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A psychological guide to presentations that don’t suck

9. May 2016 in
psychological guide to presentations

Presentations stir emotions. Unfortunately, boredom, bewilderment and vicarious embarrassment rank very high among these emotions.

Can you still count how many bad talks you have had to sit through? Then make sure not to inflict the same suffering upon others – with our psychological guide to presentations. 


Rule #1: Make it easy to follow

Let’s start with the short form. Pretty much everything you have to know is the following rule: Make it as easy as possible to follow your presentation.

This is not only important for the most obvious reason: that people understand it. It is also crucial if you want people to believe you. Do not expect your audience to be rational. Good arguments are not even half the battle (they never hurt, though). From the psychological point of view, truth can be a very subjective category. People are more likely to believe you when they are in a good mood. They also tend to perceive things as more truthful if they seem familiar or are easy to process cognitively. This goes so far that humans are less persuaded by sentences that are written in a blurred font and trust more in the truth of statements that rhyme. We do not encourage you to present your topic in verses. What you should aim at, however, is that you present anything as clear as possible and keep your audience in a good mood. Cut the information into pieces like you would cut the food for a toddler. Arrange it in a smiley face, feed it spoon by spoon and keep everyone happy until it is all eaten up. 

Let’s get concrete: How can you do that?


1. Provide a structure for the talk

People do not understand information solely through language or pictures. They rely largely on the context in which the information is given. This is why you should make the overall structure of your presentation clear and keep people updated at which point you are.

But why do people need this context? Let’s take a very simple example. Your daughter tells you she saw a crane during her trip to the Animal Sanctuary. Of course, you will think of the bird – not the construction machine. The term “Animal Sanctuary” primed you, as psychologists say. All the information in your memory that has to do with wildlife is put into focus. At the same time, knowledge about car brands, stock markets or microbiology moves to the “back of your mind” – it becomes less accessible. This is why you immediately think of the bird but not the machine.

Priming is not only important for words with multiple meanings, such as “crane”. Also whole sentences and lines of thought are processed with regard to the context. And this is why context is important for your presentation. When you are talking about stock prices, you want to make sure that your audience has all their stock market related information in mind. Otherwise you might lose them.


2. Step out of your expert shoes

One of the most common mistakes that people make with presentations? Forgetting that they are the expert. They fail to put themselves in the position of their still ignorant audience. What might seem basic to you, can still be rocket science to your listeners. Therefore, you should clarify for yourself what your audience already knows and which premises you will have to explain to them.


3. Use easy language

It is pretty simple: In order to be easily understood you should use simple language. Don’t worry, your credibility will not suffer from this: People who use unnecessarily complicated language are perceived as less intelligent.

Remember, however, that also simple language can transport complex thoughts. Speaking clearly and making pauses will give your listeners time to understand them.


4. Use a clear design

The equivalent to easy language is clear design. Your slides should have a clear structure, a well-readable font and do without any useless bits and pieces. Improving the readability of your slides will also improve their credibility. An experiment showed that people are less likely to believe a sentence if it is written in a color that is hard to read against the background. Additionally, a simple design prevents your audience from being distracted. As soon as you let them search for information on your slides, they engage in multitasking. Why this is bad? Read on.


5. Don’t let your audience do multitasking

People are not good at doing several (challenging) things at once. Try reading your newspaper and listening to an audiobook at the same time. Doesn’t work, right? The same thing happens when people read something on your slides while you are talking about something else. Therefore, you should reduce the text you put onto each slide. At best, your audience should not be able to read a lot further. They might stop listening to you and lose track.

Does that also mean that your audience should not look at pictures while you are talking to them? No. There is evidence that you process text and images through different channels. Thus, while different text sources confuse your listeners, they can perfectly well concentrate on listening to you and looking at pictures at the same time.


6. Actively guide the focus

This is closely related to the last point. Once you let people search for the relevant information on your slides, they cannot fully concentrate on your words, anymore. Thus, you should keep your slides simple and guide their focus – either with words, a laser pointer or highlights within your slides.


7. Use pictures

People like pictures. Often, images manage to convey emotions, structures or complex relations faster than speech. As we already established: looking at a picture does not impair your ability to process language at the same time. Therefore you can use images to support your point – or just put them in the right mood. If you show people a picture of a tropical beach you will trigger all their holiday associations. With these associations, they might, for example, find it more convincing that relaxation is important.

Pictures cannot only make your presentation more interesting and convincing, but also more memorable: Research shows that people remember information up to six times better when it is presented along with an image.


8. Mix in some humor

Humor has a double benefit for your presentation. Firstly, it puts people in a good mood – which makes them more open and credulous. Secondly, it boosts learning and memory. Of course, you should not overdo it or force in jokes where they do not fit. However, if you need an example, why not use a funny one?


9. Convince with your (body) language

One of the scariest things about a presentation is: You have to give it in front of people. And yes, there are things you can do wrong with that.

Since you want to be convincing, the most important rule is that you should seem convinced by your talk, too. Try to avoid any body signals that are associated with lying – such as avoiding to look at people, turning away, fiddling nervously with your pen or using “um” twice in each sentence. Texts that are read aloud or obviously learnt by heart are also a bad choice for establishing trust.

At best, your talk does not differ so much from the way you would have a conversation – well, a conversation with rather little input from one side. Talking about input: Making your audience participate in some way is always good to keep them awake and focused.


Hopefully, with our psychological guide to presentations, you can make the world a better place – or at least one with better presentations in it.



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Susanne Krause

About the Author

Susanne Krause
Researcher and author. As a graduate of psychology and philosophy as well as an experienced journalist, she knows not only where to find the information but also how to put it into words best.

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