Saturday, May 10, 2014

Presence in Presentations: How to Successfully Communicate with Any Audience

Presentations are becoming ubiquitous. But by no means does this suggest that they are becoming ubiquitously effective. In fact, many presentations – and to be honest, presenters – fail. As a Northwestern student studying Psychology and Mathematics, I took an advanced cognitive psychology seminar called, “Show and Tell: The Psychology of Presentations.” In addition, this past week I heard two different lectures about presentations and data visualization, one given by business author Dan Roam and the other by infographic designer Randy Krum. The following is a rundown of what I have learned.

“There is nothing that is more important to our professional success – and in many ways our personal success – than the ability to communicate our idea in public.” And so began Dan Roam’s recent talk, “How regular people make extraordinary presentations.” Introducing us to various characters along the way, Roam transformed an educational presentation into entertainment. His performance highlighted various key recommendations, all of which were broken down into digestible 3-4 bullet chunks. For example, the 3 keys to an extraordinary presentation are:

  1. Tell the truth 
  2. Tell it with a story 
  3. Tell the story with pictures 
Then, Roam provided his spectators with actionable advice. There is an appropriate “storyline” to employ based on the change the presenter wants to incite in an audience. If he or she wants the audience to experience:
  • A change in information: use a report 
  • A change in knowledge: use an explanation 
  • A change in actions: use a pitch 
  • A change in beliefs: use a drama 
During the presentation, Roam
 encouraged the audience to put pencil to paper and draw ideas out, so as to better understand and remember them. Days later, I can say that it worked!

Taking a different approach, Randy Krum started his talk with numbers: 80% of the brain is dedicated to visual processing. Citing the picture superiority effect, he explained that memory retention is significantly aided by visuals; after 3 days, only 10% of information introduced as solely text or audio was retained versus 65% of material presented as text and a picture. While much of Randy’s talk was focused on infographics, many of the principles also hold true for presentations. He suggests a 3-part story format for communicating effectively:
  • Introduction/foundation
  • Ah-ha moment/the main event
  • Call-to-action/conclusion
He also reminded us to pull away from the details and focus on the key message: “what is the ONE thing you want your audience to remember?”

Well, here is my key message: Make presentations that help you and your audience stay PRESENT.

Here are 3 ways to do just that:
  1. Know your audience and yourself – cater the presentation to the audience so that it is the right balance of new information based on familiar topics; also realize that slides are there to help you present, so use them wisely. Ultimately, a presentation is an opportunity to share your ideas, and doing so effectively will have the most beneficial results
  2. Use your visual AND verbal brain – using the verbal and visual brain allows for deeper exploration both in planning a presentation and in presenting one; incorporating visuals in addition to traditional text helps both the presenter and the audience
  3. Take into account the psychology of the mind – most people have a short attention span, people learn and remember more if they have to engage with the material, and people process information better when it is chunked into groups of 4-7 items
The key to powerful presentations is being able to understand your audience and communicate your ideas in a way that is engaging and meaningful to them. A successful presenting style can result in the acquisition of new clients or the satisfaction of current customers, personal promotions, and funding for start-up ventures. There is no doubt that applying these tips will help your professional career. Think back to all of the boring, confusing, and/or deceiving presentations you have sat through in the past; wouldn’t it be a better world if communication were faster, clearer, and more efficient?

Kelleigh Whelan is an incoming Consultant at Oliver Wyman, as well as a former summer intern at the same company. In June, she will graduate with a B.A. from Northwestern University in Mathematics and Psychology, along with the Integrated Marketing Certificate. Her interests include data visualization, traveling, and card games.

Questions or comments? Contact her through Twitter @kelleighwhelan or LinkedIn:

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