golden circle Sinek

Giving an oral presentation

Earlier this month, I gave an oral presentation at the SILS-CNS research day at the University of Amsterdam. They asked me how best to present data at a conference or meeting. How can you keep their attention, and how can you make sure they remember you and your data?

First, let’s talk about the goal of your presentation. I have been to a lot of talks where the presenter’s only goal seemed to be to impress the audience, to show his or her brilliance and the amount of work he or she (and sometimes the team) had done. Not inviting or inspiring at all. In one of his videos, Simon Sinek explains the result of such presentations, and how to do it differently:

In fact, these people are only talking about themselves, and only selling and sending messages. To many people in the audience, these talks are quite putting off. However, when the goal of your talk is to start a discussion, to make sure they understand what you are talking about, and to really share your ideas and perspectives, people are much more receptive. When your only goal is to share a new idea or perspective, and don’t want anything in return, people will start becoming your fan – the perfect start of a fruitful collaboration or discussion.

Talking of Mr. Sinek, many people know his TED video about The Golden Circle. Watch the video if you haven’t already!  He has a very interesting view on how we communicate:

We naturally communicate from the outside-in [of the Golden Circle], we go from the clearest thing to the fuzziest thing. We tell people WHAT we do, we tell them HOW we’re different or special and then we expect a behavior like a purchase, a vote or support. The problem is that WHAT and HOW do not inspire action. Facts and figures make rational sense, but we don’t make decisions purely based on facts and figures. Starting with What is what commodities do. Starting with Why is what leaders do. Leaders inspire.

Leaders and organizations with the capacity to inspire think, act and communicate from the inside-out. They start with Why. When we communicate our purpose or cause first, we communicate in a way that drives decision-making and behavior. It literally taps the part of the brain that inspires behavior.

So, if you want to inspire, start your presentation with WHY.

In scientific papers you can provide full context to your research in the introduction, but in a presentation that doesn’t work. Starting with WHY in a presentation works best with a so-called attention-getter (see Scitable and Sinek), an anekdote or story. By doing this, your audience will be prepared for the remainder of your talk in an attractive manner. It is a way to both get everyone’s attention fast and link the topic with what the audience already knows (this link provides a more audience-specific form of context). Proceed with the need and task for your research – show some necessary facts and figures – and end the intro with your main messages (“in this study we will show that…”). Identifying these message early in the preparation process is the key to being selective in your presentation. For example, when reporting on materials and methods, include only those details you think will help convince the audience of your main message — usually little, and sometimes nothing at all.

Remember, your brain is only capable of receiving limited sensation. Communication can only take place at the right time and under the right circumstances. Due to the large volume of information you constantly receive, your mind rejects information that it does not compute. To put it differently: it only accepts new information that matches its current state of mind and filters out everything else. So, use clear concise messages and display only essential information. This also helps to keep your presentation within the time provided (as a general rule it still works to keep the number of slides similar to the amount of minutes you have).

And, instead of using slides filled with text or bulleted lists, combine your messages with clear infographics to make sure your audience understands. Lead your audience by the hand and repeat these infographics in your results and conclusion section. Also your data figures should be designed well. Use colors to emphasize your most important experimental groups, and repeat these same colors in every figure you have.

A study shows infographics are by far the best way to convince even your most skeptic audience. Read this commentary by Stephen J Meyer, Persuasion: Fascinating Study Shows How To Open A Closed Mind. The original study is here.

Our brains privilege visual information over any other kind. More processing power is devoted to it. Studies have shown that we understand images more quickly than words and remember them longer. When what we see conflicts with what we hear, our brains choose vision over sound. (Not convinced? Watch this mind-blowing video about the McGurk Effect.) And neurological experiments show that the brain has to work much harder to process words than pictures, creating more opportunities for the information to be corrupted, manipulated, modified or misunderstood.

So, now you know.