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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
John Sweller, PhD,
Emeritus Professor of Education,
University of New South Wales,
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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