Avoid distractions

There is a lot of advice on the internet and from training companies on how to make a good presentation and it seems to boil down to keep the audience focussed and eliminate any distractions.

PowerPoint and its infinite set of fancy animations is a good example how easily people can be distracted. As a result the focus on the content is lost quite often. The brain is not really capable of multi-tasking. We can talk and breathe, but when it comes to higher level tasks, we just can’t do it.

Sometimes we even have difficulties seeing the obvious, just because we pay selective attention. Check out your personal selective attention by watching this short video clip:


Is there something we can learn from this experience and should consider when doing a presentation?

If you missed the gorilla this was most probably because you were focused on other tasks. Due to selective attention or inattentional blindness we notice far less of our visual world than we think.

“When you’re looking for a gorilla, you often miss other unexpected events.”

Just replace the word “gorilla” in this quote with “animation” and compare it with a presentation. When somebody is bombarding you with fancy animations you will pay attention most likely to the animation and not on the more important content (like the presenters narration and body language for instance), which results in inefficient communication. Everyone has a certain amount of attention to give and it is up on the presenter to use this attention wisely. As a presenter you can help your audience tremendously by simply not distracting them. Try to use animations sparingly and focus on the content instead.

Source: The monkey business illusion by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons (http://www.theinvisiblegorilla.com)


Capturing and sustaining audience attention: beyond slide-only delivery


Yes, a lot of people know the phrase ‘death by Powerpoint’ already (and no matter if you use Keynote, problems can be the same). Although it’s a bit unfair to simply blame Powerpoint (or do you think it is the fault of Microsoft’s Word in case you don’t like this text?:-), all of us should take care to use people’s attention span wisely. Powerpoint makes it easy to rely on text heavy slide decks. Presenters which are too lazy to rehearse their presentation find it convenient to have their notes in front of them. At a recent conference I was attending, somebody said, a lot of presentations create the impression of “guided reading”.


Doing a presentation means for a presenter or speaker, facing a couple of challenges. Besides capturing people’s attention, you have to sustain this attention for the entire
presentation and of course every presentation has a purpose, means passing on information and knowledge.

The widely seen corporate and education culture to circulate slides, has led into a situation where slide content is extremely dense to maintain the meaning and the context of the presentation (a hand out would do a better job, but that means more efforts for the presenter, unfortunately…). We know from studies that there is a high risk of overloading the audience (e.g. Sweller) and a bored audience will be the result. Another risk is facing the so-called ‘change blindness’. This refers to the circumstance that audience may not notice visual changes, such as one slide transitioning to the next, if the general layout and appearance of the slide is preserved across the transition.

The common practice to deliver presentations and lectures for durations of up to an hour or even longer, although it’s known that attention span can be as little as 10 minutes, forces a presenter to find engaging ways to keep audience attention. Sustaining attention requires novelty and in environments where slide presentations are the norm, such criteria are extremely difficult to satisfy through Powerpoint alone. By using a Visualizer you become unpredictable and it will be easy to surprise your audience by showing rather than just telling. As Barney Stinson says, ‘If you want to succeed you have to stop being ordinary and be legend – wait for it – dary’.

This will guarantee attention, at least for a while!

Using brain’s imitation centres for deeper learning and engagement

Our brain has an extraordinary capacity to detect and attend to biological motion like human movements, most likely originating in an evolved advantage for being able to detect other animals. As well as being sensitive to movement in general, our visual attention systems are highly focused to the movements of people’s hands. There is evidence to suggest that we would rather attend to, and continue attending to, others’ faces and bodies than we would inanimate objects. Therefore presentations techniques that emphasise people rather than inanimate objects will appear more likely to engage the audience’s attention. Using presentation tools like a Visualizer for instance, which puts the presenter central stage, will be an improvement on presentations that focus on static slides containing text and diagrams.

Besides getting more attention because of lifelike presentations due to the visibility of the presenters face and hands there is good evidence that you can achieve better learning results by simply watching somebody who explains what to do. Studies suggest the existence of several networks of nerve-cells known as mirror neurons. These networks are active when we watch other people interacting with objects –  for example, someone demonstrating a product using a Visualizer – and  have a similar effect like experiencing these tasks on your own.

Don’t overload the audience

According to Professor Sweller’s ‘cognitive load theory’, it is simply not effective to speak the same words that are written. It’s far better to show a picture or chart illustrating your point. The other problem is that most of the time the majority of the audience is not even listening to you. They’re thinking about themselves, their problems, their pleasures and whether or not what you are saying is of any value to them.

Sweller’s research into how we recall things from presentations suggests that it is far more difficult to process information confronting you from all sides at the same time. Choose either the written or spoken word and the human brain can process, digest and retain far more information than if it is bombarded with both.

Source: Cognitive Load Theory, New South Wales Research by Prof. Sweller

What’s more convincing: Reasons or emotions?

The left side of your brain deals with analytic thoughts and logic. Language, text, facts and figures are targeting this side of your brain. The right side of your brain is responsible for emotions and creative tasks. Visual impressions and images are attractive for this side of your brain. Although our brain is a small part of the body its energy consumption is enormous (just 2% of body mass, but about 20% of energy and oxygen consumption) and the left side is consuming the majority of that energy. PowerPoint, facts displayed as bullet points and figures are permanently addressing the left side of the brain. While the left side is running out of energy after a while, the right side still has some resources left. Images and visual tools are addressing this area and beside that they will also create emotions. In fact it‘s emotions convincing us, not the arguments. Emotions will lead to action and reasons will justify the decisions.

The human brain is incredible in remembering pictures


If information is presented orally, most people can recall about 10% of it three days later. If the information is presented visually, most people can recall 35%. That is more than 3 times the retention! The results of combining the two are even more impressive. When information is simultaneously presented orally and visually, recall rate shoots up to nearly 65%. And the most impressing fact is that you even get 63% accuracy a year later.

As there is narration of the presenter anyway, we should focus much more on visual support for the audience to gain benefits based on that fact. Using images supporting a statement, creating sketches to illustrate an idea or demonstrating an object by the use of a Visualizer will improve the output of the presentation and leave longlasting impressions.

Source: A note on long-term recognition memory for pictorial material study by Nickerson, 1968

Different learning styles are a fact

Learning styles relate to how you process new information. Knowing your style and the style of others can improve your communication skills and productivity!


There are a lot of theories out there, but like all things pertaining to the human brain, it is complex and there is not only one right answer. What we do know with relative certainty is that all of us have different preferred ways of learning, and that we like to combine “styles.”

So why not offering different sorts of information to your audience?

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