Have you ever walked out of a presentation with a phrase or image emblazoned on your mind? Or more likely, you’ve walked out of a presentation and couldn’t recall a single thing. In one ear, out the other. Our presentations are competing with a million other things for our audience’s attention, from email to mass media to family issues. Everyone is multitasking and distracted. Therefore, as presenters we have to work harder to not only get our message across but to make it memorable. We asked Carmen Simon, author of Impossible to Ignore, how to make memorable, impactful presentations.
Here’s her advice.
Know what you want your presentation to be remembered for. Determine what your audience should remember and why it is important. A lot of business communicators aspire to be memorable, but few know what specific memories they want to set in other people’s brains. Audiences forget 90 percent of what you share after 48 hours. Pick the one thing that you really want your audience to remember, and reinforce it throughout your presentation.
Provide cognitive ease. Once it’s clear to you what message you want to stick with your audience, make sure that message comes to their minds easily. Often we get enamored with our own words and ideas, and we forget that just because these messages come to our minds easily, they might not have the same effect on others. Here’s an example. Carmen was sitting in a hotel lobby browsing through a magazine article about the new McLaren 570S Spider model. The main message focused on its “dihedral synchro-helix actuation,” which is the technical term for the way the doors swing, guiding air into the side intakes to feed the radiators. Would you remember this phrase after two days? Dihedral-what? You might remember it if you were a car fanatic and might have existing mental models around this type of verbiage. For the average person, if we describe the doors as “up-and-out” doors or “butterfly doors,” it will be easier to remember the message. Once you clarify the message you want to make memorable, ensure that the language you use makes the message come to others’ brains easily. Cognitive ease is a prerequisite to memorable stories. Make it simple.
Use sensory stimulation. In the paragraph above, was it easier for you to process the phrase “butterfly doors” more so than other phrases? Visuals are important to memory because we build our memories through our senses, and visual is a powerful sense. Have you ever looked at a picture of a chocolate lava cake oozing fudge, and thought, I can almost taste it. That’s because the visual image evokes your sense of smell, taste and chocolate satisfaction. It stimulates your senses. Appealing to other senses activates additional brain parts, which forms more memory traces. A presentation about arthritis could use a sensory description of arthritic pain like this: “knuckles cracking, throbbing and swollen so badly that she couldn’t even hold her fork at dinner.” Those words “throbbing” and “swollen” evoke pain, and using a fork at dinner is something we do every day, without a second thought (until we can’t anymore).
The examples activate more brain areas (visual cortex, motor cortex, amygdala, frontal cortex, hippocampus). When more brain parts become active, it increases the chance that the stimuli you mention will trigger memories later on. Just in these few paragraphs, words such as doors, butterfly, pain, hands, dinner fork … seeing any of these later may remind you of reading this. In short, try to evoke real human feelings.