Brain rule #3. Every brain is wired differently, so does one key message fit all?

Did my audience remember my key message?

Brain rule #3: Wiring

Brain Rules and Presentations

When shown the same presentation and quizzed afterwards, members of the same audience often recall a different key message.  This is not good news for presenters who are hoping that their audience will all come away with the same key message. Indeed, most presenters would wrongly assume their audience would not only recall their main message, but all of the information presented to them. It just doesn’t happen though – for many reasons, some of which are:

1) Audiences are fighting a million internal distractions. Their to-do list. Their feelings, memories and stresses. It’s hard to keep anyone’s attention.

3) Likewise, external distractions also compete for our attention – sights, sounds, smells, and things happening around us that may or may not be coming from your presentation (animation for example can be distracting, as can that man on fire running through the room).

2) Audiences pay more attention if the presentation is relevant to them. So we need to get their interest as early as possible. If you don’t, they’ll switch off and be harder to win back.

4) Each person has their own unique brain wiring – so their interpretation of your information (and the way you have presented it) will be slightly different for each person.


In an ideal world, we would tailor our presentations for each and every member of our audience. Since that’s not quite going to happen, we can at least be practical with these other options:

  • Create an interactive PowerPoint deck which allows you to adapt the flow of the presentation to any questions from the room. PowerPoint has a great hyperlink function that can replicate a website’s navigation. You click, you go to that page. You can focus on a particular direction, or an area of interest specific to the group you are presenting to. More and more presenters are choosing this option.


  • Give your presentation a clear structure that really brings home that key message. The take aways for your audience need to be up front, repeated, and simple. One of the presentation structures we like best is the one developed by Cliff Atkinson in Beyond Bullet Points. You must establish relevance and context right at the start. Next deliver your presentation’s key message. Right up front. The remaining slides then focus on proving that message. This works to reinforce and drum home your points. It also gives meaning to your meanderings and tangents.


  • You must repeat your key message frequently. Ideally as part of your structure. But however you do it: repeat it.


If you do one or all of the above – those different brains with their different wirings should all come out with the same conclusion. Your key message: remembered.

Brain Rule #4: 7 ways presentation science can make your slides less boring

Presentation science (Brain rules) states that the brain doesn’t pay attention to boring things.

Therefore, boring presentations aren’t going to get or keep our attention. Whilst this is hardly surprising, it is quite a disaster when we have an audience specifically turning up to hear and view our slides… and our messages.

The good news is that presentation science can help identify the boring traits that might well be littered throughout your presentation.

Rule of 7 presentation

1. Make your slides more visual, and less text heavy

Reading and listening is tiring and therefore a tired brain can feel like a bored brain.

Such slides are not visually stimulating. And they signify a lot of reading to do. A lot of listening to do. And a lot of information to process. We’re busy people, this often annoys or overwhelms us. We understand the demand and the temptation to add text: but write it in clear and conversational language. And be as concise as you can. Remember you’ll add verbal detail while you present – so don’t add the detail to the slide.

In terms of presentation science – the more visual a slide is, the more we can listen. A slide full of text uses up our hearing channel as we listen to our inner voices reading the text. So when we’re listening to our inner voice whilst reading: we can’t simultaneously listen to the presenter. And it’s common for the presenter to be saying something different to what we’re reading on the slide. Or at the very least on a different time scale.

2. Simplify and explain your charts

Presentations that are full of charts are not only boring – they are also often hard to understand. ‘Chartjunk’ is a term coined by Edmund Tufte. Charts are often over-complicated and littered with unnecessary “things”: labels, gridlines, outlines, tick marks, axis lines. Your eye and therefore brain has to process every little thing on a chart: we ignore things that are familiar, we may not register a set of tick marks, but our brain has seen them and processed them without our conscious attention. Take for example a chart with labels on the series and a y axis. A good rule is to have either labels or have an axis. You don’t need both, so delete one.

Chart titles are also often boring because they tell the audience nothing about the meaning of the data in the chart. Try to craft a headline that interprets and gives meaning to the chart rather than a chart title that only reveals the topic.

3. Add more slides

Fear of lots of slides is ill founded. It’s what’s on the slides that’s the problem.

Take Pecha Kucha for example: 20 slides, rapidly delivered. This format is much better at keeping our attention. The presenter must complete each slide in 20 seconds. This keeps the presentation moving. It’s more interesting for the audience.

Indeed 5 slides over 1 hour is far more tedious to sit through than 60 slides. But if those 60 slides were all full of text, we’re into serious problem territory. The brain can look and listen at the same time: it struggles to listen and listen…

4. Use an engaging presentation structure

We’ve talked about structure in other blogs, and it’s really important. A bad structure or long windedness is boring. Presenters need a clear structure, a dynamic argument, and to keep on track.

Likewise, not getting to the point is boring. So we like structures that present themselves as relevant to the audience early on, and ones that establish your key messages early on too.

5. Tell stories

“Stories” are good. This is mostly because the way we recall stories is through visualising the action. We play them out in our mind’s eye. A story becomes a brain visual quite easily. So it’s good to add illustrative stories to your presentations and your audience will find it a lot less boring. And easier to remember!

6. Don’t just add photos

Images keep our attention. Our brains are incredibly strong at interpreting visuals. We recall visuals.

However, photos that are not relevant to you message are actually distracting from your message according to presentation science. Photos are very subjective; we use them quite cautiously here at Presented as one photo will trigger a hundred different reactions in a hundred different people. This is because our brains are so strongly affected by memory. And a photo can trigger a number of different memories – and thus distract our audience.

Check your presentation for redundant graphics too: do you need your own company logo on every page? Sure, marketing and branding departments say yes, but after it’s been seen a couple of times. It gets ignored visually. It’s a redundant image and therefore boring. Same with that Private and Confidential text. And I know someone in legal wants the © to remain on all the slides… but could it perhaps not? It’s slide junk and we want clean clear slides that are uncluttered and avoid cognitive overload.

7. Use some animation

Our eyes are drawn to any movement – so animation can be both a blessing and a curse. Animation needs to be used to reveal information in a timely and helpful manner. Animation because you’ve worked out how to use the animation buttons and you think variety will be entertaining is a massive no-no. Stick to animation having purpose and you’ll be fine.

Thanks for reading! Let us know how presentation science has helped your presentations!

Brain Rule #5: Memorable presentation structure. Memorable presentation structure.

Rule #5: Repeat to remember.

What makes a memorable presentation structure? The answer is repetition.
What makes a memorable presentation structure? The answer is repetition.

Don’t worry, that’s not a printing error, we meant to repeat the title! The key point (to remember!) is that repetition is one way to help the brain encode information so that it’s stored.

Imagine what you do when told a phone number, but with no way to record it (no pen, paper or smartphone!). So you repeat it, probably out loud, and you cluster the numbers together perhaps, and you repeat it again. It’s a natural technique we’ve learnt to prevent information from escaping from our fleeting working memory. We should all know that repetition, however clumsy it might feel, does help us recall that information in the future.

Brain Rules in presentations

So do you consider this when putting together a presentation? Obviously, we wouldn’t recommend a single slide with the message over and over again… but there are structural & navigational devices we can use that will allow you to include a repetition – and therefore allow you to put your key messages into a memorable presentation structure…

The human brain can generally only hold 5 pieces of (new) information for less than 30 seconds. Good brains can handle 7, other brains (mine) just 3. So consider the information that you need to impart to your audience, and do your best to cluster the information within overall messages.

Top tip:

A memorable presentation structure for us would involve dividing your information to fall under 3 key messages. These 3 messages would be stated early on in the presentation, and each one used as a divider slide. The dividers would then be repeated for each key message, with the relevant section highlighted. And we’d likely also have a summary slide to repeat those 3 key messages.

This might feel like it won’t “flow”, but we guarantee that your audience will be more likely to remember your information. For your audience too it will feel structured, organised, and clear.

Trust us: you’ll get brownie points, and you’ll have a memorable presentation structure.

If you want to see this structure in action, you can download our PowerPoint portfolio and navigate to the before & after sections featuring whole presentations.

Brain Rule #8: Presentation stress and how to prevent it!

In our blog series on the Brain Rules, we look at what presentation design agencies might learn from John Medina’s findings.

Brain rule #8: Stress

Presentation stress or nerves can affect us all – and it can even affect the audience. For the presenter, fear of public speaking is something that can be controlled to an extent. Our inherent fear is about our survival, and our brains are built to deal with stress that lasts about 30 seconds (the time it takes to flee or be eaten by a predator). The brain is not designed for long term stress when you feel like you have no control. So that’s probably why public speaking can produce such a melt down! And although our actual survival might technically not be in question (no sabre-toothed tigers in the front row), it could be that our job is on the line, or the fear of social humiliation (and therefore rejection) is incredibly strong.


Our top tips to beat presentation stress are:

1) Really know your material: this makes you more confident and more able to ad lib and therefore speak freely. We believe it’s best not to memorise your words, but to let the content flow naturally. Not reading off your slides will assist your natural flow providing you have some visual prompts and a clear visualised structure to help your brain (and the audience’s) follow your narrative.

2) Rehearse. Writing something and reading something are different, and the way we express ourselves in written and spoken form is slightly different. Rehearse using everyday language – be conversational in your delivery as you would in real life. It will help your audience to understand what you’re saying and you can ditch the longer words and the jargon while you’re at it. Really importantly, rehearse to get to know your slides and where the clicks are!

3) Get confident. The way to confidence is to convince your brain that you can indeed do something. Enrol in a course like toastmasters for example which lets you progress at your own rate, and gives you constant personal feedback in helpful constructive sandwiches. Not only will you meet other nervous speakers which will surely help you feel less bad, but if you stick to the course you’ll also improve. We’re not all naturally gifted at public speaking. It does take practice, but this practice will boost your confidence. And confidence will make you more convincing.

Don’t stress your audience with cognitive overload

John Medina’s Brain Rules say “Stress damages virtually every kind of cognition that exists. It damages memory and executive function. It can hurt your motor skills. When you are stressed out over a long period of time it disrupts your immune response. You get sicker more often. It disrupts your ability to sleep. You get depressed.” So sure, we believe this can also affect your effectiveness as a public speaker. But what if you’re audience is also feeling stressed? Perhaps, they won’t be able to absorb your message or full understand your presentation. We can’t control their lives, but we can make the presentation experience better for them.

First up, your presentation needs a nice clear structure, and slides that are clean, uncluttered and free from cognitive overload. Your audience will thank you for it, and their brains will feel less stressed by a simple and understandable message delivery.

Relevance is key

Next, the best way to get your audience to believe and enjoy your talk is to make it relevant to them. The presentation needs to engage and interest them and the best way to do this is to make sure you state your key message right at the start. The rest of your presentation is then simply backing up or providing evidence of this message. It’s much more convincing. Recommended by Cliff Atkinson of Beyond Bullet Points, and we’re proud to be a presentation design agency that uses this method.

Equally, your delivery also affects the audience. If the speaker is obviously stressed or nervous, it can make the audience feel ill at ease. It’s a distraction for them and the message that you so desperately want to communicate is likely to be diluted.

Re-read our speaker tips 1-3 to help your presentation stress levels and put them into action!

Increase presentation engagement with these 5 tips (Brain rule #9)

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.

increase presentation engagement

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 presentation 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. See an example of hyperlinked PowerPoint menu navigation in our portfolio.
  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. it’s simply the movement. 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.