By Peter Arvai
When you are a sales professional, presentations are a part of your daily routine – and the fate of your business often rests on them. Whether delivering an internal presentation to your team or pitching the business to a potential new client, sales teams need to be able to communicate their message in a way that engages the audience, sticks in their minds, and persuades them to take action. This can be one of the most nerve-wracking parts of the job, but – if done right – it can also be one of the most rewarding.
In our daily work at Prezi, my team and I are laser focused on building tools that help people give more effective presentations – and, through that work, we’ve done a lot of research on what makes information engaging, memorable, and persuasive. We’ve gone digging through studies conducted by psychologists and neuroscientists to try to understand how audiences’ brains work. As it turns out, people are hardwired to respond to certain kinds of content, and there are a few simple things presenters can do to take advantage of this. Here’s what science has to say about improving your presentations.
1. Text-based bullet points are not compatible with the way our brains consume information.
We’ve all seen the typical slide: a headline followed by a long list of bullet points full of text. Research has shown that this format, however, is highly ineffective, especially when compared to a more visual approach. Media consultant Mario R. Garcia found that in print, the eye goes to large pictures, even before the title or headline. In another, researchers found that visuals and/or animation increased persuasion over text alone. Another study conducted by the Nielsen Norman Group found that people read content in an “F-shaped pattern” – that is, they pay the most attention to the content at the top of the page and spend less time with each subsequent line as they move down the page.
If we apply this research to the typical format of a traditional bullet-pointed slide it is easy to see that much of the content will go unread or fail to make an impact. What’s worse, while your audience is struggling to read your slides, they won’t be listening to what you have to say, because people can’t actually do two things at once. According to MIT neuroscientist Earl Miller, one of the world’s experts on divided attention, there is no such thing as “multitasking.” When we are doing multiple tasks at the same time, we are actually switching, cognitively, between each of those tasks very rapidly, which makes us worse at everything we’re trying to do. As a result, your audience will likely disengage and miss key pieces of your message.
So ditch those bullet points. Instead, put one piece of information on each slide or frame of your presentation, and stick with visuals instead of text wherever possible.
2. Metaphors engage more of our brain.
Numerous studies have found that, when presented with metaphors and descriptive words or phrases – things like “perfume” and “she had a velvety voice” – the sensory cortex in our brains is triggered. This is responsible for perceiving things like smell and touch. That is, how the brain handles reading and hearing about sensory experiences is identical to the way it handles actually experiencing them.
On the other hand, when presented with non-descriptive information – for example, “The marketing team reached all of its revenue goals in Q1,” – the only parts of our brain that are activated are the ones responsible for understanding language. Instead of experiencing the content with which we are being presented, we are simply processing it.
Using metaphors within stories is such a powerful engagement tool because it engages more of the brain. Vivid imagery brings your content to life in the minds of your audience. Next time you want to hold the attention of a room, tell a story.
3. Showing spatial relationships taps into deep memory.
Do you think you could memorize the order of two shuffled decks of cards in under five minutes? That is exactly what Joshua Foer had to do when he won the United States Memory Championship in 2006. He was able to use a time-tested technique that has been around since 80 B.C. to memorize a vast quantity of information in a very short period of time – a technique you can use to make your presentations even more memorable.
This technique is called the “method of loci,” more commonly known as the “memory palace,” and it relies on our innate ability to remember spatial relationships – the location of objects in relation to one another. We have evolved this powerful spatial memory over millions of years, and it enables us – as it enabled our hunter-gatherer ancestors – to navigate the world and find our way.
Numerous studies have shown that the method of loci improves memory. For example, in one study, normal people who could memorize only a handful of random numbers (seven is average) were able to remember up to 90 digits after using the technique.
What does the method of loci teach us about creating more memorable presentations? If you can lead your audience on a visual journey that reveals the relationships between your ideas, they will be much more likely to remember your message – because they are much better at remembering that visual journey than they are at remembering lists of bullet points.
4. Conversations build connections, which are key to convincing your audience.
If you want to make your presentation more memorable, make it interactive. Research has shown that people are more likely to remember which brands are associated with certain products when first presented with the information in an interactive format versus a static format.
Beyond being more memorable, however, interactive, conversational presentations are also more effective at convincing an audience to take action. A lot of research has been done around persuasion in the context of sales presentations. RAIN Group analyzed the behavior of sales professionals who won more than 700 B2B opportunities, in contrast with the behavior of those sellers who came in second place. This research revealed that one of the keys to delivering a winning sales pitch – that is, a persuasive pitch – is connecting with your audience.
In looking at the top 10 behaviors that separated persuasive salespeople from those who didn’t win the deal, RAIN Group researchers found that prospects listed collaboration, listening, understanding needs, and connecting personally as some of the most important. In fact, collaborating with the prospect is listed as the number two most important behavior when it comes to winning a sales pitch, just after educating the prospect with new ideas.
Crafting your pitch like a conversation – and allowing your audience to take the driver’s seat in deciding what to discuss – is a key tool in selling effectively. More broadly, in any presentation where you are trying to convince your audience to take action, consider taking a more collaborative approach if you want to be successful.
5. Telling a story instead of sharing raw data will make your presentation twice as persuasive.
Stories are one of the most fundamental ways we teach children about the world and how to behave. And it turns out that stories are just as powerful when it comes to delivering a message to adults. Research has shown again and again that storytelling is one of the best ways to persuade people to take action.
Take, for example, a study conducted by a marketing professor at Wharton Business School, which tested two different brochures designed to drive donations to the Save the Children Fund. The first brochure told the story of Rokia, a seven-year-old girl from Mali whose “life would be changed” by a donation to the NGO. The second brochure listed facts and figures related to the plight of starving children across Africa – like the fact that “more than 11 million people in Ethiopia need immediate food assistance.”
The team from Wharton found that the brochure that contained the story of Rokia drove significantly more donations than the statistics-filled one. This may seem counterintuitive – in today’s data-driven world, making a decision based on “gut feeling” rather than facts and numbers is often frowned upon. But this Wharton study reveals that, in many cases, emotions drive decisions far more than analytical thinking. Next time you want to convince your audience to take action, consider telling a story that brings your message to life rather than presenting data alone.
Peter is the CEO of Prezi, the interactive presentation software, which he cofounded in 2008 with Adam Somlai-Fischer and Péter Halácsy, an architect and an innovator, as a means to create a more memorable and engaging way for people to share stories. Before co-founding Prezi, Peter founded omvard.se, a company that aggregates data on treatment outcomes for hospital patients, as well as developing the world’s first mobile newsreader so people could follow TED Talks from their mobile devices. You can follow him on Twitter or LinkedIn.