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Science Up Your Talks

7 ways behavioral science can help us all crush our business presentations.

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Raise your hand if, sometime in the last two weeks, you’ve gone to bed promising yourself you’d wake up early to get some exercise. Now keep your hand up if raising your hand is the only exercise you’ve gotten in the last two weeks.

Those complementary requests provide insight into the challenges of self-control, but they also get my keynote audiences to laugh, relax and – most important to me – pay attention. It’s a good hook (no, you can’t steal it) and, as I’ve discovered, there’s science behind it. 

You know we love behavioral science here. I only recently realized just how much it’s played a role in my entire professional life.

Two decades of being a stand-up comic taught me a lot about giving presentations and the importance of getting – and keeping – an audience’s attention. The last few years of shifting into, let’s say “more substantive” and “less cocktail lounge and dirty joke based” professional speaking has built on that experience to teach me a lot about impactful presentations. I’ve also worked with an amazing communications coach and, of course, studied behavioral science. All of that has made me realize that the real secret sauce to giving great talks is really just science. Behavioral science. 

1) Be Specific

Someone once said that single death is a tragedy but a million deaths is a statistic. (That someone was Joseph Stalin, but, um, he makes a good point?) It’s a little dark, but the point is, the identifiable victim effect confirms that highlighting individual examples and stories is a more effective way to have those stories connect with and impact an audience than the too-big picture. Think about the classic politician’s way-too-detailed yarn about meeting some soccer mom who owns a store in Small Town USA and just wanted her kids to have (insert policy proposal here). They use that formula because it works. And it can work for you, too. You need a budget increase? Start by telling me how it’s going to change one specific client relationship, then go to the broader, more global impact.

2) Have Next Steps

If the goal of your presentation is to persuade a group into action – as opposed to just informing them about something – you’ve got to present specific, concrete, easy next steps for the audience. Who? Does what? How? And by when? The behavioral principles of concrete planning and implementation intention show that goals are more often accomplished if we lay out the specific method by which we’ll accomplish them. This is true whether the goals are exercising more, increasing voter turnout or getting another $20K for the department’s “meals and entertainment” budget.

3) On Screen K.I.S.S. – Keep It Simple Stupid

The human brain can only do so many things at once. Crowded, cluttered, distracting and totally unnecessary slides are the most common way speakers short-circuit that vital organ. Don’t put up too much text – my guru says no more than six lines, each no more than six words (and that’s too much, IMHO) – and never talk to a slide, always talk to the audience. Also, give your audience a chance to review the slide before launching into your comments. They can’t pay attention to a screen and pay attention to you, so they’ll do neither well, get frustrated and end up grabbing their phone to Tweet that emotion to the world.  

4) Picture It

According to the behavioral principle of picture superiority, images are more likely to be remembered than words. Vision has been shown to enhance various types of recall, recognition, and memory, so pictures are great for capturing and keeping attention, conveying patterns and even for eliciting emotion. Another smarter-than-me person was right: “A picture is worth a thousand words” (and an extra $20K of “meals and entertainment”).

5) Don’t Change What Works

Don’t change some part of your presentation that always crushes, only because you’re used to it and think it’s flat, predictable or boring. It might feel that way to you – your most loyal and consistent fan – but if it’s a new audience, it’ll be new to them and they’ll like it. (I don’t know you personally, but I’m pretty confident you should, however, make sure your musical references are more recent than ABBA.)

6) End Strong

Every comedian knows that a killer closer is the key to a successful set. All will be forgiven, and even forgotten, if you knock it out of the park at the end. Behavioral science supports the findings of these brave, funny road warriors: According to the peak end rule, ending on a strong note will increase recall, rating and enjoyment of a presentation (and any experience, really). So if there’s one part of your talk you really want to nail – concise, emotional and packed with takeaways – it’s the ending. Finishing on a laugh never hurt either. 

Speaking of which …

7) The Funny Thing About Humor…

Use humor sparingly and carefully, if at all. If you can. And you’re sure you can. Are you sure? Well-crafted, in-character, on-topic, non-offensive humor can increase attention, engagement and retention. Appropriate humor increases positive feelings, builds trust and enhances the speaker-audience relationship. Studies suggest humor can also lower our emotional barriers, enable acceptance of otherwise-threatening information, increase willingness to disclose intimate information and thus be more open to ideas that are otherwise outside our comfort zone. BUT!!!! Poorly thought out, divisive, offensive, off-topic, out-of-character or just plain old bad humor can trivialize important subjects, diminish your authority and not only won’t improve learning, retention or engagement, it can, in fact, have major negative repercussions. So pleeeeeeease: Don’t try to be funny if you’re not. 

 (Editor’s note to self: Insert something strong, memorable peak-end-y here. Maybe something about exercise or making sure you didn’t leave in any notes to self.)

Jeff Kreisler is a behavioral scientist, best-selling author of “Get Rich Cheating” and “Dollars And Sense: How We Misthink Money and How To Spend Smarter,” which he co-wrote with Dan Ariely. He is editor-in-chief of peoplescience.com.

Please go to nslexperience.com and follow @nslexperience to learn more and come along on the learning journey with us.

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