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Matt Abrahams: How Do You Make a Memorable Presentation?


Matt Abrahams: How Do You Make a Memorable Presentation?

A Stanford lecturer and expert on public speaking explains how to manage anxiety and deliver a smooth presentation.
Man sitting listening to presentation
Having a structure helps you remember what you plan to say. (Reuters photo by Stephen Lam)

As a communication professor and coach, I hear a lot from presenters about anxiety. Their two greatest fears: They will forget what to say, and the audience won't remember what they said. These dual fears are certainly understandable and create much angst among nervous and novice presenters. In this series of posts, I will suggest several steps you can take to make your presentations more memorable — for both you and your audience.

Let's start with remembering. Delivering a smooth presentation requires a lot of effort. You can dramatically increase the likelihood of remembering all your points by:

  1. Employing good presentation hygiene
  2. Structuring your presentation
  3. Practicing properly

Presentation Hygiene: The Good Habits of Effective Speakers

Your parents were right! By eating healthfully, keeping fit and sleeping well, you can improve your well-being — plus help alleviate your presentation anxiety and improve your memory. Like a long-distance runner carbo-loading for a marathon, you will find it helpful to eat certain foods — in this case, to facilitate memory formation and retention — ahead of your presentation. Complex carbohydrates, nuts, oils, foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids and foods that contain flavanols (such as grapes, berries, apples and cocoa) are good choices. Avoid simple sugars and sweets because they provide a quick energy boost that is often followed by sluggishness and mental haziness. And plan your caffeine consumption wisely: Caffeine facilitates creativity and productivity, but it also invites jitters, dry mouth and flighty memory. It may make some sense to go for the triple mocha latte when you're preparing a speech, but it's not a good idea the day of. (Remember, the effects of caffeine linger in the body for a number of hours.) Finally, it may be tempting to use alcohol to calm your nerves, but evidence suggests it causes forgetfulness and "loosens the tongue," which could lead to regret.

A healthy diet, proper rest, and exercise can help alleviate your public speaking anxiety.

Exercise plays an important role in both memory and anxiety resilience. Fit presenters respond better to both the mental and physical aspects of stress. Additionally, physical activity increases lung capacity and bolsters mental focus, two very important aspects of speech delivery. Finally, exercise provides an avenue for releasing pent-up anxiety and stress. Try to go for a quick swim, jog or walk prior to writing or practicing a speech. The resulting calming effect comes not just from getting outside and distancing yourself from the stressor, but also from your body's natural endorphins, which are often released when you exercise. Memory research clearly shows that the less stressed you are, the more information you will retain. Exercising after practicing a presentation can help, too: Short, intense bursts of exercise that follow new learning have been shown to increase memory retention.

Sleep is also critical. Good-quality, deep sleep prepares your brain for learning and consolidates newly learned memories so that you can recall them more easily. When you are preparing a speech, pulling an all-nighter is the worst thing you can do.

Structure Sets You Free

A powerful way to help you remember your presentation is to provide a meaningful structure to your content. Research shows that people retain structured information up to 40% more reliably and accurately than information that is presented in a more freeform manner. There are many presentation structures on which you can rely, including:

  • Past-Present-Future — good for providing a history or stepping people through a process
  • Comparison-Contrast — good for showing the relative advantages of your position
  • Cause-Effect — good for helping people understand the underlying logic of your position

Having a structure helps you remember what you plan to say, because even if you forget the specifics, you can use the general framework to stay on track. For example, when using the Problem-Solution-Benefit structure — good for persuading and motivating people — you first lay out a specific problem (or opportunity), then you detail a solution to address the problem, and finally you define the benefits to your solution. If you are in the middle of the Solution portion of your talk and you blank out, then by simply thinking back to your structure, you know that the Benefits portion comes next.

My favorite structure is What?-So What?-Now What? This useful structure can help you not only in planned presentations but also in spontaneous speaking situations, such as job interviews. When using this structure, you start with your central claim ("I am qualified for this position because of my experience") and then explain its importance or value ("This experience will allow me to start contributing to your firm immediately") before concluding with a call to action or next steps ("So when can I start?").

The Right Way to Practice

Practice is clearly important for remembering your presentation. However, many presenters don't practice properly. They simply mentally rehearse or flip through a slide deck, passive approaches that don't really simulate the conditions of a presentation. To practice effectively, you also need to stand and deliver — even if you are presenting virtually, you need to physically stand up to project effectively. Rather than only thinking through a presentation, standing up and practicing your speech helps you remember it. Specifically, hearing your own voice and using relevant, appropriate gestures improve later recall. You remember more because your mental imagery and physical practice use overlapping neural networks in your brain, improving what's known as memory consolidation, or the process by which a thought becomes cemented into your long-term memory.

One very useful technique, called focused practice, involves taking one aspect of your presentation — say, the introduction — and delivering it repeatedly until you become highly familiar and comfortable with it. (You should not memorize your presentation, because memorizing invites blanking out.) Next, you move on to another aspect of your presentation, such as transitioning between two specific visual aids. Focused practice allows you to feel less anxious because you do not have to spend valuable mental effort thinking about all the particular aspects of your presentation at once.

The location where you practice your presentation should be in the place where you'll be presenting, or at least in a similar place. For example, if you are going to give a speech in a large room with big windows where people are quiet and attentive, you should practice giving the speech in a large room with windows. The context in which you learn helps you remember and will boost your confidence, since the surroundings will feel comfortable. This advice also works for presenting via the Web or teleconference. Practice in the room with the technology that you will be using. In fact, practicing with the technology in advance is always a good idea.

Through proper preparation, structure and practice, you will be able to more easily remember your presentation. And the added confidence you will have in your memory will allow you to present in a more compelling manner.

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