Dr. Carmen Simon, Rexi Media
For the past five years, I have been perfecting a method for persuasive presentations, using current findings from neuroscience. This method, called the Rexi Method (“Rexi” comes from the Latin verb "to direct" or "to guide") includes 3 elements that are mandatory for behavioral change: attention, memory, and decision-making.
With the Rexi Method, I contend this: if you have the proper attention triggers in your presentation, and the right memory magnets (making content stick), and ease the decision-making process, your audience will act on your message. When you don't, they won’t. Or it will take you four times longer to persuade them of anything.
Figure 1. The Rexi Method contains 3 elements that are mandatory to behavioral change
Memory is critical to persuasive presentations because people are more likely to act on what they remember. A question I receive often is: how do I make presentations memorable?
One of the techniques I apply rigorously when I coach executives is the use of repetition as a memory magnet. Using repetition is no big surprise (the more often we see or hear something, the more likely it will stick); yet repetition is frequently overlooked because presenters want to cram more content into a short amount of time, and nothing is repeated. If you want to have control over what people remember, it is best to learn content sacrifice, and focus on the part of the message that really matters.
In the example below, the CEO of an ecommerce company delivered a keynote presentation on the importance of bringing ecommerce into the modern world, by using digital techniques (the same way old movies have been “digitally remastered.”) The first question I have for any presenter is “what would you like your audience to remember?” I ask this question on the basis that audiences forget 90% after any presentation. It is not always possible to get the audience to remember more, but it is possible to control the 10% they do remember.
In this case, the presenter’s 10% was the notion that if you start with customer satisfaction, undergo an organizational change, and move from e-commerce to pure commerce, then you have joined the modern and profitable world of doing business. Once I understand the 10% of a presentation (and support it by no more than 4 points), I coach the presenter to repeat that slide at least 3-4 times during the presentation.
Figure 2. Repeating the agenda 3-4 times during a presentation leads to retention
This technique works because:
- It gives the brain small chunks to process (we are more likely to retain long-term 3 items than 7 items).
- It helps the brain “carry” the small chunks from one part of the presentation to the next. When your audience members are listening to you, their working memory is taxed with a lot of items (graphics, auditory information, along with baggage from their own mind). Repetition helps them transfer important information from slide 2 to slide 12. Otherwise, that information is gone.
- Repeating the same items reactivates the pathways that the audience starts to form with new content. Reactivation is necessary for memory consolidation.
In the example below, the speaker delivered a keynote presentation on the topic of “understanding the marketed mind.” In this case, the presenter’s 10% was that we must master data analytics, psychology principles, and biometrics in order to get better at marketing. We repeated the 10%, and also made it look different than any other slide in the presentation (see green slides in Figure 3).
Figure 3. Repetition can be enhanced by using attention triggers such as color
In Figure 3, we pair up repetition with a bottom-up attention trigger: a bright green color. This way, we ensure that when the 10% important message is displayed, people pay attention. Therefore, they are more likely to process the 3 items in those slides because they are looking at it; after a blue pattern has been established and the brain habituates, the color change attracts attention in an involuntary way.
As a scientist, I constantly ask the question “do these techniques actually work?” We used repetition as a memory magnet and color as an attention trigger in a recent keynote presentation for Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert. He was asked to deliver a keynote presentation at an IBM event. We repeated his main message (his 10%), which was based on the notion of improving one’s odds for success. This message was supported by 3 points: goals are for losers, passion is overrated, and luck can be manipulated. We repeated this message 5 times, even though it was only a 25-minute speech (see Figure 4).
Figure 4. Repetition works even when it is a short speech
One of the best ways to see if you had a “memory magnet” in your presentation is to note whether people are repeating what YOU thought was your 10% after the event. We looked at the Twitter feeds that appeared during and after the speech, and the majority of people are repeating back his 10% (see Figure 5). As a presenter, this must be one of the greatest compliments you receive, and a mandatory metric in your advanced speaker repertoire. Scott was excited about our method and published our observations in a blog on the science of making your presentations memorable.
Figure 5. A good memory magnet is when people are repeating back your 10%.
Two more advantages of knowing your 10% and repeating it: 1) it helps when suddenly your presentation time becomes shorter (e.g., others before you speak for too long or an organizer says “sorry, you only have 10 minutes instead of 30.”) Given that your most important points are repeated, you can address them briefly, and then elegantly jump to your last conclusion slide. And 2) if you ever get stuck on the message and lose your way in the flow, you have a "go to place": return to your 10%.
For your next presentation, follow these steps:
- Ask yourself: what 10% would I like my audience to remember?
- Support this message by no more than 4 points (this may turn into an Agenda, but it does not have to be called that way. It can be a Summary, it can be Key Points, it can be Essential Techniques).
- Repeat your 10% at least 3-4 times.
Dr. Carmen Simon
A client sent us this question: “I have a quick question relating to your research on attention span. I have a co-worker who wants to keep a meeting to no more than 10 - 15 minutes because he has heard that the attention span for adult learners is limited to 10 minutes. I am all for concise meetings, however this seems to be a bit of an extreme measure to try to get around the attention span issue rather than making sure you build in changes in delivery modality every 10 minutes or so (as you suggested in your presentation at the Summit this year). What do you think of very short presentations?”
An interesting meeting can last for 2 hours and feel like 10 minutes. A dull meeting can feel like 2 hours even though it is only 10 minutes. There are several ways in which you can make a longer meeting “feel” short:
Change the delivery modality, as you wisely named it, and therefore the level of stimulation. This means that the boss speaks for a while, and then invites someone else to speak, shows a video or some slides, and returns to more conversation or debate. There is a reason people watch movies for 2 hours straight: images and plot change fast and frequently.
The image below summarizes the various media and delivery formats that someone can switch in a presentation or a meeting: slides, video, group discussion, individual speaker (either the host or a guest), review a handout, invite someone else to speak, and return to slides for summary.
Fig. 1. Variety of media and delivery format will keep most audiences engaged in presentations or meetings
Present great content. It is impossible not to pay attention when someone shares content that is perceived as novel, incongruous, or engaging. When the novelty wears off or things start to become predictable and passive, it’s time to end the meeting. Take a look at the introductory screen in the presentation below. When the first screen introduces a question that invites participation, you're annoucing an atypical meeting or presentation.
Fig 2. Begin with novelty, incongruity, or engagement to secure attention
Vary the complexity. What makes us bored? Things that are too simple, can be carried out with minimum attention, and provide little stimulation. If the meeting materials are too simple, it’s best to keep the meeting short and sometimes even email people instead of meeting them in real time. When things are complex and the meeting host is willing to engage others, then you can prolong the meeting.
Use a personalized approach. Let’s pretend you had a team of 10 people and wanted to meet with them for an hour. Depending on the topic and context, it may be better to have a 6-minute meeting with each person privately, than with all 10 for 60 minutes. When the situation allows, this is something to consider because one of the techniques that definitely alleviates boredom is customized, one-on-one conversation and feedback. It is very difficult to allow your attention to wonder or to multitask when you're the only one meeting with the boss.
I enjoyed the other question posed, which is not that frequent: how short is too short? (Usually, I receive questions about how long is too long?). The way to gauge the length is this: make it long enough for people to perceive substance, and short enough to make them anticipate the next event without dreading it.
This brings us to the last point. Meetings or presentations are not created in isolation; they are typically part of a continuum. Just the way you add variety inside a meeting or presentation, it helps to have variety in the way they are offered across time. For example, if you’re known for super short meetings, schedule a longer, more in-depth one, with complex and varied topics. If you’re known for super long meetings, schedule a short one, where people are not even allowed to sit down. Surprise your audience by offering the opposite of what they expect.
New year? New resolutions? New you? Same demands?
How many times did you hear this in 2013, or any year for that matter: “Hey, I sent you the slides, can you take a quick look at them and give me your comments?” When did having a “quick look” at anything do any good? “Well, I took a quick look at your car, but I couldn’t have known it was going to break down like that.” “I took a quick look at your finances but hard to see a way out of that mess!” What are you really supposed to say in response to the question? “Took a quick look. Looks good. Lots of slides though. Loved the font. You’ll crush it”
Having a look at the slides is liking staring at a car through the window. You don’t know how it’ll drive - how the individual elements, seen or unseen, that go into its construction, will actually function together. Can you judge the car by looks alone? What if we did that to presenters too? Not everybody that wows at TED is also suited for the cover of GQ. Next time that somebody asks you to take a quick look at their slides, try answering this way: “Well, there’s really nothing I can do by looking at your slides but I’d be delighted to hear your presentation.” After all, readers of this blog will know that some of the best slides in a presentation appear the most abstract when printed. And slides without the presenter are like words in a book, but in random order. The craft is in the narration, the pacing, the tease, the reveal. Even with speaker notes, you’re going to struggle to decode that in a 16MB attachment. So decline the request to review the slides, but offer your time to review the “presentation.”
And while you’re busy declining, politely, be ready for this demand too: “I’ve knocked up these slides, can you pretty them up for me?” Pretty them up? Like an orange box is going to make a difference? Even with a drop shadow. Or bevels. My hope for 2014 is that we’re one year closer to a time when presenters realize that it is their duty to make the presentation come alive. When presenters just ditch ugly slides and engage with an audience instead. Where presenters prepare far enough in advance that a designer can translate pages of text into a single, striking image. And where dropping words in with a starbust effect and emphasizing in red, is officially removed from Powerpoint’s animation palette.
If all that were to happen, 2014 might just be the best year yet.
I’m often asked for some tips and tricks that can help presenters nail a presentation when they have little time to prepare. Obviously, that’s never ideal, but in a pinch there is one activity that is rarely documented and yet in my opinion invaluable. And no, it doesn’t involved recording your presentation, and playing it through headphones while you sleep. Admittedly, that would be awesome - if it worked. But I’ve yet to be convinced that it does.
I’ll make this point with a road markings analogy. If you’ve ever driven in the UK, you might have noticed that when approaching a stop sign, you’ll see the words “Stop Ahead” painted on the road. [If you missed it, pay closer attention - or drive on the left!] Same as in the US, right? But not so. In the UK, “Stop” is written above “Ahead,” whereas in the US, it’s written below. To me, that’s always implied that in the UK, drivers are taking in the big picture and can see the phrase clearly and completely, while in the US, drivers must be driving with their eyes so fixed on the road, five yards in front of the car, that they first see the word “Stop” and then the word “Ahead.” Subtle, but true - check it out sometime.
So what’s the lesson here? When you’re in a time crunch, think US road markings, not UK. Why? Because without the time to truly prepare, it’s unlikely that you are going to have the time to really refine your overall narration and story arc. That’s a complex, well thought out process that can lay out a big picture. Without that time, you can still stand-up and impress, by concentrating on knowing exactly what comes next. Don’t worry as much about delivering your best possible performance, but be sure that you know your slide order cold. Once you know that “Ahead” is going to follow “Stop” you can then think of a phrase that will link the slides together.
There really aren’t many things worse than watching a well-intentioned but poorly-prepared presenter stumbling through a bunch of slides and being “surprised” by unexpected content. “How did this get in here?” should be banned from any speaker’s vocabulary, along with “let me just gloss over this one,” or “sorry these aren’t my slides.”
Watch any good presenter and you’ll see that their slide transitions are seamless - they ALWAYS know what comes next. They might be talking to one slide, but they are doing that in the context of setting up the next one. While these presenters are more fully prepared, and taking you on a well thought out journey, this simple trick of knowing which slide comes next, will also help you look smooth and prepared when time constrained. You might also become a better driver, too.
And how do we help our audience remember our presentations?
In a recent article on this blog (a presentation, in fact) we discussed memory and just how easy it is for people to forget what we tell them. One of the reasons we forget - presentations and information in general - is that we don't properly encode the information in the first place. In other words, we don't really "forget" where we put our car keys; we just don't register their location into our memory to begin with. Why? We (some of us more than others) get distracted.
Distractions that happen while we try to remember something are the main reason memories don't get encoded properly.
And this is a BIG reason why people forget your presentation.
So don't let them get distracted. Persuade them to remember. Here are 5 tips:
Draw attention to the important stuff
Information sameness is bad
Foster a deeper processing (i.e. ask questions)
Make the audience part of the experience
Keep it short
(Now where did I put my car keys...)
It’s natural to be nervous when giving a presentation. For many, nervousness is directly proportional to the size of the audience, which would make you think that the smaller the audience, the higher the presenter’s confidence. Elite presenters understand that this is not actually the case; a larger audience gives you more participants to engage, paths to walk and opportunities for your message to resonate.
But there is a time when a particularly small audience is of immeasurable value. An audience so small that they’ll easily fit in any hotel room with you. An audience of precisely zero. This audience is valuable because they’re going to let you practice out loud, but keep their thoughts to themselves. No criticism. No multi-tasking. No tweeting. But this audience is tough because they give you absolutely NOTHING to work with. No visual cues, no questions, no answers. Lampstands, pillows, hotel artwork are the toughest crowd you’ll find - but you’ll actually be really glad you got to know them.
The next time you are gearing up for a major presentation, first try presenting to these inanimate objects. It will feel odd at first, very odd. And you’ll dismiss it as not worthwhile. But the more you rehearse what you’re planning to say, hear yourself saying those words out loud, the more you’ll be able to tune your exact message. Payback is simple: The more you practice what you’re going to say, by saying it, outloud, (not imagining it), the easier on the day to be confident with your audience.
It’s desperately hard to present to an empty room. The first time you try it you’ll hate it - and likely head straight to the bar for an evening snifter while telling yourself that you’ll have no problem rocking it live. But persevere. The familiarity that comes with hearing your own words, improving the flow through repetition and consciously linking movements to moments, will actually make you look forward to a live audience and empower you when that moment comes. This effort you make in private, will reward you greatly when it’s your public chance to shine.
It might sound paradoxical, but if you can learn to present to nobody, you really can present to anyone at all.
[photo courtesy rwbenwick.com]
Learn 5 reasons, all rooted in cognitive science, why our audiences may not remember what we share in presentations.
Struggling with your presentation? Stuck moving past the title slide? Having difficulty getting the creative juices flowing? Here are 8 resources to get you un-stuck.
- The Science of Being Memorable (of course ;) Re-invent your presentations with 26 science-based techniques and guidelines
- How to Deliver Presentations That Are Awe-Inspiring. Corey Eridon and Hubspot share presentatin tips that help guard against yawn-inducing slides.
- 7 Tips to Beautiful PowerPoint. Eugene Cheng gives a short talk about presentations that make a visual impact.
- The Left Brain Powerpoint by Cliff Atkinson. Psychiatrist and writer Iain McGilchrist clears up popular misconceptions about the function and relationship between the right brain and left brain.
- Five Presentation Mistakes Everyone Makes. Nancy Duarte advises, don't make these.
- Killer Slide Decks. A gallery of exceptionally well-designed keynote and powerpoint presentations.
- How Can I Make My PowerPoint Presentations Amazing? Lifehacker's Melanie Pinola shares some awesome tips
- Don't do what everyone else does - ever! The importance of originality, from Dr. Carmen Simon (video).
Read. Absorb. Create. Have Fun :)
Do you know Lumosity? They are the #1 brain training program on the planet, and have the world's largest and fastest growing database on human cognition — which currently includes more than 45 million users. Lumosity focuses on areas such as attention, memory, flexibility, speed, and problem solving to improve people's lives.
Two areas that have particularly attracted Rexi Media to Lumosity are attention and memory. Rexi Media coaches business presenters on how to deliver memorable presentations, and we've treated the word "memorable" scientifically. We've asked: What makes for a truly memorable presentation? How much do people remember from a business presentation over time, and why does this matter? We recently had the opportunity to sit with Dr. Joe Hardy, VP of R&D at Lumosity, and hear his thoughts about memory as it applies to presentations and business professionals.
Q: Are there any trends you are seeing regarding memory that could be affecting business professionals performance?
Dr. Hardy: As part of the Human Cognition Project, Lumosity researchers conducted a study using its database of human cognitive performance – the largest in the world – that looked at peaks in cognitive performance at different times of the day. On average, people perform better at working memory and attention tasks in the morning, and creative tasks, such as math and verbal fluency, later in the day. These findings are consistent with the existing literature that has found that creativity and focus rely on opposite brain functions; morning people tend to perform better on creative tasks during their non-peak hours later in the day, and night people tend to perform better on creative tasks earlier in the day. These results could have implications for the optimal time to perform certain tasks. For instance, if your job relies on creativity, and you are a morning person, you might be able to perform work-related tasks better during the afternoon hours.
Another study from the Human Cognition Project published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, examined the effects of sleep and alcohol consumption on cognitive abilities, including speed, memory, and flexibility. The study found that cognitive performance in all three tasks was most efficient, on average, for users reporting seven hours of sleep each night. The study also found that low to moderate alcohol intake – a self-reported one or two drinks per day – was associated with better performance in all three tasks, with brain performance scores decreasing steadily with every additional drink.
Q: What has surprised you the most about memory research in the past 5 years?
Dr. Hardy: The field of cognitive training is based on the science of neuroplasticity, and has grown enormously over the past five years. It’s been surprising and encouraging to learn how plastic the brain remains, even as we age. Research has found that those who are engaged in learning and cognitive stimulating activities throughout the lifetime build up a "cognitive reserve" that helps maintain and improve cognitive performance.
26 Science-based principles on how to attract audience attention, sustain it, and convert a presentation into memorable content.