Molecular biologist John Medina once told me, "The brain does not pay attention to boring things." The statement profoundly shaped my approach to communication skills. My mission is to give readers the tools they need to keep their audience from getting bored.
How to prevent boredom? Simply remember that we interpret the world through our five senses: sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. Study after study has found that people will remember information and recall it more accurately when more than one sense is stimulated.
Here are a few presentation hacks to engage the five senses of your audience.
1. Use photos and videos.
Our senses work together. If you hear and see something, you're more likely to remember the information. In a presentation, add photos and images to complement your verbal message. Studies have shown that visuals and words are more powerful than words alone. For example, If I tell you something, you're likely to remember 10 percent of the content. If I add a photo, retention soars to 65 percent.
2. Animate your vocal delivery.
The brain gets bored easily if it hears one person speaking in a monotone. The simple fix is to rehearse your presentation out loud. Record it and listen to it. Add some animation to your voice by speeding up the tempo during some parts and slowing it down during others. Grow louder--and softer. Punch key words for emphasis. If you also include videos or invite other speakers to share the stage, that too will engage your audience's auditory sense.
3. Give your audience something to touch.
I recently watched a CEO deliver a one-hour presentation introducing a new financial product. He had provided a handbook to the business professionals in the audience. About 10 times during the presentation, the CEO would reference a page in the book and encourage them to take notes and to stick post-it notes on the pages for later reference. The CEO was clever, using an age-old technique to keep his audience engaged. By stimulating their sense of touch, they were far more likely to pay attention for the entire presentation...which they did.
4. Engage their taste buds, if you can.
Taste and smell are the most difficult senses to engage in a presentation, but it is possible from time to time. For example, Bill Gates is a student of persuasion. He's constantly thinking about how to keep presentations interesting and exciting. Gates has done everything from letting mosquitoes loose in an auditorium at a TED talk to challenging television hosts to drink sewage water that had been sanitized and bottled for drinking.
During an appearance on The Tonight Show, Gates brought two glasses of water and placed them on Jimmy Fallon's desk. Gates said one was regular bottled water; the other was sewage sludge that had gone through a process that turned it into clean drinking water. Fallon literally fell out of his chair when Gates surprised him and revealed that both bottles were sewage water.
5. Trigger the strongest sense of all.
Smell is one of the strongest senses--hotels and spas have known this for years, which is why they design signature scents that waft through the property. But other than placing a scent machine at the back of the meeting room--which I haven't tried and wouldn't recommend--it's not always possible to stimulate the olfactory system. Although here's one way I figured out how to incorporate smell and touch.
When I'm invited to speak on communication and customer service, I bring a prop--Lush soaps. The soaps are pricey. My point is that consumers might be put off by the price, but once they're educated about the product, they are more likely to become loyal customers. I toss several bars to members of the audience as I discuss the topic. The smell is rather strong because the soap is fresh. Members of the audience have fun with it as they pass them around. They're even more excited when I tell them they can keep the bars for free.
The neuroscience on multi-sensory presentations is clear. When the brain builds two mental models of information--a verbal and visual--the mental connections it makes is much stronger. Add a third, fourth, or even fifth sense and you'll surely hit a home run.