How to Present Research: Bring Flowers to Your Presentation!

When presenting the dry subject of research, research methodology and research results it is a real challenge to keep your audience awake. In fact you will have people intermittently waking up during your presentation just to tweet about how boring you!! Lucky for us Dr. John Medina wrote the brilliant book ‘Brain Rules’ that can help us understand why that happens and what we can do about it!

John’s book isn’t about bold or brave presentation techniques, but its findings are pure presenter gold because they help us with two things: (1) making sure that we use our brain to its full potential when creating a presentation, and (2) to make sure that we design presentations that  resonate with the brains of our audience. That is why we reworked his book’s value propostion from ‘Surviving at Work, Home, and School’ to ‘Thriving Pitches and Presentations’:

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Consequently, the following explores how John’s Brain Rules can help specifically presenters.

Brain Rule #1 - Exercise boosts brain power.

We are more alert and energetic after a workout. Reason for this is that “exercise gets blood to your brain, bringing it glucose for energy and oxygen to soak up the toxic electrons that are left over. It also stimulates the protein that keeps neurons connecting.”

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When you have the initial presentation brainstorming sessions, don’t have your team sit around a box of bagels and doughnuts, but have a ‘stand-up’-meeting, or even better have the discussion while walking around!

Don’t sleep in on the day of the presentation or let the room service bring breakfast to your doorstep. Instead, get up early and get a workout in before you present. At all cost avoid presenting seated. Many prefer this because it is less ‘sales-y’ and you seem part of the audience when having a ‘seat at the table’, but it is all wrong. When the slides go up you lose their attention and become an announcer’s voiceover. You also lose your ability to use bodylanguage. 90% of our communication is non-verbal so it’s like removing 90% of your vocabular (even if you are presenting on the phone, stand up, you and your voice will have a different energy).

Don’t forget that the same logic applies to your audience, so try to have them move during the meeting. Obviously you can’t have them running around, but ask for a raise of hands and you will see audience attention increase noticeably immediately as they raise their hands above their heads (Tony Robbins makes extensive use of this when he does his “Say I”-routine).

Brain Rule #2 - The human brain evolved, too.

Our brain evolved, ”we started with a ‘lizard brain’ to keep us breathing, then added a brain like a cat’s, and then topped those with the thin layer of Jell-O known as the cortex—the third, and powerful, ‘human’ brain.” Medina says that the neocortex gives us the unique ability to form relationships and communicate which helped us survive and climb to the top of the food chain even though we not the fastest, nor the strongest.

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Make ample use of your ability to create relationships and to connect with people, chances are that there is lot of creative talent hidden in one of your neighboring cubicles that can help you to take your presentations to the next level. Also having a close relationship with your audience (usual internal and external clients) will allow you to understand its needs better and make sure that the presentation really resonates. Building relationships is not easy, and most people avoid anything that goes past the superficial LinkedIn level, but once you go deeper you will really connect with people understand them better and thereby you will be able to help more people and more people will be able and willing to help you.

Brain Rule #3 - Every brain is wired differently.

“What YOU do and learn in life physically changes what your brain looks like – it literally rewires it. We used to think there were just 7 categories of intelligence, but categories of intelligence may number more than 7 billion—roughly the population of the world.  No two people have the same brain, not even twins.”

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Bottom-line is we are all very different. Savvy companies caught on to that, that is why no two people’s Amazon page looks the same and why there is a whole aisle dedicated to roughly a 100 different kinds of spaghetti sauces in your local supermarket.

For the same reason it is NOT ok to frankenstein your presentation together using parts that were designed by somebody else for a different audience, and it is NOT ok to just use your company’s standard product template!! Take time to learn about your specific audience and create a presentation that caters to that exact audience. You will be surprised how many people will stay awake the next time you present;)

Brain Rule #4 - We don’t pay attention to boring things.

We all know that we don’t pay attention to boring things, “we pay attention to things like emotions, threats and sex. Regardless of who you are, the brain pays a great deal of attention to these questions: Can I eat it? Will it eat me? Can I mate with it? Will it mate with me?”

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This means you need drop all the charts, graphs and numbers, and instead distill the main point out (stick to one point per slide) and communicate it in a way that connects emotionally with the audience.

Example: in a recent presentation at the eTourism summit in New York we tried to communicate the results of a survey that showed that have gotten much more careful with their travel spending. The first version of the slide showed the detailed top two boxes results table for each question and their relative weight; it was like Christmas for data-geeks, but a bore-fest for everybody else. We moved the table details to the notes section, and distilled the true message for the final version of the slide, showing the deathgrip travel customers have one their dollars:

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Brain Rule #5 & 6 - Repeat to remember & Remember to repeat.

Rules number five and six deal with our short and long term memory. “The human brain can only hold about seven pieces of information* for less than 30 seconds! If you want to extend the 30 seconds to a few minutes or even an hour or two, you will need to consistently re-expose yourself to the information. Memories are so volatile that you have to repeat to remember. Repeated exposure to information / in specifically timed intervals / provides the most powerful way to fix memory into the brain.”

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For us presenters, that means we should not try to cram fact after fact after fact down our audiences’, but confine ourselves to a handful of key points and repeat those points throughout the presentation. You know you are dealing with a clueless presenter when you hear the words “we have a lot to cover let’s get started…”

*Note to self: it also means that this post should be limited to 7 brain rules, not 12, oh well!

Brain Rule #7 - Sleep well, think well.

Don’t be a hero and come in the office bragging about the all-nighter you pulled! “Loss of sleep hurts attention, executive function, working memory, mood, quantitative skills, logical reasoning, and even motor dexterity. Ever feel tired at 3PM? The brain is in a constant state of tension between cells and chemicals that try to put you to sleep and cells and chemicals that try to keep you awake.”

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Accordingly, your priroity should be that you and your audience are well rested when you hold the presentation. Get rest and sleep well the night before, do not spend the whole night in your hotel room changing and adding the slides in the 11th hour, because your boss texted you another oh-so important data point. Your cognitive skills are just not up to par and it just will take you longer to produce lower quality results. Same applies to your audience, but since you don’t have any influence on their bed time all you can do is to make sure you schedule your presentation before the 3pm.

Brain Rule #8 - Stressed brains don’t learn the same way.

“Stress impacts your body’s defense system—the release of adrenaline and cortisol—is built for an immediate response to a serious but passing danger, such as a saber-toothed tiger. Chronic stress, such as hostility at home, dangerously deregulates […], adrenaline creates scars in your blood vessels that can cause a heart attack or stroke, cortisol damages the cells of the hippocampus, crippling your ability to learn and remember.”

This is one of the most important rules to internalize. Not only because you want avoid setting yourself up for a stroke, but because you need to avoid stressing your audience. Packing too much stuff on a slide causes stress and anxiety. They eye does not know what to focus on, or in what order to look at all the data and footnotes you tetrissed (def.: packed too tightly) on your slide. This doesn’t even take the normal stress of correlating your spoken words to the slide content into account. Limit yourself to one point per slide and speak first then introduce the new slide (press ‘W’ or ‘B’ in presentation mode to whiteout or blackout the screen). Make ample use of whitespace, to minimize cognitive stress.

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Brain Rule #9 - Stimulate more of the senses.

“We absorb information about an event through our senses, translate it into electrical signals (some for sight, others from sound, etc.), disperse those signals to separate parts of the brain, then reconstruct what happened, eventually perceiving the event as a whole. Our senses evolved to work together—vision influencing hearing, for example—which means that we learn best if we stimulate several senses at once.”

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In short the more senses you stimulate the easier it will be for your audience to follow and remember your presentation. The information presented will be encoded together with information about smells, sounds, and visuals and will therefore be easier understood and better remembered. The easiest way to achieve this is to provide fresh tasty food for your audience and bring aromatic flowers.

Brain Rule #10 - Vision trumps all other senses.

“We learn and remember best through pictures, not through written or spoken words. We are incredible at remembering pictures. Hear a piece of information, and three days later you'll remember 10% of it. Add a picture and you'll remember 65%. Pictures beat text as well, in part because reading is so inefficient for us. Our brain sees words as lots of tiny pictures, and we have to identify certain features in the letters to be able to read them. That takes time”

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That means for us that we need to reduce the text on your slides and add pictures. This is best done in three steps: (1) Remove half of the words on your slides, (2) remove half of the words that left, (3) add a picture that ties into the point that you are trying to make.

Brain Rule #11 - Male and female brains are different.

“Women are genetically more complex, because the active X chromosomes in their cells are a mix of Mom’s and Dad’s. Men’s X chromosomes all come from Mom, and their Y chromosome carries less than 100 genes, compared with about 1,500 for the X chromosome.” The difference in genetic complexity corresponds to the way that “men and women respond […} to acute stress: Women activate the left hemisphere’s amygdala and remember the emotional details. Men use the right amygdala and get the gist.”

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Rule # 11 ties back to rule #3 that said that everybody is being different already and complicates things even more by telling us that men and women are fundamentally different on a cognitive level. Nowadays you should rarely encounter an audience of only men or women, so you need to make sure that your presentations caters to both in order to effectively communicate. However, if you get a question on a critical point of presentation and from a female attendant you should support your point with emotional detail, whereas it is easier to get away with a “bottom-line is that… ”-comment when you are dealing with the a genetically less complex male specimen.

Brain Rule #12 - We are powerful and natural explorers.

“Babies are the model of how we learn—not by passive reaction to the environment but by active testing through observation, hypothesis, experiment, and conclusion. Babies methodically do experiments on objects, for example, to see what they will do.”

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If you want your audience to understand and remember your presentation you can not underestimate the importance of rule number twelve. Design and hold your presentation so that your audience can explore the topic with you, draw its own conclusions and test hypotheses. Instead of just just dumping facts and statistics over them. This does not require elaborate presentation design, but is actually very simple: just ask your audience questions (this works best when you single out a specific person in the audience), ask them to contribute their opinions, conclusions and their experiences.

This is often considered a time prohibitive luxury, when it really should be the essential component of any presentation. Because when you do it right you can tie all 12 brain rules easily together and have people are actively participating, stimulating each others thought processes, building relationships by sharing their different opinions and views, having a grand old time at your presentation instead of sleeping through it. Most importantly the audience will remember you and your story.

Now go, buy John’s book here and start using your brains!

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