Can Tapping Into Human Nature Help You Give More Effective Presentations?

Are you looking to deliver effective presentations? Check out these tips from the best-selling author on how to present more clearly and intentionally.
February 08, 2017

It's a presenter's worst nightmare—looking out into their audience, and seeing that their slides and visuals are falling on deaf ears and glazed over eyes. How can you give effective presentations that connect with people while being informative?

I had the privilege of interviewing an expert on this very topic: the internationally acclaimed communications consultant and effective presentations guru Garr Reynolds. Reynolds is the best-selling author of several books (including the award-winning Presentation Zen) and is a professor of management and design at Kansai Gaidai University in Osaka, Japan.

He shares some of his tips for giving effective presentations.

How do people process information when listening to a presentation? And how can we use this understanding to help us create more effective presentations?

This taps into the cognitive load theory first developed by John Sweller. We have two channels for receiving information. Basically, we can receive information through auditory or visual channels. In terms of presentations, if we put a lot of text in our visual channel, then that kind of messes up things. So people can look at a photograph, a chart or a graph, and they can listen to someone at the same time. But what our brains are not really good at doing is listening to someone and, simultaneously, reading either the same words on a slide or different words.

So, it may be common ... but as far as the brain is concerned, that's not the best way to receive information. It actually lowers our ability to understand what is being presented and doesn't lead to effective presentations.

It depends on the situation, but slides must be very visual. And I don't mean photographs of Zen gardens or decorative images. Often in the case of technical presentations, it's going to be quantitative displays. And that's fine. Executive audiences generally want the high-level information, the big picture. You can send more details in a handout with the data displays, but then in the live talk, you could just show a few of the key displays that support your information. If you use slides, use them to actually "show" something rather than having the slide "tell" something.

Can you elaborate a little more on what type of slides are best to use when presenting to senior business executives?

The more fundamental question is whether or not you even need slides with this group. Often it is much better to give a handout first with the details and simply highlight your key point using a whiteboard or showing only a few slides with clear quantitative displays that support your point. There is too much fussing about which tool to use.

Know your audience. Each case is different. It depends on the company. What's the company culture?

The idea of going through a deck—one slide after another, with lots of text, and general titles, and statement after statement and some charts which you can't really see, and lots of chart junk—that's just not the way to do it. That doesn't result in effective presentations.

So I would say, really know your executive, know who you're going to talk to, ask first and then keep things very simple. You can have more details in the handout, but the key word is to keep things simple. Not dumbed down, but simplified in a way that makes the meaning instantly clear. Then you can spend time talking about what it means.

Most business presentations involve fairly complex data. What is your advice for delivering data-rich, effective presentations?

Tables and spreadsheets are useful if it's necessary to actually compare the information side by side and really get into the nitty-gritty.

But there's a whole movement called BI or business intelligence. is one of the leading software companies in this realm. The idea is that we have lots and lots of data, but you have to make it visual. That doesn't mean decorative, but rather displaying the data in a way to get at the truth—not just arriving at a truth first, and then saying, "Well, how can we create the data, or massage the data, to support our truth?" Instead, it's about using the data to arrive at some truth, and not being afraid to show that.

Use color with purpose, to emphasize the information or direct the eye in a way so people can notice what's different, what's important and what's not.

When you show the actual data in a way that executives in the room can actually understand it, they might challenge it. They might challenge what you think the data means, or whether the data is accurate. But your job is to actually show it.

I am sort of a disciple of Edward Tufte, an expert in the data analysis and data visualization field. The essence of what he says is true. Take charts, for example. One thing you can do to improve charts is to remove any elements that don't contribute to comprehension. What is really necessary? My mantra is “maximum effect with minimum means".

Remove chart junk. Chart junk includes any lines that you don't need. Often we don't even need the baseline. Remove the decorative. For example, don't use a rainbow of colors. Use color with purpose, to emphasize the information or direct the eye in a way so people can notice what's different, what's important and what's not. Remove, as well, the three-dimensional effects in charts.

Get rid of the words on the slide as much as you can. The less clutter you have on your slide, the more powerful your visual message will become.

Consider adding a headline for executives who are very busy. Think of it as a newspaper headline. Don't just add a title, for example, "Sales in 2015." Instead, ask yourself what is the point of this chart. Show a title that might say: "Sales Dropped 5 Percent in 2015." The title could also be something much more complex than that.

It's okay to use a very short chart title that gets to the point. Then you have a display that is very easy to understand. If it's not, if it takes a little time to understand, then it's your job to go through it with the executive and tell them, "Here's the chart, which supports this idea. Now let me explain that a little bit."

Let's talk about pitches. There's an adage about using slides in a pitch that "sell not tell." What recommendations do you have for following this principle when designing effective presentations for pitch decks?

The whole pitching thing, that's a whole other realm. You may not have to use slides for a pitch. If you ask venture capitalists what is the most important thing that they're looking for when you pitch, they'll likely say what they're really investing in is, of course, the idea. But first, they're investing in you. So you have to come out. Is it obvious that you thought clearly about your idea?

David S. Rose, a venture capitalist and a presentation nerd, is dubbed "The Pitch Coach" for his work in helping entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to potential investors. Rose offers a list of the 10 things you need to know about yourself—and prove to a VC—before you start any slideshow.

When you pitch, get to the point quickly. What's the story? What's the pain? This is not a time to get into lots of nitty-gritty details about future outcomes, which no one can possibly know anyway. Show you have done your research, that you have tested your idea already. When it comes to business, actually, you should already be up and showing some success with it.

If you really want advice on the deck itself, another expert on pitching is the entrepreneur and best-selling author, Guy Kawasaki. Kawasaki advocates a basic rule of having only 10 slides. The 10 slides cover the problem/opportunity (what is the pain?), the value proposition (what is the solution to the pain?) and other key areas.

Read more articles on presenting.

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