available from Amazon, Kindle and Apple Books.

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Passionate plea and interesting visual


Arnold Schwarzenegger, of Conan and Terminator fame, makes an impassioned plea for calm after the insurrection at the US Capitol in January 2021.

He makes interesting use of a visual aid to support his message. If you watch the video, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll ever forget his plea or the visual aid he used to support it.

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Harvard University Says Slides Are Damaging Your Brand And Your Company

forbes visual for harvard article
This article in Forbes magazine suggests that presenters should stop using powerpoint because it may damage a brand.

Citing a study at Harvard, the author points out that in a business scenario, PowerPoint was rated as no better than verbal presentations with no visual aids.

The author says that research found “a more engaging and enjoyable experience for an audience with an oral presentation’s total lack of visual aids.”

By simply not showing slides, research has shown that communication effectiveness can improve by twenty per cent to thirty per cent.

Read the article.

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Presentation content that almost develops itself

Cover of the book The Presenter's Toolbox
The Presenter’s Toolbox provides a step-by-step guide to developing clear, compelling content for any speech, lecture or presentation.

The Toolbox quickly and efficiently guides you through a critical thinking process. You’ll answer a number of questions and fill in some blanks. By the time you reach tool number nine, the basic presentation framework, you’ll be able to clearly define your entire presentation in six to eight sentences. Your story for that audience will have a clear beginning, middle and end.

Additional tools will guide you through expanding that story to fit the time frame available. You won’t over-prepare. And there is also guidance on ensuring that slides, if necessary, won’t interfere with what you say to the audience.

As you apply the tools, you’ll be guided by a case study, which is based on the need for a new barking dog bylaw in a local municipality. The bylaw enforcement team is preparing a presentation to municipal council with the goal of gaining support to proceed to the next stage of the bylaw development process.

As you work through these tools, and with guidance from the barking dog case, you’ll discover that your content almost develops itself.

The Presenter’s Toolbox is available from Amazon, Kindle and Apple Books.

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Article explores whether slides are powerful or pointless

cover of public speaking for dummies
The author of Public Speaking Skills for Dummies! says he doesn’t have a problem with slides, as long as they enhance what the speaker is saying.

His biggest complaint is that the slides should complement what the speaker is saying, but often there is one thing on the screen while the speaker is saying something else.

He also makes a point that has long seemed obvious to me. Why would someone bother attending the presentation when they can read the PowerPoint deck and stay home?

Read Alyson Connoly’s article.

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Book encourages less presentation, more conversation

Cover of the book
Whether a presentation is delivered in the room or via Zoom, One Bucket at a Time encourages presenters to embrace more conversation and less presentation if the goal is to have ideas understood, retained and acted upon by the audience.

One Bucket at a Time is endorsed by one of the world’s leading cognitive scientists, who says that author “Eric Bergman’s techniques are a window to the future of this important human activity.”

One Bucket at a Time is available from Amazon, Kindle and Apple Books.


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How to eliminate PowerPoint, even if you’re not Jeff Bezos

Tens of millions of PowerPoint presentations are delivered daily around the world. Geoffrey James, author of this article in Inc., makes the point that “almost all of them are productivity toilets” that waste precious time.

Read the Inc. article.

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Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos banned PowerPoint. Here’s why.

Both Mr. Musk and Mr. Bezos understand that the most effective way to communicate is to separate reading from listening. If effective communication is important to effective decision-making, should other organizations follow their lead?

Read the Inc. article.

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Jeff Bezos explains why Amazon banned PowerPoint


In this video segment, Mr. Bezos explains why he believes insight and collaboration are more important than raw data to effective decision-making. He then explains how the implementation of the two-pizza rule fits into his thoughts and why banning PowerPoint at Amazon enhances decision-making. Read the full article.

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Elon Musk suggests CEOS spend "less time on PowerPoint"

During this brief interview with Chip Cutter, editor of the Wall Street Journal, Tesla CEO Elon Musk suggests that leaders spend less time with PowerPoint in meetings and more time determining how to make their products and services better.

To get there, effective leaders might borrow a page from the playbooks of Amazon and LinkedIn. Both have eliminated marching through slides, saving time and achieving dramatic improvements in decision-making.

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Article explores banning PowerPoint in lectures

students sleeping at desks
This article makes the point that PowerPoint should be banned in lectures because it makes students more stupid and professors more boring.

And, based on my conversations with students and professors, moving bad PowerPoint lectures from the room to via Zoom has just made things worse, not better.

Read Bent Meier Srensen’s article in The Independent.

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How Steve Jobs "did it"



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 motivated audiences to apply that information and teach it to others?

The YouTube video above 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 and delivers a conversational presentation. 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 deposit his ideas into the long-term memory of those listening.

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 minimized the number of words and carefully selected 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. I have no doubt that, by simply paying attention, developers could go back to their office and 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.

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The ten-pushup rule improves communication

Two people working as a team to do pushups together.
During my presentation training programs, I almost always introduce a slightly tongue-in-cheek training tool I call “the ten-pushup rule.” The rule immediately underscores how succinct answers improve communication and enhance presentation engagement.

The rule is simple. The person answering a question gets a maximum of ten words for the answer. Any question; ten words. Since question-and-answer sessions are recorded during training sessions, it’s easy to keep track.

This is an amazing tool; I’ve witnessed its positive impact thousands of times during training sessions.

(Only one person has ever actually done the pushups—a particularly fit CEO who was training for a marathon and took a little break with fifty self-imposed pushups after a fifteen word answer that could have been answered with “yes” or “no.”)

When there is a word limit on answers, the person’s behaviour immediately changes. He or she listens more carefully, which never ceases to amaze me. Think about it. When there’s a limit on the length of the answer, people focus more attention on what’s being asked. Their listening skills improve.

The person answering the question communicates more effectively. There is no choice but to exactly and precisely meet the needs of the person asking. This creates a two-way, receiver-driven exchange that adheres to the principle of less is more—all of which are important to communicating effectively.

The person answering the question doesn’t have time to anticipate where questions are going. He or she deals with one question at a time. This prevents anticipating where the questions are ultimately going (which I often tell clients really only works if you are capable of reading minds).

I have used the ten-pushup rule as a training tool thousands of times. It has never failed to improve someone’s communication skills.

Limiting the length of answers will feel unnatural, certainly, but short answers can be significantly more effective in helping people grasp an idea, sort through technical information, or just generally better understand what you're trying to say.

Try it. During your next work-related conversation in which it seems the other person doesn’t understand, self-evoke the ten-pushup rule whenever they ask a question. Pause, and find a succinct answer to what the person is asking. Match the answer precisely to what’s being asked. (Of course, if you’re unsure of what someone is asking, seek clarification.) Answer the question asked, and only the question asked. Stop talking.

In the vast majority of cases, there is an inverse relationship between understanding and pushups. Whether you’re answering questions from a colleague trying to understand or many people during an important presentation, the fewer the pushups you’re required to do, the better the individual or members of the group will understand what it is you're trying to say.

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Presentation lessons from Jack the Ripper's Walk

London Wall
During a trip to London with my family, I had the pleasure of participating in what's known as a Jack the Ripper walk.

At a designated spot overlooking the Tower of London, we met our affable Cockney guide, Pete. He was a character, our Pete, and he would have looked out of place in most boardrooms, training rooms and classrooms.

But the communication skills he demonstrated were exceptional, and should be envied and emulated by anyone who has to prepare and deliver presentations to others. We can all learn from “our Pete.”

Pete used statistics sparingly
After he gathered his flock, he led us to our first stop—the remains of the old Roman wall that has traditionally divided London's east-enders from the rest of the city. "In 1888, half the children born on the east side of this wall didn't survive until their first birthday," Pete told us. "It was said that, for every 100 yards you traveled east, life expectancy dropped by a year."

Pete knows that statistics should be to presentations as spice is to a meal—used sparingly.

Pete told stories well
To illustrate his love of history, he told us a story of traveling to Hadrian's Wall as a school boy. (Hadrian's Wall is the Roman wall that has traditionally separated England from Scotland.)

It was not a pleasant field trip, Pete informed us. It was raining. It was cold. He was miserable.

He was walking along the wall when he came to some Latin graffiti scratched into its side. He got out a piece of paper and his pencil, and rubbed the inscription so he could bring it to his Latin teacher.

When the Latin teacher read the inscription, he smiled. "You didn't enjoy yourself at Hadrian's Wall, did you," the teacher said. "No, sir," Pete replied.

"Apparently a man named Devinius wasn't enjoying himself either."

Pete clearly stated outcomes up front
Within a minute or two of gathering us together, Pete told us he hoped we would gain two two things. First, he wanted us to learn more about life in late 19-century London, the city of his birth. Second, he wanted us to better understand why he’s so proud to call London his home.

We gained both, in spades.

Pete knew that pausing is important for him and us
Pete paused to think before speaking. This enabled him to choose his words carefully so that each word out of his mouth added value.

Pete paused after he spoke. This allowed us to think about what he’d just said. He allowed us to process one thought before giving us another. He didn’t try to overload us with information. The entire presentation was two-way and receiver-driven, while adhering to the principle of “less is more.”

Pete used visuals sparingly, and well
When he brought us to a new location, he would introduce it and give us time to look at it. “This is not where one of the murders happened,” he told us in one case. “But if we went there now, you’d all be disappointed because it’s a parking lot. This is what London would have looked like in Jack’s time.”

He would pause to allow us to look around and let our imaginations work. When we started coming back to him, he continued his presentation.

He showed half a dozen pictures from his smartphone for emphasis. But again, he would tell us what we were going to see, then showed it. When he showed the picture, he moved the phone from person to person around the group, letting us absorb it. During those times, he never said a word.

Pete answered questions clearly and concisely
While he was always polite, he thankfully kept his answers short. This enabled many of us to ask a lot of questions. We learned from each other’s curiosity, which only added to the educational experience for everyone.

Pete demonstrated excellent presentation and communication skills. He provided lessons of value that could be applied to every boardroom, training room, meeting room, conference hall and lecture hall on the planet.

So, in the days beyond COVID-19, if you’re ever in London, look up our Pete and join him on his walk.

For the price of a movie ticket and pop, you’ll gain insight into parts of London that most people don’t see. You’ll begin to share Pete’s love for his city.

And, if you watch Pete at work, you’ll learn about communicating effectively with others during all types of presentations from one of the most unlikely but effective of sources.

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New book encourages less presentation, more conversation

One Bucket at a Time shares secrets to informing, educating, influencing and persuading any audience


“The central theme of this book that a presentation should be a conversation is ingenious. Humans have evolved for hundreds of thousands of years to communicate by conversation. We are mentally structured to do so.

"For anyone seeking to set themselves and their ideas apart, this book is well worth the read. Eric Bergman’s techniques are a window to the future of this important human activity.”

One Bucket Cover vF

John Sweller, PhD,
Emeritus Professor of Education,
University of New South Wales,
Sydney, Australia

Whether a presentation is delivered in the room or via Zoom, a new book is encouraging those conveying their ideas to embrace more conversation and less presentation. In this, the science is clear. It’s the best way to have those ideas received, understood, retained and acted upon by the audience.

One Bucket at a Time is based on the assumption that the only reason for bringing people together is to listen to someone share something of value.

“You can have a presentation without slides,” author Eric Bergman writes. “But you cannot have a presentation without a presenter. At its core, therefore, the effectiveness of any presentation can be measured by what makes it from the speaker’s vocal cords to the long-term memory of those in attendance.

“Once you understand that thought, it becomes evident that feeding into how people listen is the most critical presentation skill to develop.”

Using an analogy of a tank, bucket and trough, the book provides guidance into understanding and developing that critical skill. The tank is the information the presenter plans to get across to the audience. The trough is the collective long-term memory of those in attendance. The goal of any presentation should be to get as much sustenance as possible from tank to trough.

The only way that happens, however, is if the audience engages working memory to transfer those ideas into long-term memory one small bucket at a time.

“The challenge is that the bucket of working memory is incredibly small, more like a child’s sand bucket than a milk pail,” Bergman writes. “And it’s easily overloaded. When that occurs, information spills out, never to be remembered.”

Using a combination of cognitive science and common sense, One Bucket at a Time makes the case that the best way to get meaningful information from tank to trough is through a relaxed, conversational delivery. The audience needs silence, and lots of it, in order to empty working memory into long-term memory before being ready to fill the bucket again.

While most presentations focus solely on attempting to teach others, Bergman’s approach is different. He advocates helping the audience teach themselves. The audience should have plenty of opportunity to ask questions to fill in understanding, which are best answered clearly and concisely.

For Bergman, tapping the potential of presentations boils down to engagement, which he defines along a spectrum. Engagement begins when working memory passes ideas to long-term memory, one bucket at a time. At the other end of the spectrum are presentations after which the audience can effectively convey the presenter’s ideas to others.

Most presentations are not engaging. In the vast majority of cases, a mountain of auditory and visual information is sent, but little is retained as soon as the presentation concludes.

“Most presentations today are like playing tennis with someone who has a large basket of balls and isn’t going to stop serving until the basket is empty, regardless of whether you show any interest in hitting one back,” Bergman explains. “In such situations, if you came to practice service returns, you might be interested in playing along for a while. But if you came to play a game of tennis, it won’t take long before you find something else to do. And this is how most audiences react.

“If the audience is reading, writing, texting, scanning their social media feed, sending an e-mail or reading a document, they cannot be listening. And, ultimately, if they’re not listening, what on earth is the point?”

One Bucket at a Time is available from Amazon, Kindle and Apple Books.

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