I see you, checking your smartphone under the table in the middle of the presentation. I've done it, too. In fact, during many presentations, no one in the audience is really paying attention.
Blame it on our "culture of distraction" if you like, but our supposedly diminishing attention spans don't change the fact that many presentations are just badly constructed. Perfectly arranged graphics, careful wording, and polished visuals may not be enough to capture an audience’s attention. Truly engaging an audience is about finding the right blend of art and science.
Here's a look at some of the common presentation pitfalls, backed by the science behind how humans process information, so you can perfect the art of presenting.
Their message aside, speakers need to make sure that all the attention is on them. That isn't easy. It means being present in a way that not only informs and entertains but also demonstrates an understanding of how an audience learns—all before deciding how to deliver their information accordingly. While that may sound like a tall order, consider this: Research suggests that up to 80% to 90% of the information that our brains process is visual, so we are hardwired to think and remember in pictures.
When you're building a presentation, the key is to select not just the right visuals, but also storylines to support those visuals. That way, you'll maintain your audience's attention while ensuring they'll walk away actually remembering it. By focusing on illuminating visual ideas—by telling a story visually—you'll create a more memorable and compelling presentation every time.
Many presentations are full of text- or data-heavy slides that an audience has to read and interpret while listening to what you're saying.
This doesn't usually work. What many consider to be multitasking is actually a rapid transition between tasks, so an audience that's both reading and listening is simply gleaning disconnected bits and pieces rather than absorbing a comprehensive message.
A good presentation doesn’t split an audience’s focus but directs attention toward a key message the whole time. By trading out those beloved bullet points—even if you think they're really concise—in favor of visuals that aid and support what you're saying, you'll help your audience focus, absorb, and remember.
In order to remember things, our brains naturally develop associations between one concept and the next. Metaphors, descriptive words, and images all help build correlations that activate the brain's sensory cortices. In other words, these imaginative elements help people engage on a deeper, more complete cognitive level.
When you deliver a presentation in the form of a story, it becomes more relatable and helps your audience develop an emotional connection with the material. This in turn coaxes memory into action. What's more, using images to metaphorically support the story you're telling can reinforce that effect even further. When your listeners feel connected, they're not only more likely to remember, they’re more likely to take action.
Many speakers tend to talk at their audiences rather than simply weaving their points of view into the presentation. But your talk needs to feel inclusive, and that means offering opportunities for collaboration.
Two-way conversations help sync our brains in a process called "neural coupling," which refers the cognitive process of two people's minds finding common ground on a concept. This synergy helps build rapport and trust; if you can generate it, you'll capture and hold an audience’s attention. You can’t do that by talking through bullet points on a screen. So ask questions, gauge audience responses, and don’t be afraid to dive into the topics that pique their interest, even it means going off script.
Creating an engaging presentation isn’t exactly rocket (or brain) science, but it's science nonetheless—meaning there's more to the challenge than just a cultural inability to concentrate. We need to deliver information in the natural way that humans learn, process, and engage. Visuals, narrative, and dialogue all play a role in getting folks to stop peeking at their phones and train all their attention on you.