20 October 2014

The Zen of Presentations, part 66: What do you want your audience to feel?

A common piece of advice for technical presentations is to figure out what your “take home message” is. People will only remember one or two things, to you should figure out what those will be. “The elevator pitch” is also about focusing down your information to a concise, under a minute format.

This is good advice, but it is typical of academics: it focuses on the “head.” It’s a question about information. Lots of people who have thought about presentations have concluded that if all you are doing is relaying information, there is no point to having a presentation. If all you want to do is convey information, send an email. A presentation should be about more than that.

Besides figuring out what you want your audience to remember about the information you presented, ask yourself what you want your audience to feel about what you presented.

Do you want them to feel happy? Sad? Inspired? Amused? Agitated? Concerned? Horny? (Okay, maybe that last one is a little unlikely to be a goal of a presentation.)

This does not mean that you can’t have multiple feelings in a talk. Something can be funny one minute and heart-rending the next. But like your take home message, you should think about the main emotion you want to convey.

Once you’ve decided what you want them to feel, you can start taking steps to enhance that emotional core of your talk. For instance, do you have slides with dark, sober colours? Probably not what you want if you want people to leave feeling uplifted.

This might not be a critically important consideration if you are giving a scientific talk to other scientists, who are also very “head centered.” But this could be very important when you are talking to people from outside your particular research field. Emotions are understandable to everyone, and are so much more contagious than concepts.

There is an quote from Maya Angelou that’s overused, but appropriate:

(P)eople will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

Photo by Nic Walker on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

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