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.

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Media training consultant Eric Bergman in front of his motorcycle near Lake Ontario with the Toronto skyline in the background
As someone who wrote his first speech for a senior executive more than 30 years ago, Eric Bergman provides presentation skills services to clients from his base in Toronto.

Contact Eric if you’re interested in developing and delivering presentations that are authentic, credible and believable, and that apply the latest in cognitive techniques to the challenge of influencing and motivating audiences.

Crossing your arms is OK

A few years ago, I conducted media training for an organization that was potentially facing a strike. I was asked to provide one day of training for management-level employees who would manage strike sites as representatives of the organization. Prior to the start of my portion of the agenda, the company’s director of human resources spent about 45 minutes talking to the group about the logistics of managing the strike.

Later, when we discussed body language in broadcast interviews, I crossed my arms and asked if this was appropriate body language for someone delivering a presentation or being interviewed on television. Everyone said it was inappropriate; I looked closed.

Business woman standing, smiling, with her arms crossed
I turned to the HR director and asked if she would ever stand in front of a group and present information with her arms crossed. She said she would never do that. I asked the group if she would ever do that, and they all said that she was far too professional to ever do something like that.

However, that was exactly what she did. I had been sitting at the back of the room at the time, with my video camera on a tripod, so I turned on the camera and recorded her after she crossed her arms while talking to the group. When I played back the tape, everyone was surprised that they hadn’t noticed she had committed what is often known as a body language “sin.”

The point I made to this group was that, because the HR director was communicating effectively and being herself, they did not even notice the body language. It was natural for her. Her body language was consistent with who she was and what she was saying.

If you were standing outside her office, she may have her arms crossed, but she would be listening with that special brand of attentiveness reserved for those who are truly in the “people” business.

Every of us is unique. Each of us has our own way of standing, talking and conveying our messages.

We need to “be ourselves” when engaged in a broadcast interview or presentation of any type. This is how we convey our personality, and this builds the trust that makes our message believable.

Simple trick to improve presentations? Turn off the projector

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.

Boredom.

Not only do presenters often bore audiences, but in the worst circumstances, presenters bore themselves.
Letters P P T with a red cross through it

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.”