Presentation science: the brain doesn’t pay attention to boring things.

Ever sat through a boring presentation? We all have! So we know that boring presentations aren’t going to get or keep our attention. We all know this. We’ve all sat through enough death by PowerPoint experiences to know exactly what boring feels like. Yet it keeps happening. Presenters aren’t learning from these mistakes: everyone is copying what they’ve done or witnessed before.

Boredom is a disaster for you, for your presentation and for your audience. The audience is crucial: if they are bored they are likely to miss out on important messages, and it won’t have been their fault!

How can presentation science make your slides less boring?

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.

Text slides are not visually stimulating. They give the audience a lot of reading to do. As well as a lot of listening to do. And a lot of information to process via the same channel (the listening one). We’re busy people, this often annoys or overwhelms us. We understand the temptation to add text: but you must write it in clear, conversational language. And be as concise as you can. Remember you’ll add verbal detail while you present – so don’t add it 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 voice reading the text. So while listening to our inner voice: we cannot simultaneously listen to the presenter properly. Problem: it’s quite common for the presenter to be saying something different to what is on the slide. Or they may present it in a different order.

All of which tires and frustrates a presentation experience.

2. Simplify and explain your charts

Presentations rammed with charts can be boring and 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 for instance, but our brain has seen them and processed them without our conscious attention. An easy rule to apply is not to double up labels: either have labels or have an axis. You don’t need both, so delete one.

Chart titles are also often boring because they frequently tell the audience nothing about the meaning of the data in the chart. Instead craft a clear headline that interprets and gives meaning to the chart. Avoid chart titles that only reveal the topic of the chart.

3. Add MORE slides

Fear of high slide numbers 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 far more interesting for the audience.

Indeed 5 slides over 1 hour is 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: but it struggles to listen and listen… (see point 1).

So add more light and visual slides that follow your storyline.

4. Use an engaging presentation structure

We’ve talked about structure in other blogs, and it’s incredibly important. A bad structure, long windedness or unclear progressions feel disorienting. It makes audiences more likely to switch off as they will be feeling confused and detached. Presenters need a clear structure, a dynamic argument, a strong storyline: and to keep on track! (We all like a digression, but get back to the point quickly).

Not getting to the point feels boring. Structures should reveal the relevance of the presentation to the audience early on. And very good structures often establish key messages early on too.

5. Tell stories

“Stories” are powerful. 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 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.

(And if you have to share the slides afterwards: do so by creating a well designed Notes View. Share that, not the slides. It will be a PDF).

7. Use some animation

Our eyes are drawn to movement – so animation is 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!

P.S. Read all the Brain rules here.