One of the quickest and most effective ways to bore your audience is to fill your presentation with generalities. But we know that’s not your aim (or anyone’s for that matter). So why do we hear, not to mention give, so many presentations like this? Why do we as speakers keep forgetting the power of a specific example or story?

Today we’ll cover some research on how we process general information versus specific information. Then, we’ll give you two simple questions to ask to make sure you aren’t killing your presentation with generalities.

General versus Specific

We know that general information tends to get lost in the battle of what seeps into our long-term memory. It’s the specific information that makes it past the barricades and noise of the war for our precious brain space. Dr. Michael Rosenbloom, a neurologist and the director of HealthPartners’s Memory Clinic in St. Paul, says that our brains are extremely efficient at processing information. Here’s how. Our frontal lobes select which information to let in. Then our temporal lobes and hippocampus assist in the creation of short-term, working memories. Next, some memories make it into the long-term storage of our cortex.

But most of the information we encounter each day loses the battle and never makes it to the cortex. Rosenbloom says, “Somehow my brain has figured out how to hone in on what’s important to my life. The more connections the better. If you can attach a name to a face and link those with an emotion, it’s more likely you’ll remember that name.” He goes on, “People tend to retain that knowledge most relevant to their own careers and interests.” In other words, it’s the details and emotions and personal connections that work to first mark something as important and to then lodge it into our memories.

So how do we as presenters win the war? How do we help make our information not only interesting to our audience but memorable? To make sure your presentation avoids the kiss of death from generalities, ask these two questions.

1. Did I give my listeners a face or name to remember or identify with?

It always amazes me when speakers can give a 30-minute presentation to people about something that directly affects people without ever talking about . . . (you guessed it) . . . people! I learned the power of specificity when delivering a lecture on fear of public speaking a few years back. I had always tried to make that particular lesson powerful because I know so many people have legitimate and pervasive presentation anxiety. But no matter how many research-based and proven tips I gave them, the lesson never seemed to sink in like I wanted it to, until one semester when I decided to add a narrative to my lecture. I started telling Jodie’s story.

Jodie was a senior in her last semester of college. She had dropped her public speaking class three times prior because of her crippling fear. But this class was about to prevent her from graduating if she couldn’t make it through. She cried as she told me she didn’t think she could do it. I reminded Jodie that public speaking was just telling your story the best way you know how. I asked her to trust me and to trust the process. (Really, what choice did she have at this point?) She cried through most of her first speech. But she finished it. As she did the next speech, and the next one. Jodie worked hard, passed the class, and graduated.

My students were hooked on Jodie’s story. They identified with her. They remembered her. This reminded me how important it is to use examples and stories of specific people in our presentations. When we can put a face or name with someone who is encountering the same fear or problem or situation as we are, we connect. And we remember. Harvard researcher Uri Hasson says that a story is the only way to activate parts in the brain so that a listener turns the story into his or her own idea and experience. A list of product specifications can be great. A powerful statistic can be moving. But it’s faces and names that sink down and stay with us.

2. Did I view the problem, product, or policy from far off or did I zoom in to address daily use/application?

It’s easy enough to give a presentation from a wide view. When we stick with generalities, we don’t have to deal with the messy details because we aren’t close enough to see them. But great speakers zoom in and deal with specifics because that’s how the listeners want to see the message. Up close. Personal. Detailed.

This doesn’t mean you should bore your audience with every single detail. Filter out things they don’t need to know and things that won’t matter to them. But do work to get your audience close enough to see the details that matter to them.

One powerful and specific example can make all the difference in your presentations. Get close. Get specific. And whatever you do, avoid boring generalities.

Need more ways to elevate your presentations and reach your audience? Ethos3 is here to help.

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