Getting your message across

How to improve your communication practice to get your message across in presentations


Maria Hansen

In many job functions today, communication is an essential skill. Whether you are an expert, leader, facilitator, teacher or trainer, your ability to communicate effectively in many cases determines how successful you are in your job. In this article, we will share some tips for communicating better and delivering more effective presentations.

The field of communication is wide, and it is far from possible to cover it all in one single article. Acknowledging this, we have made a prioritisation in this article as to what might be most relevant to those who want to get started on improving their communication practice.

We will start with an introduction to how the brain works. This first section serves as the foundation for the following two sections, as understanding how the brain works forms the backbone of many of the communication principles presented in the later sections. That said, studies of the brain are also a vast field, so in this article, we will only shed light on the most relevant insights from this field that relate to communication. In section 2, we will look at how to prepare your presentation and unfold two concrete tools to improve your presentations that you can start using straight away. We will end the article with a third and last section where we take a deep dive into how to deliver your presentation, focusing on the strategic use of body language.

We hope that the tips we share will support you in delivering presentations with effect. If you are already an experienced communicator, you might also get a couple of new ideas for how to advance your communication practice even further.

Introduction: Understanding how the brain works

Mark Bowden is an American body language expert. According to Bowden, when initiating a presentation, you have no more than 90 seconds to convince your audience to be your allied and not your enemy. This means that if we get off on the wrong foot, we only have a small chance of succeeding with our presentations.

When facilitating a workshop or a meeting, you must be aware that your participants will start evaluating whether they like you or not even before the formal meeting starts. They will do their evaluation based on how you welcome them to the room and how present you are before the meeting starts. For instance, are you preoccupied with emails, or do you show an interest in them, making small talk with positive gestures and openness?

If we look at how the brain works, Israeli-American psychologist Daniel Kahneman divided the brain into a system 1 and a system 2, each representing either fast or slow thinking. Looking at the 90-second rule, this is where system 1 – the fast-thinking part of the brain – is dominant.

“But what can we do if we really want the system-1 brain to like us?”

According to Kahneman, system 1 is evoked by emotions, and it tends to jump to conclusions without having a specific reason for this. So when we want people to like us, we try to find common ground that connects us and get them to build empathy for us or the story we tell. We also want them to feel that they are in good hands and that they can rely on what we are saying in our presentations.

When you prepare and deliver your presentations, knowledge about how the brain works is important. And if you sometimes feel that it is difficult to engage your audience, think about what you did to motivate and build trust with them from your very first touchpoints.

The redundancy effect

The redundancy effect is related to how the brain deals with multiple sources of information, e.g. visuals and text, and has been described in various learning theories over the past decades.

A way to exemplify the redundancy effect is when you pick up the phone while being focused on a task on your computer. You cannot stop looking at the task even though you are on the phone. Reading the words on the screen and listening at the same time is hard.

So how does the redundancy effect impact the way we prepare our presentations? Generally speaking, if your audience is reading and listening at the same time, the likelihood that they will remember what you are saying is essentially zero. Therefore, you need to ensure that your slides do not contain too much text distracting the audience from paying attention to what you are saying.

How to avoid the redundancy effect when delivering presentations

·         Do not speak for more than 20 minutes before you involve your participants.

·         You should not present any topic for more than 45 minutes before you get the participants to work on an activity to digest the presented knowledge.

·         If your presentation lasts for more than one hour, give your participants a break every 60 minutes.

Another sure way to lose your audience’s attention is to forget all about the fact that they are in the room. This could happen for many reasons, e.g. if you are nervous about your presentation and stick to your speaking notes without paying attention to your audience, or if you are talking about a topic you are very passionate about and forget everything about the people, time and energy in the room.

The human brain cannot stay focused for very long. Knowing this, we recommend that you keep your presentations to a maximum of 20 minutes in a physical meeting and 10 minutes in a virtual meeting before activating the audience. A way to involve them could be something as simple as asking a question and making them reflect and relate to the content presented, or you could have them discuss a question in pairs for just a few minutes.

Using micro-involvements every 10 or 20 minutes is an easy way to keep your audience engaged throughout the presentation. Your presentation should last no longer than 45 minutes in total before you ask the participants to work on actual group activities to digest the content of it. If your knowledge session lasts longer than one hour, it might be a good idea to give your participants a break every hour.

In the next section, we will share two concrete tools to support you in preparing and structuring your presentation.

Preparing your presentation

At Implement, we have developed a tool called the design star. We use it when designing all kinds of human interactions, including preparing presentations.

Read more about the design star and get a practical guide to help you get started on preparing and delivering more effective presentations.

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