3 ways to use Neuroscience to put POWER back into PowerPoint presentations

3 ways to use Neuroscience to put POWER back into PowerPoint presentations

Did you know PowerPoint has two capital P’s for a reason? They stand for ‘Perfect Preparation’ for a potent, powerful presentation.

We have all sat through what may feel like a lifetime of laborious PowerPoint presentations often wishing we were somewhere else. Attention wanes within the first few minutes. We are already happily distracted, perhaps surreptitiously, or even blatantly, sneaking a peek at our phones. Anything to occupy our time while we endure yet another poorly planned or equally poorly presented PowerPoint presentation.

Most presenters know that PowerPoint is a tool, not the main focus of a presentation. But somehow the pain endures and we find ourselves in yet another situation wondering if we have entered the movie ‘Groundhog Day’.

It is the presenter’s responsibility to add the flavour with discerning input. We think we know this, but it is my experience that folk do not follow what seems to be common knowledge.

I stress, there are times for expediency and necessity when we need to share detail. However, including copious, overwhelming, crowded data on visuals is inexcusable. There are other ways. It is our responsibility to our audience to find those alternative ways and ensure our message is clear and has the opportunity to be memorable.

Can you recall how you felt when you have experienced PowerPoint presentations with too much information, presented far too rapidly with slides too crowded with data? Our experience is compromised in learning and receiving the message, too often confused because the PowerPoint was too poorly planned, with too little time to digest the information. It is merely a data dump. This is not to mention witnessing far too little practice or rehearsal that has gone into presenting an important message.

Have you also noticed how often presenters of PowerPoint speak in a sing-song voice? They often begin and end a sentence with the same inflection? A presenter’s voice that sounds humdrum, even bored, or has exactly the same tone is usually because they are only focused on what is on the slide. Saying merely ‘words’ rather than interpreting information in an interesting and compelling manner is what is going to capture and maintain the attention of the audience.

Conferences, or any business forum, are expensive. Expensive in terms of effort, company and personal time and cost. How many PowerPoint slides have you ever seen that have really stuck with you? I hope a few. Yet, I bet speakers have been remembered, expertly accompanied by thoughtful and worthwhile slides.

A message from Sir Richard Branson.

Sir Richard Branson does not take, or encourage, meetings with protracted PowerPoint presentations. He takes walking meetings. Meetings while he walks. He does not indulge long meetings with PowerPoint. He knows his brain is more active and can focus more attentively while making discerned decisions when he is active. It is time efficient and respectful to all parties. More can be achieved and you are more likely to gain action.

Another positive about meetings outside the boardroom is a lack of fancy tools, and instead an emphasis on real communication. If anybody ever puts the words they’re about to tell me up onto a screen, I’m tempted to walk out.

Pictures yes, but PowerPoint presentations absolutely no! Richard Branson, 6th April, 2015

Many people abdicate responsibility when they present a PowerPoint presentation. I always wonder why? Surely it is the individual who would like to be remembered, given recognition or even a promotion or contract. Perhaps foremost, to be seen as a worthy ambassador representing their organisation. Not the PowerPoint.

Slides have a clear purpose. One of those is to compliment the presenter and the whole presentation. The slides are there to form a visual and heighten the message, not there merely to be just a repeat of what the speaker is saying, verbatim.

Three Cardinal Myths :

Myth 1 – You have to share everything about a topic.

As the fashion icon, Coco Chanel, famously said, ‘Less is more’. She shaped a new era of fashion for the decades to follow. Make your presentation elegant and visually powerful with the well chosen 1-5 points you wish to make. Make them well. Extremely well.

Craft them into digestible, palatable, compelling chunks and you have the start of a good presentation.

The shorter the time, the less points you should focus upon. Discipline yourself to that.

Fact #1 from neuroscience:

Steer the brain’s focus to what you really want as a presenter. The brain is exposed to myriad of stimuli every second from all of your senses and all competing for your attention in some way. Make what you present stand out. Around 30% of the cortex of the brain is given to visual processing. Compare that to around 8% for touch and 3% for hearing. We are visual creatures from the moment we are born.

Myth 2 – We can read for meaning, and listen intently, simultaneously.

We can do many things with our automatic brain like walking, chewing gum and crossing the road. From a neuroscience perspective, the brain cannot listen with intent and focus on what the speaker is saying as well as read at the same time.

The brain cannot do two attention rich activities, simultaneously.

No, we can’t multitask. As much as we would like to think we do. And many would argue they do it well. What is deemed ‘doing it well’ is the use of short term memory to go from one task to the next. This is distinct from the ability to read deeply, and certainly to think deeply, creating the important focus so that a complex problem can be solved.

Fact #2 from neuroscience

Often what we are doing is controlled by the automatic brain. We think we are multitasking, yet research studies show that the more activities in which we engage, requiring a degree of thought, our effectiveness will be compromised upwards from 20%.

Brain scientists call this ‘Switch Cost’.

Switch cost is an expensive cost to our cognition. Every time we shift our attention the brain has to reorient itself. This taxes our mental resources, frustrating the brain making learning shallower and interfering with the critical transition of short term memory into long term memory. We need long term memory for retrieval of that information at a later date. There is a ‘switch cost’ for the brain moving from one task to the other, every time. Be sure that expense is well spent and you are the director of that expenditure.

From a neuroscience perspective the brain would like to say: 

  1. Tell me what is critical or of particular interest so I can be efficient with my reading.
  2. Give me a couple of moments, or longer, to read the slide and scan for what is of importance to me.
  3. Don’t just repeat exactly what is on the slide, verbatim. Please do not insult me.
  4. Give me a story, anecdote, example or some embellishment so that the main points are more likely to stick in my memory.

Myth 3 – The technology will work on the day at the allotted time, with no hiccups.

Think again. You are likely to be visited by the ghost of ‘Murphy’s Law’ at any time. And this is regardless of sound and video checks. It has happened to me and many colleagues and speakers alike. It can occur on any important occasion, at impressive venues with fancy media technology and savvy technicians at the ready. It can and does occur.

How many of you have witnessed a delay in a presentation for at least 10 mins because the changeover of a speaker is occurring or there is a problem with the technology system? We all have. Too many times.

Assume the technology at the venue may present you a hiccup on the day. Yes, assume.

Any presenter of a PowerPoint knows this is a likely eventuality.

A professional presenter has a Plan B, even a Plan C.

A committed presenter is a professional who takes their work seriously and truly respects their audience.

A polished, committed presenter will be so well prepared, that if all else fails, they have the ability to present without the PowerPoint.

The show must go on. PowerPoint or no PowerPoint.

A dedicated presenter will be able to present their material, at the very least the main points, by verbally articulating what is necessary and worthwhile.

And, they will be able to do this without once saying, “Well, sorry guys, if only I had my PowerPoint I would show you this.”

A professional does not make an apology. Remember, it is your, and only your, responsibility to ensure the technology works and you can present.

If it doesn’t, you make it work with your articulation and presentation skills.

The onus is on you, to do what it takes to make it work on the day. You have been given the role as custodian of the material and the occasion.

No excuses. No blame. Do what it takes to make it work.

And that means to prepare extremely well. In fact, exceptionally well.

Fact 3 – from neuroscience.

If you want to sound natural and interesting, you have to practice your PowerPoint presentation in excess of 7 times. This is especially important if you have not prepared the PowerPoint presentation yourself nor the presentation that is to accompany the PowerPoint.

The brain needs meaningful repetition to lay down long term memory and strengthen the neuronal pathways you will wish to draw upon throughout the presentation.

Merely reading, silently, is not really practice. Practice consists of reading your presentation out loud enough times until you are ready to present in front of a select audience. Then you will wish to practice some more, changing things around to ensure better flow and meaning for your audience. This will also help you to create more ease within your own presentation style and vernacular.

If you are genuinely committed, you will walk and work your presentation while in motion. From an evolutionary perspective, primitive man’s brain developed atop a moving figure. He was always looking out for the novel while remaining alert to new environments as he explored new terrain.

If you practice while in motion, walking along a beach or walking around your home, you will develop a somatic or body experience of your presentation.  It is this added level of practice involving the body that will support you to handle any eventuality, like a failure of technology, with a degree of ease and aplomb.

A clever presentation.

Annual university dinners are always a highlight of any university calendar. In all faculties, it is a time when industry speakers can inspire, excite and entice prospective students to join their organisations and be a part of an exciting industry. In my experience, I cannot recall a more successful speaker than the late CEO of Roc Oil, John Doran, who spoke with so much enthusiasm for a company that he founded. He charmed us with his intellect and well chosen stories from his vast international experience, all infused with his disarming Welsh accent, wonderful humour and a compelling PowerPoint display. Mr Doran’s PowerPoint was a series of pictures. Only pictures, all of which were cleverly and expertly chosen. Each had high relevance, intrigue and provided a wonderful visual to peak our interest. Each added gravity to his speech or provided discerned humour to make each point meaningful. He did it all through his passion, well crafted presentation accompanied by creative visuals. We did not see copious maps of drilling fields, all too staged company shots of shaking hands and tall buildings, or off-shore rigs.

Mr Doran was an innovator, entrepreneur and clever businessman. Mr Doran wanted to attract those students who were prepared to do and think differently.

It can be done.

Without doubt, Mr Doran had committed a great deal of time to his presentation. The result – no one spoke. Chairs that would otherwise have remained turned away due to round table configurations were adjusted to face the stage. We were each riveted by his presentation and tantalised by what would come next.

This occasion provided a stark contrast to the often loud clanging of cutlery as people often disregard the speaker in favour of their food. Low murmurs of conversation often reach distracting volumes because folk become more interested in dialogue at their table as yet again, an ill prepared, dull speaker is trying to fit a company prepared, sometimes one-hour presentation, into the allotted 20-minute timeslot.

Audiences notice the difference. And they will when it is your turn to present, in any forum. We have been well trained as to what to expect, unfortunately.

We can all learn much from this.

So when you have the honour, privilege and luxury of presenting a one-hour PowerPoint presentation to an audience of 1 or 1,000 or unknown through the internet, remember:

  • That person has given you an hour of their life and you can never give it back to them. Please do not squander this opportunity. You may forget them, but they will never forget your poor performance.
  • You are the business and the presenting focus with your presence and your voice.
  • Use images, or graphs to illustrate complexity, wherever you can.
  • Seek to show less, rather than more.
  • Don’t ever repeat or read verbatim what is on the slide – this is an insult to your audience. Learn and practice saying it a different way.
  • Make a point, then tell a story – but make sure it is relevant to the audience.
  • Above all, respect your audience, in every way.
  • Give them an experience that will make you memorable and give them the gift of your expertise and professional preparation.

Select Bibliography.

Branson, R. 2015. Why You Should Stand up in Meetings. Virgin, 6 April 2015 https://www.virgin.com/richard-branson/why-you-should-stand-up-in-meetings      (accessed 30 March 2017)

Doidge, N. 2015. The Brain’s Way of Healing : Stories of Remarkable Recovery and Discovery. Great Britain: Allen Lane

Medina, J. 2008. Brain Rules: 12 Principles or surviving and thriving at Work, Home and School. Seattle: Pear Press

Jill Sweatman is a neuroscience strategist in learning and development who coaches corporate executives to be their best holistically as well as bringing out the very best in their staff. She lectures at universities and higher education institutions on Presentation Skills.

Her keynote, ‘The Art of Disciplining Distractions for Better Decision Making’, is a compelling and fascinating presentation rich in current research on neuroscience and how our world of ubiquitous distractions is affecting our brains. Her 20+ year practice incorporates her passion for applying neuroscience in strategic and interpersonal business and education contexts. She has presented in 14 countries and is currently completing her first book on presentation skills. 

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