The Science of Effective Presentations

Commercial psychologist Phillip Adcock and training expert Ian Callow offer some practical advice on how you can improve your own presentations.

Most of us agree that we have all sat through too many mind-numbingly boring presentations, so we decided to find out why. We wanted to find out whether PowerPoint really helps people convey their key messages or whether perhaps the opposite may be true in that it is actually reducing the effectiveness of what they are trying to say.

Use both spoken and visual communication – “Dual encoding”

Firstly, you need to understand how we as humans receive and process incoming information. Typically, we mentally encode visual and spoken information at the same time, but using different parts of the brain: this is known as dual encoding, and from a presenting and communications perspective, is a much more powerful way of ensuring that your key messages become firmly embedded into the brains of your audiences. In practical terms, what this means is that if you show a picture on screen and describe the image verbally, the audience takes on board and retains more of your communication.

Be careful – bullet points are not visuals

But beware! Bullet points on screen are definitely not effective devices for describing an image as they too have to be processed visually (like the image) and so any dual encoding is nullified.

Minimise the number of times you speak any word that appears on the screen

Another simple technique for improving your communication ability using PowerPoint is to challenge yourself to minimise the number of times you ever speak any word that appears on the screen at the same time. For a kick-off, the screen that you are showing to the audience should never, ever be something you read your script from. The screen content adds depth, value and context to the stuff coming out of your mouth, and, as the well-known saying goes, a picture paints a thousand words. By adopting this approach, you will rapidly improve the audience uptake and subsequent recall of what you are communicating to them.

Be prepared to accept feedback, both good and bad

A good presenter is always prepared to listen to the advice of others and, in particular, we strongly urge you to take the courageous step of developing a feedback loop. This could involve asking a friend or colleague to attend your presentation and to critique your content and performance objectively during a later review session.

Video-record your presentation

Alternatively, consider video-recording your performance and then self-reviewing your presentation. Scientists have identified that as much as 95% of what we do, we do with little or no conscious awareness. In other words, until you watch yourself present or have someone else do it for you, there is very little chance of you really knowing what you do well and what else you do not so well.

What is the one message you want the audience to remember?

Our next recommendation will sound like common sense, but we never cease to be amazed by the number of presenters who can’t answer the following question: “what is the one key message that you want the audience to leave your presentation with?”

What are the 7 supporting messages?

Incidentally, we also recommend identifying a maximum of 7 supporting messages that you want to embed in the brains of your audience. We also suggest you identify this information before you go to work designing your presentation. This way, you have a defined output and you can then structure your entire communication around it.

In our experience, many presenters seem intent on having a deck full of information that they are determined to shower the audience with in the vain hope that some of what they say will ‘stick’: spray and pray, as we call it.

Have you given the presentation enough time and attention?

Here is a simple but thought-provoking notion: Whatever you as a presenter are communicating, stop for a moment and consider the value of the information you are imparting. Then ask yourself, how much it would be worth investing in terms of optimising the way you deliver your messages. More often than not, the presentation and how you deliver it deserves more time, attention and investment that many currently give it.

Phillip Adcock and Ian Callow are co-authors of The Presenter’s Handbook: How to Give a Captivating Performance – Every Time!


Published On: 25th Jun 2012

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  1. I’m a firm believer in short and to the point. Let the audience create a good portion of the experience by engaging them whenever possible. It also makes it easier on the presenter.

    Suz Michel 17 Jun at 3:46 pm
  2. What is the word science in the headline referring to?
    Are these advices somehow researched?

    Mikkel 18 May at 2:37 pm