Four Psychological Secrets
for Effective Presentations

Presentation Skills

When you are about to make a presentation, you often ask yourself:

How will I catch my audience’s attention?

What strategies should I use to hold their interest?

How can I ensure they understand my salient points?

These questions can be easily answered once you accept the fact that you are dealing with people. Though they’re all complex human beings, there are researches, theories and experience that explain their behavioral tendencies.

Here are a few of the more pertinent principles:

Remember: 'Content is King'

This little line is highly valued by today’s search engine optimization (SEO) industry, because it summarizes what’s currently the most effective way of increasing website traffic and making sales.

Fortunately, the wisdom (and algorithm) behind it can also be applied in delivering presentations. In this age of technology and information, your audience can do their own research into your topic in a matter of seconds. The fact that they may have studied up on your topic before your talk just makes things that much more challenging for you.

When people sit down to hear your presentation, they demand value in exchange for their precious time. This justifiable expectation calls for thorough preparation, especially if you are not used to public speaking and don’t have a lot of advance knowledge about your audience. Give yourself time to think about and work out a good outline, stories to be shared, and strategies for engaging and maintaining audience interest. You could include short explainer videos in your presentations since video tends to keep your audience better engaged.

Beware of Information Overload

Providing valuable information is crucial to a successful presentation, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to try to relay a huge volume of information. You don’t want to exhaust the audience with an overwhelming avalanche of facts and figures. All that data will quickly become meaningless because the brain can’t simply absorb it all. Yes, in some cases, less is more.

Many renowned speakers encourage discussing a maximum of 10 points in a 20-minute talk - preferably fewer. This suggestion may trace back to a 1956 article by George A. Miller, the cognitive psychologist famous for the magical number 7, plus or minus 2. Based on his studies, he argued that the short-term memory can only store between 5 and 9 major points or concepts in such a period of time.

For this reason, part of the groundwork for a presentation should be researching and identifying the information that is most relevant for the specific audience you’ll be addressing. And just as you shouldn’t try to jam too much information into the presentation as a whole, you also should not pack too much text or too many bullet points into a single slide. If you have more information than can be effectively relayed during the presentation itself, you should consider distributing supplemental handouts, or a list of links and resources for optional further study.

See our page, Top Tips for Effective Presentations for more ideas of how to maximise the effectiveness of your presentation.

Maximize Learning Channels

In terms of the different human sensory channels, the Visual-Auditory-Kinesthetic (VAK) model maintains that people differ in the ways they learn best.

Some are auditory learners: they pick up ideas best through words and sounds.

Some are visual: they learn most effectively through images and illustrations.

Some are kinesthetic: they absorb concepts best through feeling and doing.

What does this have to do with presentation strategies? A lot.

Presentation strategies should cater to all of the learning styles - since any audience will be made up of a combination of the different types of learners. Still, in some cases it’s smart to favor one or another of the types. For instance, if you’re presenting to a group of designers or illustrators, it’s a safe bet that emphasizing visual communication will be most effective.

Let’s take a look at some ways to address each of the learning types, in preparing a presentation:

1. Auditory

  • Speak clearly; articulate every word. Don’t use jargon unless you’re very certain everyone present will understand it.
  • Vary your vocal pitch, volume and tones, as well as your pace - avoid being monotone. If there’s a need to emphasize a sentence or idea, vary your volume or intonation in a natural way.
  • Learn the art of the pause. Give the audience a chance to absorb your ideas, wonder what you’re about to say next, or think of questions.

2. Visual

  • Customize your PowerPoint slides. Make sure each contains a simple message, visually relayed in a clear, definite and straightforward way.
  • Use photos, illustrations, or graphics rather than huge blocks of text. Most people learn more quickly from images than from words, and well-chosen images and graphics can convey enormous amounts of information almost instantly.
  • As you speak, use gestures, facial expressions and other visual cues to help convey your meanings.

3. Kinesthetic

  • Integrate simple activities or ice breakers into your presentation - things that get your audience moving. Then invite them to share their thoughts or conclusions from the experience.
  • Share stories to illustrate or support your major ideas. When people hear tales, they tend to relate them to their own experiences or to familiar events. They often also identify with a story’s characters. All these things help to make your messages “stick.”

Be Credible

In his book, Influence, author Robert Cialdini explains that authority is one of the most significant factors for persuasion. People perceive those who look and behave like experts as being credible.

Cialdini relates this fact to an experiment conducted by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram. His results showed that two-thirds of the study’s participants were willing to inflict pain on other people if directed to do so by figures of authority.

This can mean a number of things for you as a presenter:

First, your appearance as a presenter must match up with the audience’s concept of an authority. Generally this means being well groomed, and wearing impressive but comfortable clothes. Your posture and tone of voice should exude composure and confidence.

Another credibility builder is to arrange for someone to introduce you before you begin. Your personal background considerably influences people’s perception of your credibility - so share some of your experiences as part of your presentation.

Finally, know your material well, and practice your delivery over and over to achieve effortless and natural confidence. Well-informed and well-rehearsed speakers naturally seem more eloquent.

About the Author

Toke Kruse is a graduate of Copenhagen Business School and has launched nearly a dozen companies since entering the world of entrepreneurship at the age of 18.