6 Tips From Psychology and the Neurosciences on Becoming a Master PowerPoint Presenter

Applying Psycho-Sensory Principles
to Giving Presentations

We’ve all witnessed painful PowerPoint presentations. Some of us have given them. You know the ones I’m talking about: slides packed with bullet points and bad clip art, gratuitous animation or wacky transition effects coupled with an uninspired voiceover or someone reading outright from the slides.

PowerPoint often gets the blame. But that’s like blaming your kitchen for a bad meal.

While it’s rare that anyone crushes their PowerPoint presentation every time, here are some tips that apply psycho-sensory principles that can take someone from being a good presenter to being a PowerPoint-presenting rock star. Psycho-sensory principles are based on findings from psychology, sensory research and the neurosciences concerning how human beings process and retain information.

Tip 1: Change Your Mindset.

Research tells us that in person-to-person communication, the actual words that are being used only account for about 7 percent of the information received by an audience. The majority is based on nonverbal information such as visual appearance, body language, tone of voice, cadence of delivery, etc. So don’t think of your PowerPoint presentation as a tool to transmit verbal information. If that is what’s needed, you should write a document and send it out via email.

If your intent is to persuade and inform through a PowerPoint presentation, then you must think of it like the audience does: as a performance. In fact, a performance YOU are giving. Your PowerPoint slides are there to support what YOU are communicating. Consider how, for most of the presentation, you want the audience to pay attention to YOU, not what’s on the screen. What goes on the slides is what helps YOU make your points more persuasively.

Tip 2: Be More Visual.

Humans are visual creatures. Our brains are designed to process mostly visual information. In fact, about 90 percent of the information our brains receive is visual, and we process visual information about 60,000 times faster than verbal information. What you choose to put on your slides should be largely visual rather than verbal and should support the points you are making orally. Never make the audience read more than a line or two of text. Slides should never serve as your notes about what to say.

If you must make multiple verbal points in a row, break them apart so that no more than one point is on any given slide. Attention spans have declined precipitously in recent years and people absorb far less information than you think. Attention spans now average around seven seconds, and people struggle holding more than three ideas and their interrelationships in mind at the same time. If the topic is unfamiliar to them or overly complex, it is likely to be less. Meanwhile, you are fluent in the subject matter, which will likely lead you toward denser content. Beware of this cognitive bias and adjust accordingly.

The Process of Brand-Building

The process of brand-building can be a very confusing and intimidating process to some. But, it doesn't need to be. Companies, products and services a...

Read more

Tip 3: Use High-Quality Visuals.

No doubt, you often have to develop a PowerPoint presentation under time pressure and the majority of your time goes to crafting the story. What often gets short shrift is the imagery we select. Given the importance of the visual modality, however, high-quality images are critical to giving a powerful and persuasive presentation. Budget the appropriate time to find high-quality images. Don’t just Google images. Instead, think about what an image needs to convey and search stock photo sites for exactly what you need, or use an image development resource like Canva. Also, forget the majority of pre-loaded animation effects and slide transition options provided in PowerPoint. Quite often, they become distracting to the audience and add little value in telling your story.

Tip 4: Add an Element of Surprise.

The mind is constantly predicting what is likely to happen based on past experiences, cognitive biases (inherent thinking errors that humans make in processing information) and heuristics (mental shortcuts used to solve particular problems) learned over time. Your audience is no different and is constantly assuming where you are going with your presentation as you are giving it. You can use this tendency to your advantage by building in the occasional element of surprise, such as an unexpected result, an unusual occurrence or a novel conclusion. Remember, you are a storyteller, and the best stories usually have some element of surprise where the assumptions of the audience are suddenly rendered obsolete and they need to rethink where the story is heading. Just take heed to make it relevant to the story you are telling and avoid using more than one or two such surprises in your presentation. People like surprises and better enjoy and remember the story being told because of them.

Tip 5: Practice, Practice, Practice.

This does not mean learning to give your presentation by heart. It means going over the material, tweaking how to tell the story better, where and how to emphasize what you’re saying and coordinating what you’re saying with what’s on each slide. Consider that the visuals are as much a mnemonic to you as they are an explanatory aid to your audience. Associating what you want to say with your selected images through practice helps you deliver a more natural and confident performance.

If you can, give your presentation to a sympathetic but critical audience before you give it to the intended audience. If you can’t do that, record your presentation and critique yourself. Remember, you are giving a performance. Think of yourself as an actor or other performer. If you’re not well-prepared, your audience will know you did not take the presentation seriously, and they won’t either.

Tip 6: Be Brief. Be Bright. Be Gone.

Some of the best presentations are short and to the point. Consider that the Gettysburg Address consisted of 272 words and was delivered in less than three minutes. Take heart in knowing that President Abraham Lincoln was NOT the keynote speaker at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery. It was actually renowned orator and statesman of the day Edward Everett, who spoke for a full two hours before Lincoln’s three-minute address. A longer presentation is not a better presentation.

Watch some TED Talks. Effective presenters quickly come to the point, make the point, support the point and conclude. Less is definitely more. The likelihood of remembering anything you said decreases over time. An overlong presentation will tax your audience’s memory. In my experience, no one ever complains that a presentation or meeting was shorter than expected or scheduled. Don’t draw out what you say or repeat yourself unnecessarily unless you do so for a very specific reason.

Applying these psycho-sensory principles will help you give better, more impactful and more memorable PowerPoint presentations. This is a short list of tips. Share with us what you have found to make your presentations more effective and we will summarize them in an upcoming post.

  • Select category:

Want to publish a
guest post?

Review Guidelines
Subscribe today to get our latest content delivered to your inbox
Your subscription could not be saved. Please try again.
Your subscription has been successful.

Follow us

Frank Schab
An experienced marketing and branding strategist, Frank has been helping clients optimize the value of their brands through insightful analysis and effective strategy for more than three decades. Along with holding positions at General Motors and Pfizer, Frank served as a Managing Partner at Interbrand New York and VP of Global Brand Research at Opinion Research Corporation before co-founding Six Degrees. His brand-building work in various sectors including hospitality, medical device, pharmaceutical, automotive and technology has taken him to 17 countries on four continents. Frank holds a doctorate in psychology from Yale University and speaks fluent German.

Ready to talk?

Learn more about us • Get some case studies • Schedule a presentation • Scope a project