How to improve your presentations

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Have you ever left a presentation and thought, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to take away from that?” We all know a bad presentation when we see it but what are the factors that make a presentation great? The science of learning has developed a number of principles that can help you to take your presentations to the next level.

The first idea we need to appreciate is that our capacity to process new information is extremely limited. Yet experts can process information about their area of expertise in much more complex ways than others because they have a lot of relevant knowledge. Experts tend to see the deep structure behind different examples, categorising them by underlying principles, but novices tend to get distracted by less important surface features.This leads to the problem where an expert presenter overestimates the audience’s ability to grasp a concept.

In general, if we are presenting an idea that has a number of interacting elements then there is potential to overload the audience and not get the message across. You can perhaps avoid this situation by using the following research-based techniques:

1. Don’t read out your slides

Current theories about how we process information suggest that we have two ‘channels’. The first is for processing visual images and the second is for processing spoken language. These evolved over many millions of years until the relatively recent invention of written language. Although an excellent way of preserving and communicating information, written language has to make use of both systems at once. Letters and words must first be recognised visually before being decoded and converted into sounds. Even when reading silently, the voice-in-your-head still has to process these imagined sounds in the spoken language channel. So both processing systems are working hard at the same time.

If a presenter then also reads out the slides – or worse, speaks different words to those on the slide – this interferes with an audience member’s own spoken language processing and he or she is faced with a choice of either trying to zone-out from the presenter’s voice or to ignore the slide and focus on the presenter. It’s better not to confront an audience with this dilemma.

2. Complement spoken words with visuals

The good news is that we can flip this problem around. Although there are limits on how much we can deal with in each of these channels at any one time, by utilising them both we can maximise our processing power. This works best if a slide with a visual such as a diagram or animation is accompanied by a clear and simple spoken explanation. If you can’t make the spoken component simple then try breaking it down into smaller units because this effect reverses with long and complex spoken text. Otherwise, consider writing a book rather than giving a presentation.

3. Avoid darting-eyes syndrome

Attention is a precious thing so you don’t want to squander your audience’s supply of it by making them collect information from over here and apply it over there. Think of a classic textbook diagram: The image has numbers or letters hovering over certain features and you then need to look up what these mean in a key somewhere else. This causes the mind to have to search and check rather than pay attention to the bigger picture.


Instead, keep written labels minimal – you don’t want large chunks of text to read – and place the text itself next to the point in the diagram that it is referencing.

4. Don’t dig a hole, cover it with leaves and twigs and wait for your audience to fall down into it

If there is one overarching principle to all of this, it is to keep the processing load to a minimum. Our attention is limited and easily spent. Information, whether spoken or visual, should be salient and precise. You might think it’s really funny to have an animated possum dancing at the side of the screen but this will eat away at your audience’s reserves of attention; you are setting them an attention trap to fall into.

This doesn’t mean you have to be a bore: just because you can’t do things simultaneously it doesn’t mean they can’t be done in sequence. Once one episode of connected ideas is over, and before you move into the next one, you can show your hilarious cartoon or tell your funny anecdote. It’s fine just as long as you don’t want your audience to be paying attention to something else at the same time.

5. Make the audience do something to prove they are still alive

There is a lot of evidence that presented information is retained better if the presentation is interactive. This seems to be for two reasons: Firstly, it enables the presenter to notice that the message is not getting through and to adjust accordingly and, secondly, it gives people a reason to pay attention – it’s embarrassing to be called upon for a contribution when you haven’t been keeping up.

If you are going interactive then signal this from the start so everyone knows the rules of the game. Avoid multiple choice questions where you ask people to, “Put your hands-up if you think it’s A.” Most of the time, you will get through all of your options and find a large minority who haven’t voted for anything. Instead, try True/False questions where everyone raises their hands at the same time – thumbs-up for ‘true’ and thumbs-down for ‘false’. Also consider asking questions about things you have explained to your audience rather than things you haven’t explained to them yet. The former will give you better feedback.


You might have noticed that these principles are a little constraining. And there is a good reason for that – the novices who don’t know what you know need it to be presented to them in bite-size pieces. However, if you are giving lots of presentations then you might find these rules hard to consistently follow. For instance, you might want to place a fair amount of text on your slides because you need to print out takeaway notes and you don’t want to create a separate notes handout.

Your friend here is the separation-in-time principle plus a little cuing. Don’t read out your slides but give your audience time to read them – this feels a little weird but bear with it. And tell them, “Now just focus on what I say for a moment.” So they know when to pay attention to you instead.

Oh, and what’s that on your nose?

Just kidding.


3 thoughts on “How to improve your presentations

  1. When my Dad, who is a Maths teacher, gave me advice on presentations early on he said they were like a lamppost for a drunk; there to support what you say not to repeat it. It’s a strong visual image that’s stayed with me over the years and helped me avoid “text bombing” my own students.

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