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The simplest way to create an effective presentation is to view it as a power play between you and your audience. Instead of trying to assert dominance, you want to make your audience as comfortable as possible.

“Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae…”

The above paragraph is one of my favorite online jokes in recent history, especially because its origin is highly debated and researchers at Cambridge University vehemently deny its accuracy. To try it yourself, read the following three sentences and compare their difficulty levels:

1. A vheclie epxledod at a plocie cehckipont on Mnoday, kilinlg the bmober and a polcie offceir.
2. Big tax ineesacrs tihs yaer hvae seezueqd the inmcoes of mnay rtereies.
3. A dootcr has aimttded the magltheuansr of a tageene ceacnr pintaet who deid aetfr a hatospil durg blendur.

I’m sure you noticed that the sentences get progressively harder to understand (the “answers” appear at the end of this article). These difficulties can be explained by psycholinguistics. Specifically, our brains process spelling errors in highly predictable sentences faster than similar errors in more unusual ones. In communication, we also process subconscious cues like tone of voice, body language, and confidence gestures much faster than we process rational thought. This perceptual speed mismatch impacts everything. Think about how this applies to the presentations you give when competing for a project. Have you ever given a strong technical presentation and not been awarded the contract?

Meet two of my clients (not their real names):

  • Andrew identifies as an introvert. He loves the clear-cut elegance of math, science, and precise problem-solving. His attention to detail is impressive; he even devoted five minutes to technical terminology during his last presentation. He didn’t get the contract.
  • Amy loves her job but hates networking and public speaking. Her palms sweat, her voice shakes, and she never knows what to do with her hands. She has a shorter client list than her more gregarious peers, which is impacting her opportunities for future work.

The point of these and our earlier examples isn’t to make people feel bad about their reading skills or to harp on design professional stereotypes. Instead, it’s to drive home the point that how we present information matters. If we don’t master the subconscious aspects of communication, we spend the rest of the conversation making up for it.

Social perception is processed faster than rational thought
The cerebral cortex, the part of the brain responsible for thought, consists of 14 billion neurons. Even so, it can’t keep up with the staggering amount of perceptual input (sights, sounds, smells) that we’re inundated with every day. To cope, our brains rely on patterns. We experience the world by processing a few key details of each experience and then categorizing our perception into schemas or blueprints. This is why Pavlov was able to make his dogs salivate. He created a reaction through repeated experiences and expectations. Now, we don’t want to make our clients drool, but we do want them to associate us with positive emotions. If their first reaction is “I like these folks,” you’ll get the benefit of the doubt before you even stand up to present.

Create more persuasive presentations by maximizing positive client experiences
Based on this principle, the simplest way to create an effective presentation is to view it as a power play between you and your audience. But instead of trying to assert dominance, you want to make your audience as comfortable as possible.

To do this, you need to shift your focus during presentations. It’s not about what you find interesting, it’s what your client finds interesting. It’s not about your nerves, it’s about how your client feels listening to you. It’s not about what you can do, it’s about what your client needs.

There are about a million ways to go about doing this, including working on posture, gestures, tone of voice, confidence, graphics, communication styles, networking and follow-ups. And all of these areas matter.

However, changing the organization and framework of your material is where you’ll get the most bang for your buck.

 

In communication, we also process subconscious cues… much faster than we process rational thought.

Storytelling produces consistent results, quickly
Have you ever noticed how all the superhero stories, from Superman to Wonder Woman, have roughly the same plot?

They surprise us in predictable ways. This familiarity even decreases the amount of mental effort we have to put in to follow the plot, which is why we love them so much.

While your presentations may not be as action-packed, you can apply the same storytelling principles and reap the rewards. In fact, foundational research shows that story form increases delayed listener recall of information by six to seven times.

Remember writing five-paragraph essays in high school? We’re going to use a similar format to ease the cognitive burden on your listeners, keep their attention, and increase their retention of key information. Here are the key components:

1. Hook: Introduce your topic in a way that grabs people’s attention. Ask a question, present an interesting fact, tell a non-offensive joke. 

2. Action: This is the meat of your story. It should demonstrate your point. Include twists and turns, build up the drama here! Our brains like it when the protagonist has to overcome challenges to win, or when the underdog unexpectedly triumphs, so play up these aspects. 

3. Close: Restate your topic as a conclusion. Also include a call to action, telling your audience what you want them to do with the information.

Practice writing and conveying factual information using this format to improve your effectiveness and persuasiveness. While this might seem like a simple tool, it’s key!

Remember Andrew, above? He experienced a 30-percent increase in listener recall and a 50-percent increase in audience engagement after one coaching session on story structure. What about Amy? She reported an increase in her confidence for social interaction and a decrease in her anxiety about public speaking. Notably, she has also significantly expanded her client base.

The way you present information affects your bottom line. But if you don’t think you have the right skills, don’t despair. Interpersonal and speaking skills can be learned and practiced until they’re a natural part of your presentations. Don’t let a lack of training keep you from taking that next step.

Scrambled sentence answers: 
1. A vehicle exploded at a police checkpoint on Monday, killing the bomber and a police officer. 
2. Big tax increases this year have squeezed the incomes of many retirees. 
3. A doctor has admitted the manslaughter of a teenage cancer patient who died after a hospital drug blunder.


 

About the Author:

Natalie Bradshaw, of Full Cadence Consulting, teaches professionals to improve communication and amplify their message by using brain science. You can learn more about Bradshaw’s business at: fullcadenceconsulting.com

 
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