The sobering truth about what an audience remembers

Last week I spent three awesome days at the Presentation Summit. In this post, I want to explore what audience members remember from a presentation, using the first three keynotes of the conference as my examples.

I asked as many people as I could what they remembered from each of these keynotes. This was an informal, non-random, non-scientific survey.

Nigel Holmes

Nigel Holmes

Photo Credit: Rikk Flohr – www.rikkflohr.com

Nigel Holmes is a phenomenal graphic artist who used to be Art Director for Time magazine. His presentation didn’t start well – there were a few technical hitches and it took him some time to hit his stride, and even then he wasn’t a hugely energetic speaker. When I asked people about Nigel’s presentation, they often mentioned the slow start, but then they went onto say that they loved what he showed us, and enjoyed his quirky brilliant mind. Every person I talked to had a different take on what was the point of Nigel’s presentation, depending on what had most relevance to them.

Carmen Taran

Carmen Taran

Photo Credit: Rikk Flohr – www.rikkflohr.com

Words such as sparkling and scintillating were created to describe speakers like Carmen. Everybody I spoke to loved her as a speaker. One person said “I don’t care what she talks about, I’ll listen to her”. They often mentioned what she was wearing – a gorgeous cream and gold jacket over cream trousers. Then they mentioned her slides – how polished and beautiful they were. I had to prompt people as to what they remembered from her presentation. As with Nigel’s speech, everybody gave me a slightly different answer.

Garr Reynolds

Garr Reynolds

Photo Credit: Rikk Flohr – www.rikkflohr.com

Garr presented to us via Skype. Audience members were immediately able to say to me that Garr’s message was “Be like bamboo”. And they knew what the metaphor meant – be flexible and adaptable like bamboo. Garr made 10 points elaborating on this bamboo metaphor. When I prompted people to recall those 10 points, most people could recall only one or two.

Garr’s bamboo metaphor also elicited some strong reactions. I was talking to two women and one said to me “We’re adding a room to our house and the floor is bamboo. I felt so pleased that we’d chosen bamboo – it’s strong but flexible.” Then the other woman erupted: ‘I hate bamboo. Our neighbor has a forest of bamboo and it keeps sprouting up on our lawn. We just can’t get rid of it. I hate bamboo!” Neither of these two women could remember any of Garr’s points.

My take-aways

1. You don’t have a second chance to make a good first impression, but the cleverness of that saying has eclipsed the broader truth – that you have many chances to correct that first impression. Your presentation is not ruined if you make a bad start.

2. Your message, your slides and your delivery need to be balanced. You don’t want your presentation to be like a movie where people only remember the awesome special effects. Your slides and delivery are there to serve the message.

3.If you don’t present a clear overarching message, your audience will choose (sometimes randomly and unconsciously) the message they take out from the presentation or they may not get any message at all. For most types of presentations, I believe it should be you, the speaker, who decides what the overarching message is. I’ve said “most types of presentation” because I can see that it could be a valid approach to give a speech from which each person takes a different message – depending on what is most important to them.

4. When you choose a metaphor as your overarching theme, beware of the baggage your metaphor may carry. It might be necessary to acknowledge possible preconceptions at the beginning of your presentation so that your audience can put their reactions to one side and focus on your message.

5. If you cover many points of equal importance and at the same hierarchical level, your audience will have difficulty remembering them all.

I loved my time at the Presentation Summit. To be able to hang out for 3 days with people as interested (obsessed?) with all things presenting was awesome. The dates for next year’s conference are October 17th- 20th.

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