The Presentation Format That Lights Up Your Neurons

What’s in a presentation format? According to neuroscience, quite a lot actually! We all know the feeling of exasperation when we see our audience nod off during the presentation of our BIG idea. It’s at this precise point that a lot of people begin doubting the merit of their ideas, but what they don’t realize is that the problem isn’t in the idea itself, it’s in the delivery of the idea. To learn why this happens, we decided to get a little refresher on the neuroscience.

How your brain responds to bullet points

Open one of your slide decks and allow yourself a 10-second glance across the first content slide. What do you see? Most of us will find ourselves staring at a slide covered with facts, figures, thoughts and data lists. Of course there’s nothing wrong with using any of these techniques, the trouble is using too many, too quickly.

When we listen to a slide presentation based on bullet points, it activates the parts of our brain responsible for language processing. While a language-based presentation might work for certain parts of your audience, there’s a very good chance that those who learn in visual (spatial), aural (auditory), or social ways might struggle to focus on what you have to say.

What evocative storytelling does to your brain

So how are you supposed to format your presentations to interact with listeners of all learning styles? The answer is simpler than you think.

In a 2006 study, researchers in Spain found that storytelling was the most powerful way to activate all parts of the brain. While stories are also transmitted in the form of aural language, what the brain scans showed the researchers was fascinating. As a story was told, neurons started lighting up in whatever brain region that would have been used if we were experiencing the events of the story for ourselves. That means if someone tells us a story about a refreshing swim, our sensory cortex lights up. If a narrative is based on motion, our motor cortex lights up. 

In a Princeton study on the topic, Uri Hasson confirmed that listeners brain activity echo that of their presenter. When the presenter, “had activity in her insula, an emotional brain region, the listeners did too. When her frontal cortex lit up, so did theirs. By simply telling a story, the woman could plant ideas, thoughts and emotions into the listeners’ brains.”

This means that by using story-based presenting you can engage a much wider audience, which translates to less work, and more impact.

How to format your presentations to light up your listeners’ brains

You can dramatically raise your engagement with listeners by simply presenting it in the format of an evocative story. But how do you then format that story to raise its impact even higher? Here are 3 basic principles from neuroscience to help you out:

1. Break up with the bullet point

We’ve all experienced how difficult it is to pay attention when a presenter simply reads verbatim from their slide deck. This is an easy trap to fall into and it’s why we generally suggest steering clear of bullet points in the first place. Instead of relying on your presentation for notes, try to use your visual material to add color to your presentation rather than the other way around. Prezi’s conversational presenting templates can help you to break out of lecturing mode to embrace a more flexible and organic storytelling mode which your listeners are already wired for.

Reading bullet points is an easy trap to fall into

Prezi's visual templates can hep you get out of lecture mode

2. Show, don’t tell

“Show, don't tell” is a method for writing or telling a story in such a way that the reader is able to experience the story through action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the storyteller's literal explanations.

Literal stories fail to rouse the brain's sensory region

When forming stories, make them vivid and unusual

A great way to make use of this technique in your presentations is to opt for the metaphorical over the literal when choosing words, phrases and slide images. Studies have found that metaphors like, “the singer had a velvet voice” rouse the sensory region of the brain. When forming your stories, it’s important to make them feel vivid and unusual. 

For example, rather than telling a story about an executive having an insight in a boardroom, try to tell the story of how that executive was inspired by his trip through the amazon rainforest and how he translated that to great innovations back home. The more unusual a story is the more memorable it becomes.

3. Clarity trumps persuasion

When retelling the plot of a favorite novel or film, we often find ourselves getting tangled up in the complex details, which ends up breaking the flow of our tale and eventually losing the attention of our audience.

We often get tangled in the complex details

The simpler the story the more likely it will be remembered

Using simple language and a clear plot line is the best way to present a story. Every moment a listener spends asking themselves, “what does that word mean”, or “did I miss a detail”, is a moment where you’ve lost their attention. In pursuit of simplicity, cut out unnecessary adjectives and complicated nouns in exchange for more heartfelt language. To promote clarity, make sure you establish clear links between your ideas, point out the cause and effect relationship between events, and alternate between the many parts and the big picture of your narrative.

If you have a story that might seem too complex for traditional presentation software, you might find that Prezi’s non-linear design can help you structure your story in a fresh way. Using Prezi you can create a map-like overview of your story with the ability to zoom in on details during live presentations so that you can show your audience how your ideas relate to each other in the big picture.

Narrative Conversational Presentations are the future

Evolution has wired our brains for storytelling. We create stories to help make sense of every action and conversation we experience, weaving together the strands of related memories to create an integrated story imbued with meaning.

Formatting your presentation as a narrative means you are echoing a rhythm and flow that optimizes the brain’s processing ability, making story one of the best presentation formats to help your audience digest new ideas. If you’re looking for some more tips on mastering the art of business storytelling, make sure you check out our tips on how to make your storytelling visual. Or if you want to dive even deeper, be sure to sign up for our webinar on Conversational Presenting.

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