10 Presentation Tips: Tip No. 8 — We Have Five Senses. Use TWO!

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This is the eighth post in a 10-post series on tips for effective presentations. For an explanation as to why I’m adding this series to a data-oriented blog, see the intro to the first post in the series. To view other tips in the series, click here.

Tip No. 8: We Have Five Senses. Use TWO!


One of the most interesting books I’ve read over the past few years is Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School by John Medina. In easy-to-read prose, with lots of interesting examples, Medina lays out 12 “rules” of how the brain works — acknowledging up front that there is an infinite number of things we don’t yet understand about the brain, but that there actually are a number of things that we absolutely do know. The book focuses on the latter (for a slightly deeper read on my take on the book, jump over to this blog post from a couple of years ago).

Many of these the presentation tips in this series can be tied directly back to Medina’s brain rules, but this post is focused on three specific ones:

  • Rule #4: We don’t pay attention to boring things
  • Rule #9: Stimulate more of the senses
  • Rule #10: Vision trumps all other senses

Now, obviously, when it comes to presentations, you typically only have two senses to work with: sight and sound.

From Medina’s book:

We absorb information about an event through our senses, translate it into electrical signals (some for sight, others from sound, etc.), disperse those signals to separate parts of the brain, then reconstruct what happened, eventually perceiving the event as a whole.

What neuroscientists have figured out is that, by routing the same information through multiple senses, you have a better chance of making the information “stick.”

In a typical presentation environment, the senses of smell, taste, and touch are largely off the table, so you’re working with two senses. The good news is that sight is far and away the most dominant sense, but, “We learn and remember best through pictures, not written words.” (see Tip No. 3)

Here’s where presenters, even ones who intuitively know they need to be leveraging both sight and sound, often go awry. They approach their presentation with this mindset:

  • Sight = “what’s on my slides”
  • Hearing = “what I say”

This is a formula for under-utilizing these senses. In addition to the above, there are a number of other ways to play off these senses:

  • “Hearing” is not just what you say, but how you say it — changes in volume and tempo are a second layer of  “hearing”; avoid the monotone (and know that, even when you feel like you are dramatically changing your pitch and tone…it’s probably not coming across as nearly that dramatic. This is one of the reasons it makes sense to video some of your rehearsals).
  • “Sight” is not just the content on your slides, it’s the sight of you — your facial expressions and movement. Can you think of a presentation you’ve seen where the presenter literally seemed to bounce around the stage and or gesture dramatically with his/her hands? Chances are, you can. Now, can you remember what the presenter was talking about? Again, you probably can. This actually dips into Medina’s Rule #4 (we don’t pay attention to boring things), but my point here is that your audience is looking at you as much as they are looking at your slides. So, you need to be cognizant of that and use “the sight of you” to reinforce  your content and make it more memorable.

Two examples where this tip has been creatively applied to great effect:

  • At eMetrics in Washington, D.C., in 2010, Ensighten launched a campaign by starting a “tag revolution” —  a “tagolution” — that included the distribution of colonial wigs to all of the conference attendees. When Josh Manion got on stage to talk about Ensighten for 5 minutes, he delivered the presentation with one such wig on his own head. I don’t remember any other vendor that presented in that session. And, because the wig wasn’t simply a “be goofy” gag — because it actually tied directly to the point Josh was trying to convey — his presentation “stuck.” In essence, Ensighten actually leveraged a third sense — touch — by distributing wigs to the conference attendees. I got to plop a wig on my head (in the privacy of my hotel room!), so the point really, really, really “stuck.”
  • As another example, I teach an internal class at Resource Interactive that is focused on how to go about establishing clear objectives and KPIs up front in any engagement. The material was co-developed with Matt Coen, and one of the points he introduced was the classic play on “Ready, Aim, Fire,” and how digital marketers have this ugly tendency to instead go with “Ready (‘I need to do social media!’),” “Fire (‘I’m throwing up a Facebook page!’)”, “Aim (‘Did the Facebook page deliver results?’).” As we worked through the content, I found an image of someone firing a gun, and then introduced a simple build of three words on top of the image: “Ready” then “Fire” then “Aim.” Simple enough. I had imagery, it was a valid analogy to the point we were discussing, and the slide only had 3 big words on it. Then, I had the idea to introduce a sound effect — right as the word “Fire” appeared, a gunshot sound effect went off. Without fail, everyone in the class jumps, then sits up straight, then chuckles. It works.

I’m not saying that you should always include props in your presentations, nor that you should drop gratuitous sound effects throughout your deck. But, if you consciously think, “How can I maximize the impact of the senses of sight and sound,” you have a better shot at making your presentation — and its content — more memorable.

Photo by gabriel amadeus

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3 Comments


  1. Great post Tim. Has definitely given me some food for thought. I give quite a few presentations and I really enjoy doing them. So as part of this I’d like to add a third sense and that is “energy”. Doesn’t fit within the traditional five but rather an extension of them all. Yea, its not always easy to be calm, cool and collected so harness the nervous energy and turn it out on your passion. Calm, cool and collected can be, well, rather boring.

    Thanks for sharing and I’m going to add that book to my list of must reads.

    @KeithBurtis

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