Attracting — and retaining — an audience when you’re a speaker can be a challenge. People get distracted by phones, sometimes aren’t interested in your topic, or, worst of all, you feel like they don’t like you.
But there are pieces of brain science speakers can use to get the most of their time in front of an audience.
Dr. John Molidor, a professor of psychiatry at Michigan State University and past president of the National Speakers Association board of directors, visited the “Change Your Mindset” podcast. And he was full of brain-science tips for speakers to incorporate into their presentations:
Mix story and emotion with data and facts
We’ve heard plenty about “left-sided” and “right-sided” brains (brains that are more analytical and data-driven vs brains that are more emotion-driven). But as a speaker, you have to learn to touch both sides. Our brains crave an integration of both pieces.
Some presentations and keynotes are naturally more numbers-driven or more story-driven. But if you find yourself leaning too far to one side, try targeting the other side of the brain.
“Talk to both hemispheres,” John said. “Tell the story. Show the emotion. Give the data. Give the numbers. Both of them the brain processes, and it actually would like to have both.”
It may feel natural to want to switch up aspects of your presentation sometimes — font, headers, symbols. But our brains naturally gravitate towards patterns. Once the brain is able to find that comfort in a pattern, it’s better able to pay attention to other things (like your presentation). If there’s no consistency to your presentation or slide show elements, your brain is going to inherently be too distracted trying to find a pattern that it doesn’t retain the actual information as well.
Use an F-pattern on your slides
No, this has nothing to do with using salty language.
Eye pattern studies have shown the ways in which our eyes naturally move when looking at something new. So presenters could benefit from using that science. Typically, our eyes move in a pattern that looks like an F: up and down, then left over the top, and then in the middle. When creating slides for a presentation, it can be helpful to keep that pattern in mind and keep the important text higher up.
Incorporate brain breaks for your audience
Naps to increase learning potential? That’s just one brain tip John shared. To put it simply, the human brain is not meant to be a machine when it comes to retaining information. We have to give it a break every now and then if we want it to actually perform optimally. One of the best ways to help your brain learn something, John says, is to give it time to rest directly after.
Of course, you don’t want your audience napping during your presentation. But you can still incorporate pre-planned breaks into your time on stage.
Cater to the brain’s need for visual elements
Use pictures to break up all the text you want to get across. “The visual cortex in the back of your brain is a huge amount of real estate,” John says — so take advantage of it.
“Death by bullet points” is not the way to go: So be sure to include pictures that will help illustrate all your main points.
Eliminate unnecessary words
Did you know that your brain sometimes naturally fills in words and letters that are missing? Even if two letters of a word are switched, your brain will naturally unscramble the letters and read the word as the correct word (like if “please” was spelled “plaese,” your brain would still read the word the same).
So how to translate that knowledge as a speaker? Take out unnecessary words — your presentation doesn’t need every “a” or “an.” John has even been experimenting himself with taking some verbs out, in an effort to pull audience members in and have them actively participating in the presentation.
Remember that your audience’s brains need oxygen
Much like the human brain needs frequent breaks to keep up its productivity, it also needs oxygen. John incorporates “fact or crap” sessions, where he invites audience members to yell out whether they think a particular sentence is true or not. Telling a joke (laughter brings in oxygen) also works, or encouraging everyone to get up and stretch.
Get out of your own head
This tip is the simplest at its core, yet often the hardest for speakers to do. If you focus in on the one person in the audience not paying attention — or not exhibiting overtly positive body language — instead of the 50 other people who are engaged, your brain will take notice. John equated this to your cells eavesdropping on what you’re sending your brain: “If you’re sending your brain sort of this negative information or positive information, your cells tend to pay attention to that,” he said, “which then can cause a chemical reaction.”
So staying out of your head (and all the worries and scenarios your brain has cooked up) will help in any speaking scenario. A particularly helpful mantra to remember is the one John uses before his speaking engagements: “I will tell myself all I can really do here is share what I know. That’s so much easier for me to go, ‘I’m just going to share,’ versus ‘I hope they like it,’ or ‘Are they getting it?’ or ‘Oh, you know I’m not getting the reaction I wanted.’ In the end, am I sharing it and am I doing it in a way that’s real? I’m not judging myself as I do it.”
To listen to the entire interview with Dr. John Molidor, you can click this link and download it from my website or you can download the episode on C-Suite Radio, iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, or Google Play. Just search Change Your Mindset with Peter Margaritis.