Last night I spoke to a journalist who writes for Rolling Stone, Esquire, and other esteemed publications. An Inc article featuring one of my presentation tips recently caught his eye and inspired him to contact me. Our discussion focused on his preparation for an upcoming presentation.
He asked me, If you could give me only one presentation tip, what would it be?
His question stumped me. I have so many presentation tips and tricks rattling around in my head that identifying one, singular presentation tip to share was a challenge. After some thought, I told him, know what you want your audience to remember and develop your presentation so those ideas shine throughout your presentation. Don’t let any fluff, stories, stats, or supporting ideas get in the way of your main idea.
My advice was a bit of a cop out, as it was more inspirational than a black-and-white, easy-to-use solution. It required more explanation before it could be put to immediate use.
I have written about how to create a memorable presentation more than once. You can see some of those tips here, here, and here. While all of the advice in those posts is important, I did not want to expound upon my original answer to his question in an overly complex way, or overload my new friend with too much advice since his presentation is only a few days away, and he asked me to give him a simple response to his question.
As a result, I decided to help him create a presentation that would highlight his main points by giving him only two tips, both inspired by proven psychological principles, The Serial Position Effect and The Von Restorff Effect. These two psychological principles will help him share his idea in a clear, easy to remember presentation style, that won’t overload attendees’ memories with unnecessary information. Hopefully these principles will also help you create presentations that put your main ideas in the forefront of attendees’ memories for a long time.
According to the serial position effect, ideas presented first are more easily recalled than ideas presented in the middle and conclusion of your presentation.
In addition, ideas that are presented at the end of your presentation are more memorable than ideas presented in the middle of your presentation.
The enhanced recall of the first presented items relative to the middle of the curve (the primacy effect) is hypothesized to be due to cumulative rehearsal of these items leading to superior transfer of information about these items to long-term store. After the first few items, the learner reaches a steady state of information overload so that additional items throughout the middle of the list are processed approximately equally, and they are given less processing than the first items. – Frank Garcea
So, what does this mean for your presentation? Well, if you want the black-and-white answer, I would suggest presenting your most important idea first, and then using the middle of your presentation to flesh out your main idea. In addition, I would suggest repeating your main idea again at the end of your presentation.
If you can follow that suggestion, go for it. Your main idea will be easy for the audience to recall.
Many presenters however will likely struggle to implement that suggestion for a variety of reasons.
For example, some presenters will need time to build up to their main idea. If they opened with their most important point, the audience might not understand it at that early stage of the presentation.
Other presenters will prefer to open their presentation with a story or some other soft concept to warm up the audience. They don’t want to launch into their big idea before they establish a connection with the audience.
Developing your presentations in one of those ways is not necessarily a bad idea, even considering the serial position effect. I have suggested building presentations in these ways in previous posts because there are benefits to leading with a story and connecting to the audience on a personal level at the beginning of your presentation, as well as building a sense of suspense into your presentation. However I would urge you to not discount the serial position effect too quickly before trying to make it work for you. You can probably take advantage of the serial position effect if you approach it with some creativity.
If you don’t think you can present your main idea in the beginning of your presentation, challenge yourself to present your main idea in an innovative way so it will fit in the beginning. For example, if decide your main point is: XYZ will revolutionize ABC industry and you cannot present that point without building up to it with supporting facts, consider presenting that main point at a higher level to the audience in the beginning of your presentation. For example, you might tell the audience that ABC industry has problem DEF, and you have discovered a solution. Even if the audience doesn’t recall solution XYZ after your presentation, they will likely remember you have a solution, and contact you with questions about that solution to refresh their memory. You will forever be associated with a solution in their minds, even if they need to do some work to rediscover your specific solution at a later date after your presentation.
The Von Restorff effect predicts that an item that “stands out like a sore thumb” is more likely to be remembered than other items. It is a bias in favour of remembering the unusual.
To ensure the audience remembers the most important points of your presentation, ask yourself, how can I make my main points stand out like a sore thumb?
The opportunities for highlighting your essential points are endless. It will be up to you to determine which techniques are the right fit for you and your audience.
One such technique is to highlight critical concepts with your slide design. For example, take a look at the slides below. Which slide stands out like a sore thumb?
The final slide in this series stands out like a sore thumb. It is dramatically different from the design style of the other slides, and for good reason. While it would be nice for the audience to remember the name of the Ethos3 founder and CEO, it is more important for the audience to remember the name of the business, Ethos3. Because the company name is something the audience will hopefully recall in the future, the slide with the company name was designed with a unique style to make it easier to remember.
Instead of varying the design of your slides to emphasize your main points, you can also use a lack of slides to draw attention to critical concepts. For example, if you are giving a TED talk, and decide to skip slides altogether, you might reconsider that decision and instead use slides only during the most important part of your talk. When you go from no slides to slides, the audience will wake up and pay attention. That section of your talk will stand out like a sore thumb and therefore be more memorable.
You can also draw attention to your main points by changing your style of delivery. For example you can dramatically adjust your body language, as well as the tone, volume, and speed of your speech. In addition, you can use props, demonstrations, and interactive exercises to highlight a critical section of your presentation.
There are many ways to emphasize the essential points of your presentation. Find a technique that works for you and go all the way. Subtlety is not necessarily the best course of action when leveraging the Von Restorff effect. You want your audience to notice the difference in your presentation style when you are highlighting key points of your presentation. If they don’t notice the difference in the delivery of your main point as compared to your delivery of supporting points, you are probably not effectively emphasizing the critical ideas.
What are your secrets for creating a memorable presentation?
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