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2 Secrets of Memorable Presentations

A Stanford lecturer and expert on public speaking explains how to manage anxiety and deliver things smoothly.
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As a communication professor and coach, I hear a lot from presenters about anxiety. Their two greatest fears are that they will forget what to say and that the audience won’t remember what was spoken. These fears are certainly understandable, but create much angst among nervous and novice presenters. In this series of posts, I will suggest several steps you can take to make your presentations more memorable for everyone. 

Let’s start with remembering. Delivering a smooth presentation requires a lot of effort, but you can dramatically increase the likelihood of remembering your points by employing good presentation hygiene, structuring your presentation, and practicing well. 

The Good Habits of Effective Speakers

Your parents were right: By eating healthfully, keeping fit, and sleeping well, you can improve your well-being, help to alleviate your presentation anxiety, and improve your memory. Complex carbohydrates, nuts, oils, foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids and flavanols such as grapes, berries, apples, and cocoa are all good choices.

Avoid simple sugars and sweets because they provide a quick energy boost that is often followed by sluggishness. And plan your caffeine consumption wisely: Caffeine facilitates creativity and productivity but also invites jitters, dry mouth, and flighty memory. (Remember, the effects of caffeine can linger on for several hours.) Finally, it may be tempting to turn to alcohol to calm your nerves, but evidence suggests it can cause forgetfulness and lead you to mention some things you may soon regret.

Exercise also plays an important role in memory and anxiety resilience. Fit presenters respond better to the mental and physical aspects of stress, and physical activity increases lung capacity while bolstering mental focus, two important aspects of speech delivery.

Exercise also provides a way to release pent-up anxiety. Go for a quick swim, jog, or walk prior to writing or practicing a speech. The resulting calming effect will come not just from getting outside but from your body’s natural endorphins, which are often released when you exercise. Memory research clearly shows that the less stressed you are, the more information you will retain. Exercising after practicing a presentation can help, too: Short, intense bursts of exercise that follow learning have been shown to bolster one's memory. 

Sleep is also critical. Quality deep sleep prepares your brain for learning and consolidates memories so that you can recall them more easily. When you are preparing a speech, pulling an all-nighter is the worst thing you could do.

Structure Sets You Free

A powerful way to help you remember your presentation is to give your content a structure. Research shows that people retain structured information up to 40 percent more reliably than information presented more randomly. Some presentation structures you can rely on include: 

Past-Present-Future, which is good for providing a history or leading people through a process
Comparison-Contrast, which is ideal for showing the relative advantages of your position.
Cause-Effect, which helps people understand the underlying logic of your position

Having a structure helps you remember what to say because even if you forget the specifics, you can use the general framework to stay on track. For example, when using the Problem-Solution-Benefit structure--which is good for persuading and motivating people--you first lay out a specific problem (or opportunity), then detail a solution to address the problem, defining its benefits. If you are in the middle of the Solution portion of your talk and blank out, recalling your structure will tell you that the Benefits portion comes next.

My favorite structure is What?-So What?-Now What?, which can help you not only in planned presentations but also in spontaneous speaking situations such as job interviews. When using this structure, you start with your central claim (“I am qualified for this position because of my experience”) and then explain its significance (“This experience means I can start contributing to your firm immediately”) before concluding with a call to action (“When can I start?”).

The Right Way to Practice

Practice is clearly important, however, many presenters don’t practice properly. They simply mentally rehearse or flip through a slide deck--all passive approaches that don’t really simulate the conditions of a presentation. To practice effectively, you also need to stand and deliver, even if you are presenting virtually. 

Hearing your own voice and using relevant, appropriate gestures may improve later recall. You remember more because your mental imagery and physical practice use overlapping neural networks in your brain, improving what’s known as memory consolidation, or the process by which a thought becomes cemented in your long-term memory.

One useful technique called focused practice involves taking one aspect of your presentation like the introduction and delivering it over and over until you've nailed it. (Note: Don't memorize your presentation because memorization invites blanking out.) Next, you move on to another aspect of your presentation, such as transitioning between two specific visual aids. Focused practice allows you to feel less anxious because you won't expend mental effort thinking about every aspect of your presentation.

The place where you practice your speech should be where you're going to deliver it, or at least someplace similar. For example, if you're about to give a speech in a large room with big windows, you should practice your speech in a loft. Since the surroundings feel comfortable, this will make you feel confident.

The same rule applies when presenting via the Web or teleconference. Practice with the technology you will be using, especially since you never know what might happen. 

This piece was originally published by Stanford Graduate School of Business and has been republished with permission. Follow the school @stanfordbiz

Last updated: Mar 24, 2014




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