I just returned from the Harvard campus in Cambridge, where I taught communication to senior business leaders enrolled in Executive Education programs.

Their final project included a seven-minute presentation to the class. Most of the PowerPoint slides had what you'd expect from finance-heavy topics: charts, graphs, and excel sheets. However, the presentations that stood out had one additional element: faces.

If you personalize your PowerPoint slides with the faces of real people, your presentation will be far more engaging and memorable. Why? Because your audience is hardwired to respond to faces. For proof, ask Netflix.

Netflix's 2-Second Thumbnails

Netflix's advanced computer algorithms crunch billions of data points to keep viewers watching. The company has learned that thumbnails are critical and that people will decide if they're interested in just two seconds.

After Netflix studied exactly what images Netflix viewers tend to click, they found that faces worked the best. "It's well known that humans are hardwired to respond to faces," says one Netflix executive. He then adds, "We have seen this to be consistent across all mediums."

That last sentence is key--consistent across all mediums. If people are hardwired to respond to faces in thumbnails, they will also respond to faces in the digital medium of PowerPoint.

Gather Photo Assets

One of the students in my Harvard class, a property developer, was proposing the redevelopment of a historic hotel in his hometown. He began his presentation by discussing his personal connection to the hotel while showing old photos of himself as a child, enjoying activities with his family on the site he now wants to restore. The audience loved it and brought it up as a memorable part of the pitch.

Placing yourself in the presentation is an easy task--simply insert a picture. But it takes advance work. Think about how you're going to make the presentation come alive well before you open PowerPoint.

Gather assets ahead of time. These might include:

  • Photos of yourself that are relevant to the topic
  • Photos of others (with their permission, of course)
  • New, original photos that you take with your presentation in mind
  • Stock photography

One note about stock photographs. While it's almost always better to use photos of yourself, stock photographs can work, too. If you go this route, make sure you have the proper permissions and look for photos that are clearly relevant to the subject. For example, if you're inviting the audience to imagine a future customer using an app, find a photo showing someone's face while that person is using their smartphone.

Many PowerPoint presentations are boring, but it's not the tool's fault. It's the fault of the speaker. Think creatively about bringing the topic alive by using slides--faces, especially--to complement your talk.