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Presentation Design Using a Science of Learning Approach

Lectern - AdirOffice Wood Stand-Up Podium Lectern 661-01

By Will Thalheimer

Almost everyone has to give a presentation now and then. For many people, presentations can make or break success on the job or in a career. Executives, managers, experts, salespeople, project managers, influencers, teachers, lawyers, politicians, trainers—there are a ton of jobs that require excellent presentation skills, and yet, all of us have sat through boring, useless, poorly designed presentations. What’s going on?

One problem is that presenting to others is one of the most cognitively complex things that we humans do. We must account for other people’s interests, values, prior knowledge, current concerns, and experience. We must deal with issues of attention, habituation, energy levels, learning, memory, cognition, persuasion, motivation, hunger, humor, forgetting, and so forth. We must craft a story, curate compelling data, and organize our presentations for maximum impact. We must also, somehow, overcome our fear and channel our nervous energy toward connecting with our audience and making the whole thing appear as if a beautiful piece of performance art. Presenting is so maddeningly complex that most of us get lost in simple recipes and approaches that don’t work that well.

In the learning field, the difficulties are even more acute. Training—whether in a room or online—is simply not that easy. We not only have to have expertise in the topic, but we ought to have some expertise in presenting, teaching, and learning as well. And with so many subject-matter experts called on to teach what they know—with very little training or background—it’s no wonder that our trainings aren’t always as good as they could be.

I’ve been doing training for three decades—poorly at first. There’s so much to learn, that even now as a good presenter, I’m still learning. And with online learning becoming so important, I’m learning even more about how to present through technology, how to present on recorded videos, how to navigate between classroom and blended options. As many of you reading this know, there’s always more to learn.

Last year I began thinking about all the poor presentations and all the ineffective trainings we see—and reflecting on my own journey from “monotone man” to keynoter and webinar wizard (well, sometimes). I decided there were some secrets that weren’t being taught—that great presenters align their presentation designs with human cognition. Effective presentations must attain four goals.

As presenters we must help our audience members to:

  1. Engage
  2. Learn
  3. Remember
  4. Act

Engagement is essential and is what most presentation-skills trainings focus on. But engagement can be effective or ineffective. Audiences can be enthralled, energized, giddy with enthusiasm, but not really learn, or learn the wrong things. Engagement is trickier than we think!

No matter what type of presentation we give, we want our audience members to learn something—to comprehend something essential. And yet again, learning is not simple. Nor is it enough! As presenters, we need to go beyond learning and help our audience members to remember, to minimize the chance that they will forget what we say. We also want to persuade them and prepare them to act. Again, this is not easy and is often lost when we craft our presentations and trainings.

In the upcoming webinar, Beyond Engagement: Presentations That Move Your Audience to Learning and Action, I will show you how to get rid of all your bullet points (they are deadly), help your audience see what you want them to see (they are looking chaotically, frenetically now), use whitespace, decorations, and branding wisely (most of us are mangling this), and show complex data in ways that help your audience comprehend. Also, I’m going to ask you several times during the session to evaluate slide designs and presentation approaches—to get your thoughts on what’s working and what’s not, challenges to bring new perspectives to the art of presenting.

By taking a science-of-learning approach to presenting—by seeing that our audience members are actually learners—we can build presentations that are highly engaging, and also help our audience to learn, remember, and act!

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