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5 Insights from Cognitive Psychology on Creating Memorable Work Presentations

Nov 19, 2019

Research shows that within an hour, audience members forget an average of 50% of information in a presentation. Within 24 hours, 70%. And within a week, up to 90%. This statistic is problematic in business settings, where presentations are an important method of information dissemination.

So how can you tailor your presentations to maximize information retention? We’ve compiled a list of tips based in cognitive psychology that will ensure your audience remembers your presentation long after you’ve finished speaking.

Consider the 10-Minute Attention Span

In his book Brain Rules, biologist John Medina shows how the average person loses interest in an oral presentation after approximately 10 minutes. This phenomenon could be due to “cognitive backlog,” a term coined by Dr. Paul King at Texas Christian University, which refers to the strain placed on the brain when it is forced to intake large amounts of information in a short period of time. According to King, the overloaded brain will eventually begin to “drop” information.

In other words, keep your presentations short and sweet. Not only because your audience’s attention span is limited, but also because if you hit their brain overload button, they won’t remember much.

We recommend keeping your presentations under 10 minutes. If you must go over, make sure to re-engage your audience every 10 minutes with questions, visuals, or a topic change.

Remember the Magic Number

In 1956, psychologist George Miller published a now-famous article entitled “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two.” He demonstrated that humans can hold seven pieces of information in short-term memory, plus or minus two. A more recent analysis argues that the “magic number” range is closer to three to five.

Whether you believe the magic number is three or nine, one thing is clear: the average human brain does not have the capacity to hold more than a few pieces of information in short-term memory at one time.

To accommodate this, we recommend determining three to five key takeaways for your audience and focusing on those points throughout. For example, if you’re presenting the results of a study, work on synthesizing those results into a few high-level points. Mention those takeaways multiple times during your presentation and consider following up with an email or handout that restates those ideas.

Get to the Point

You have your three to five key takeaways. But how can you organize your presentation in a way that maximizes comprehension? According to Medina, “the brain processes meaning before detail.” This means that providing the main idea of your presentation first, then following with supporting details, is easier for the brain to comprehend.

We recommend stating the main ideas up front to show your audience the structure and goal of your presentation before you get into the details. This organization will allow audience members to create a hierarchical structure in their minds. According to Medina, this hierarchical structure will lead to a 40% improvement in understanding.

Don’t Overdo the Visuals

study by University College London found that when the brain is occupied with processing a visual, it is less effective at processing what a speaker is saying.

Don’t distract your audience by showing them complex visuals while speaking to them. Instead, keep your visuals simple and make sure you correlate what you’re saying with your visual aid

Here are a few questions to ask yourself to ensure your visuals are increasing comprehension rather than distracting your audience:

  • Does the visual repeat what you’re saying in your presentation rather than clarify or add to a point?
  • Is there too much text on the slide?
  • Are the colors, animations, or images distracting?
  • Does the visual require extensive explanation?

If the answer to any of these questions is yes, think about simplifying your visual or cutting it out entirely.

Start Strong

A 2015 article in TIME magazine provocatively reported that the human attention span has shrunk to less than that of a goldfish. While many researchers have contested this claim, it is true that speakers have a short time to hook their audiences and motivate them to continue listening.

According to Darlene Price, author of Well Said! Presentations and Conversations That Get Results, presenters have one minute to capture attention, establish credibility, orient to a topic, and motivate to listen.

To make the most of your one minute, we recommend being intentional with your introduction. Some popular and effective ways to hook your audience include meaningful quotes, memorable statistics, compelling stories, striking visuals, or thought-provoking questions. From there, be concise, direct, and clear as you transition into the meat of your presentation.

Whether it’s a quick briefing at an informal team huddle or a formal presentation to a client, using insights from cognitive psychology to structure, organize, and present your information will drastically improve how much your audience remembers and understands. For more information on delivering presentations that lead to better outcomes, contact us about our VITAL Presentations training or schedule a one-on-one coaching session with Tommy Re to practice and receive feedback before your next presentation.

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