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I was winding down a one-on-one session with Robert (his real name), the president of a financial services company, when he asked for advice about an upcoming speech he was to give at a major conference. “I am worried,” he said, “because I am the final speaker of the day; following a podium parade of other well-known and respected financial experts.” When I asked Robert what he was specifically worried about he said, “First, I don’t want them falling asleep after sitting for hours listening to speech after speech. Second, I want them to really listen to what I have to say.” I said, “We can solve the first problem quite easily. It is the second problem that takes more work.”
I told Robert that, to solve the problem of the audience’s brains being drained from a day of over concentrating, simply tell them to stand up for a moment and shake it off. The brain needs good blood flow to stay alert; sitting is the worst thing for circulation. Just a few moments of movement can re-energize the body and brain. I said, “Tell the audience that you know they are coming to the end of a long day, so you want to help them finish strong. They will appreciate your thoughtfulness. The real challenge, however, is not getting an audience to listen. People will listen because, frankly, that is what they came to the conference to do. Your real challenge is getting them to remember what you said once they get back to the office.”
I have stated an important fact many times in this column over the years; that the least efficient function of the human brain is information processing. The cerebral cortex—the part of the brain that processes information and engages in higher thinking—came along pretty late in our evolution. As such, it takes more energy to engage in higher thinking, and we tire of thinking pretty quickly. This is why we fall asleep faster when reading a book than when watching TV. So, getting an audience to remember what you say involves a lot more than just providing interesting stuff to listen to.
Memory is a tricky process, and it is affected by many factors; age (younger people retain better), health (poor health diminishes memory), intelligence (higher intelligence equals higher retention), speed (the faster you learn something, the better it sticks), and willingness to learn (obviously, if we are forced to learn something, we soon forget it). When you speak to a group, you are unable to affect all but a few factors that will determine their ability to recall what you said. Consider the three big factors of memory; Primacy (we more easily remember the first thing we hear), Frequency (the more we hear something, the longer it sticks), and Urgency (we remember what is important to us). A speaker can only affect one of the three factors; urgency. Sure, you can manufacture Frequency by repeating your point over and over, but when frequency crosses over into repetition, you become an annoying person to listen to. Urgency of the material is also referred to as the meaningfulness of the information. This is the primary function of a speaker when delivering a presentation, to instill meaningfulness to the material. Statistics and data don’t have meaning in and of themselves, the speaker must provide urgency.
As Robert was absorbing all this, I reminded him of another rule that affects retention and recall; the Rule of Three. For some reason, the brain most easily remembers information in groups of three. If I asked you to remember ten digits, 9525009230, it would take some work, but when you group the digits into three clumps, 952-500-9230, you have an easily recalled phone number. Even reading the un-clumped digits feels like more work; which is why most people would just skim over it.
One final factor came into my conversation with Robert, the means of delivery. For most people, it is easier to receive and understand ideas when listening, rather than reading. This meant that Robert would have to abandon PowerPoint slides (a huge crutch for him). He would have to treat the presentation like a conversation between friends. I told Robert to do something revolutionary (for him); leave the podium and walk the stage while speaking. He could carry a few notecards, but the speech would be left in his office. This took some convincing—and a few hits of oxygen—but Robert finally agreed.
After this deep dive into the nature of memory, and effective delivery, Robert and I revamped his speech. We looked through any data to make sure he was conveying the urgent meaning behind the numbers. To satisfy the speed of learning factor, we took complex ideas and gave them a “what this means to you” approach. The satisfy the willingness to learn requirement, we debated over the material. For every major point in his speech, I had him answer my “So what?” challenge? As interesting as information is to the speaker, the audience is always asking themselves, “So what?” With so much information coming at us every day, people look for any reason to hit the mental delete button. If a bit of info doesn’t pass the “So what?” test, we forget it. So, as we reviewed Robert’s speech, I would ask “So, what?” If he didn’t have a good answer as to why I should hear that particular point, we deleted it. Don’t be too quick to dismiss this step. You may think that everything you include in a speech is vital for the audience to hear; but if you review your presentation with an objective colleague, you might discover otherwise.
This took a lot of work for Robert. And it was frustrating. But it paid off. I met with him a month after his big speech and he said, “It was fantastic! I had people lined up to shake my hand after the conference; telling me that my presentation was the most useful. I even had people thanking me for just giving them a chance to stand and stretch. But the best part is, I have talked to people in the weeks since, and they comment on specific points I made.”
A presentation isn’t a success simply because you got through it without forgetting important information, or you weathered tough questions. A presentation is only worthwhile if people can tell you what you said, long after you said it.
Stevie Ray is a keynote speaker and trainer, bringing his program, “The Roadmap to Influence” to organizations nationwide.