The science of presenting

by Phil Waknell

I’m not a motor mechanic. I don’t play with my car’s engine, hoping to make it run better, because I don’t understand how it works in detail. I leave that to experts who are professionally trained and experienced.

The human brain is far more complex than an engine, and we know far less about how it works. Trying to present without learning a little about how the brain works is like throwing a spanner into a car and hoping it will fix the brakes.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to get all neurological here. I’m just going to give you a few highlights about what presenters need to know. I believe this is required knowledge for giving presentations because when you present, you’re trying to change what’s in your audience’s brains in some way. The following points are my own conclusions based on reading many books and papers, as well as my own experience. If you need to see the science behind these simple statements, I recommend the excellent Brain Rules by Dr. John Medina and anything by Richard Wiseman or Richard Mayer.

  1. There is no such thing as ‘divided attention’: there is ‘undivided attention’, or distraction. If you don’t have your audience’s undivided attention, they won’t properly understand or remember what you’re saying.
  2. Attention spans are short, even for interesting material, and almost zero for anything boring.
  3. When it comes to presentations, two synonyms for ‘boring’ are ‘typical’ and ‘predictable’.
  4. Human beings cannot simultaneously listen to one thing and read another.
  5. We forget most of what we hear, very quickly.
  6. The more we say, the less people remember.

Business presenters need to know what science already knows about how their audiences pay attention and how they learn. Most presenters don’t work hard enough to gain or retain attention; they expect people to read and listen simultaneously, they don’t use memorable images, their presentations are too long and they usually say too much for fear of leaving something out.

All of this can be doubly relevant for online presentations. Where a live audience might be able to pay attention to their boss for twenty minutes, that attention span may only be ten minutes in an online meeting, where the speaker doesn’t know whether the participants are paying attention – and where the participants know that the speaker doesn’t know.

A presentation is hard work. If the presenter doesn’t put in the hard work, it will be hard work for the audience.

This is an extract from Business Presentation Revolution, the new book by Phil Waknell, published 7/14/21. Why wait? Join the revolution by clicking here to get the introduction free today.