Understanding presentation design, messaging and delivery (Brain Rule #12)

The final blog from our 12 brain rules series. We’ve taken each brain rule and applied it to presentation design, messaging and delivery. Admittedly, a couple we had to “bend” a little to apply to presentations, but we believe that’s called “creativity”.

Rule #12: We are powerful and natural explorers.

Our brains are constantly on the look out for understanding. They like learning new things, they like following stories, they are curious and they are always up to something… Hey, our brains seem to be like puppies! But let me not digress (no matter how much I want to) about baby canines…

John Medina, however, does point out how baby humans are the: “model of how we learn — not by passive reaction to the environment but by active testing through observation, hypothesis, experiment, and conclusion. Babies methodically do experiments on objects, for example, to see what they will do.

Our brains react in a similar way to each and every speech or presentation that we attend. We turn up hoping that this will be good! That we’ll learn something, that it will be useful to us. That it will make us think, perhaps challenge us. Because we are ‘powerful and natural explorers’. Sadly most presentations then turn to the “passive reaction” he mentions because no planning has gone into presentation design, messaging, and delivery.

Interestingly, it’s often in our “downtime” that we have the best ideas and thoughts: left to it’s own devices, the brain will often make connections and have ideas that are good! Brain Rules illustrates this with a story from google:

Google takes to heart the power of exploration. For 20 percent of their time, employees may go where their mind asks them to go. The proof is in the bottom line: fully 50 percent of new products, including Gmail and Google News, came from “20 percent time.”

Now, although we don’t perhaps need to give an audience down time as such. Pausing and allowing time for reflection are crucial techniques to let brains digest, whirr and purr. They’ll understand and remember more from a presentation if it’s well paced. Talk fast, but add well timed pauses to allow brains time to explore possibilities.

presentation design and messaging

Understanding presentation design, messaging and delivery

So when an audience sits down ready to listen to your presentation, they are full of curiosity and ready to explore: the start is important.

Brains want to quickly understand the purpose of any talk. It’s important to state your key message simply and clearly, and within the first 2 minutes, so that:

  • Your audience immediately knows this will be relevant to them. Believing in the relevance of a talk makes people pay more attention.


  • Getting to the point fast frames your slide content with the right context. This increases the understanding of the subsequent information that you present. The audience are simply on the same page.


  • If you are confident that your audience gets the gist, then you are actually free to delve deeper into your content if you need to. Presenter and audience can naturally explore!


Perhaps just don’t talk about puppies too much. (Or do. I’d listen!)

Increase presentation engagement (Brain rule #9)

increase presentation engagement

5 tips to increase presentation engagement:

Brain Rule #9: Stimulate more of the senses.

We can increase presentation engagement by engaging more of the senses during a presentation. At least, that’s the findings from science according to Brain rules. I thought Brain Rule #9 might be tough to apply to presentations:

“Our senses work together so it is important to stimulate them! Your head crackles with the perceptions of the whole world, sight, sound, taste, smell, touch, energetic as a frat party.”

So we can easily tick off sight & sound, they certainly occur in presentations. But taste & smell? Can they really apply to presentations too?

“Smell is unusually effective at evoking memory. If you’re tested on the details of a movie while the smell of popcorn is wafted into the air, you’ll remember 10-50% more.”

Up to 50% more? Wow. So we could feasibly waft the smell of coffee into the room? Either that or fall back on “conference breath” to help recall the information we’ve just seen! Maybe not. Pass the mints.

The overriding factor to help make your presentation more memorable is to increase presentation engagement. Engage more senses, remember more.


5 things you can do to increase presentation engagement:

  1. Use polls – Get your audience to vote via a link on their mobile. Results come up on the screen immediately. It makes for a more dynamic engagement with the audience. Try Glisser, or Participoll.
  2. Use hyperlinks – hyperlink your slides so that you can go into different sections at different times. Who says a ppt has to go from A to B? By having a closer rapport with your audience you can take them on a different journey each time. Exploring & adapting to demand and interest is great for increasing presentation engagement.
  3. Use animation – to help your audience understand your content. Well timed entrances help to keep people focused where you need them to be. Movement attracts the eye. That’s why we all end up looking at TV screens when in cafes / bars etc. Good animation will keep your audience entertained and attracted to your slides
  4. Embed video – it’s easy these days to embed videos. Just keep them short! Remember you’re there to present, not to host a cinema club…
  5. Waft the smell of popcorn into the room. Then bottle & sell “Popcorn d’Eau”, a new perfume, and make a fortune by improving worldwide business memories…

Okay, so 4 great tips to increase presentation engagement then.


Applying presentation science – or brain rule #11

Applying presentation science to your slides can make a difference to the outcome of your presentation. In this brain rule by John Medina, we consider the importance of knowing your audience before you present.

Brain Rule #11: Male and female brains are different.

One way of applying presentation science is to get the font size right. It’s well known that eyesight can deteriorate with age. And there’s a statistic bandied about that your minimum font size needs to be half the average age of your audience. So, a bunch of directors around 50? Go for 25pt.

Regardless of this fun, font size also needs to be a flat minimum of 18pt for presentations – don’t go thinking you can get away with 10pt if you’re presenting to students because of that ‘half the average age’ rule!

Other factors include the size of the screen, the relative size of the font, how far away the audience is from the screen and the resolution. But these can vary: so just don’t forget 18pt as a minimum for the text on your slides.

But what about if your audience is predominantly male or female?

Research shows that men and women handle acute stress differently. Medina’s explanation states:

When researcher Larry Cahill showed them slasher films, men fired up the amygdale in their brain’s right hemisphere, which is responsible for the gist of an event. Their left was comparatively silent. Women lit up their left amygdale, the one responsible for details. Having a team that simultaneously understood the gist and details of a given stressful situation helped us conquer the world.”

When planning your presentation it’s certainly a good idea to cover both the gist and the details. A good method of applying presentation science involves having a flexible structure. A well thought out structure that starts with outlining the gist. Then provides detail to prove that gist as the presentation progresses. The result is a more convincing argument for your audience – to both male and female brains!

Applying presentation science for men and women

Applying presentation science: Emotions

Another consideration when applying presentation science is that men and women process certain emotions differently. Emotions are useful. They make the brain pay attention. Medina says “These differences are a product of complex interactions between nature and nurture.”

The easiest way to apply this is knowing that people don’t pay attention to boring things. They do pay attention to emotional things however – so engaging your audience with your slides is one of the most important things you can do.

How can you engage?

  • Use visuals – they are quickly understood and far more memorable.
  • Use contrast – something that looks different is immediately noticeable and draws attention.
  • Show early on that your presentation is relevant to your audience.
  • Describe benefits and challenges that relate to your audience.

Finally, an extra point about colour perception:

Men may be colour blind, whilst for women it’s rare. So using red and green on a comparison chart isn’t always a good plan. (Another tip is to label the chart itself rather than using a separated legend. Regardless of colour perception, the distance the eyes have to travel between chart and legend can be tiring and make your chart harder or slower to be understood. This is “spatial contiguity theory” and is another tip for applying presentation science to your slides!).

7 ways to avoid bullet points (try these simple design alternatives)

Avoid bullet points by using these simple 7 alternative layouts:

Let’s start on your quest to avoid bullet points here:

Avoid bullet points

a typical example of a PowerPoint seen in way too many corporate presentations. It literally just states the points without any visual pazzazz to engage audience members. So, the chances of audience members paying attention are slim. Indeed, some audience members have even died of boredom* while being inflicted with such slides (hence the phrase “Death by PowerPoint”)

Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be like this. What follows are several examples of how one might add some basic “pazzazz” to the above information in a much less lethal, audience-friendly way.

*This is probably untrue

The first option is to use a grid layout:

Use a grid to avoid bullet points

This simply avoids the visual monotony of a list. Each point can be placed inside any shape (rectangles/ circles/ hexagons/ custom shapes) and each shape has a different colour. The shapes are evenly spaced and aligned and can be brought in using animation to give them an extra bit of ooompf (which also stops your audience from reading ahead = good).

The second easy tip to avoid a list of bullets is to add icons:

Using icons helps avoid bullet points

A simple visual symbol that illustrates your point is a highly effective form of shorthand. These same symbols can then be used throughout the presentation whenever you want to refer to those particular points. This type of visual coding language really helps your audience throughout your entire deck.

There are several great websites, which have thousand of icons and icon sets that you can download and use (sometimes for a small fee). Here’s a couple of good’uns: Noun Project or Flaticon
Or ping us  your deck and we can add them (they will always be editable PowerPoint shapes if we do them – not distorted or low quality image files).

Option 3: Emphasize the section headings by separation:

Use good layouts to avoid traditional bullets

Option 3 here is a simple progression on the earlier methods with the added detail of featuring the heading separately. The text is still there, and the icons give visual interest.

This is a simple way to add more focus to heading of each point – which hopefully leads you to see that you don’t really need the small print.

In fact…

In Option 4, we’ve dropped the detail entirely:

the best non-bullet solution?

The audience should be listening to you, rather than reading the slide. This is the best solution to avoid bullet points.

You could expand the text to give more meaning, perhaps instead of “meetings”, use  “More meetings” or “Identify your target” instead of just “Target” or “Agree a marketing strategy” instead of “Marketing”.

Bear in mind that more words can give more guidance – but too many words give your audience too much to deal with.

Option 5 is a great alternative to bulleted lists by featuring the detail of one point at a time:

Feature just one detail at a time

In the above example, when the presenter clicks on a circle, a box appears containing the detail for that point (the icon and text also change colour).  You could set up 6 different slides, or you can use clever animation: we’ve opted for action buttons – it’s not rocket science and dammit if it’s not kinda cool.

The communication benefit here is that the audience still sees the big picture of all 6 points via the icons & headings. But the presenter can focus on the detail of any one point. Much better than overloading the audience with all the detail at the same time.

Option 6: The big picture

Avoid bullet points by using one big shape!

You can also avoid bullet points by combining your key info into one overarching shape.

This could be a circular “pie” type as seen here. A circle is great to use, but any shape divided into parts can unify your individual points.

Again, we suggest using animation here to reveal the headings & detail one at a time to prevent your audience from reading ahead: they can’t read and listen at the same time. So if you give them too much to read at a time, then they won’t be listening to you!

And Option 7 – another way to avoid bullet points through good layout:

Avoid bullet points with creative layouts

Lastly, why not ditch the bulleted lists in favour of a timeline arrangement?

We’re still looking at the same components: title, icon, text. But the layout can give a dramatically different feel to your slides.

There’s at least another dozen variations of layout that we could show, but the idea behind all options is simply how to avoid a list.


So, there you go. No more deaths by PowerPoint – quite the opposite we hope!

These simple tips are just the tip of our PowerPoint skills iceberg. We can add a lot more magic than this to your slides to enrapture, educate and entertain your audiences for years to come!


Before and after PowerPoint slides – see what presentation specialists can do

Before and after PowerPoint slides help to show what presentation specialists can do with your slides

A good PowerPoint designer can do anything! New design, messaging/overall structure help, varying levels of animation – whatever you want!

Below are a set of before and after PowerPoint slides

It shows an original slide (a standard bullet-point slide), and then 2 levels of “after” design improvement. Bear in mind any design we apply to your slides would be based on your design brief, and the level of design depends on how much time we can spend on each slide (i.e. your budget!).

Brief for this PowerPoint slide, which is to be printed:
> keep all the text
> don’t change the heading
> make the slides more visually appealing

Original slide:


After slide 1 “mid-level” design:

Once the design is approved, a slide like this would take about 15-20 minutes to build (assuming visuals are created from scratch).


After slide 2 “higher-level” design:

Once the design is approved, a slide like this would take about 45-60 minutes to build (assuming visuals are created from scratch).


The designs in this sample may or may not be to your own personal taste – every job is different, and designs are created with the client, and their preferences, in mind.

Potential clients often ask us questions like: “how much for 20 slides?” But you can see, the answer all depends on what the end result will look like! Before and after PowerPoint slides are a good way to understand the range of options available.