Over the past few decades, enormous amounts of effort (and dollars) have gone into understanding how the mind works. This is good news for you, especially when it comes to public speaking, which requires getting into the minds (and hearts) of an audience. Neuroscience research offers loads of insights that every business person ought to apply to presentations.

Here are eight rules, based upon conversations with Stephen M. Kosslyn, former chair of the psychology department at Harvard University, and what he knows about the brain:

1. Always customize your slides.

Human beings share common desires and dreams, but beneath the commonalities are differences specific to individual situations. Therefore your presentation must address what's important to that unique audience. For example, always include:

  • Terminology that's meaningful to that audience
  • Proof points make sense within the audience's experience
  • Detail that's appropriate and interesting to the bulk of the audience

2. Don't just tell, show and tell.

The latest neuroscience research has revealed that human beings process words and pictures in different physical areas of the brain. If your presentation includes pictures alongside text, people are twice as likely to remember your message.

Combine text and graphics in your slides whenever you need to make an important point. A video clip can create a burst of movement that accesses additional areas of the human brain, making your presentation (literally) more memorable.

3. Plan how you'll direct your audience's attention.

To make sure that the members of the audience are following your argument, make important elements larger and brighter (or louder). Provide an outline structure to help them understand where they are in the overall message.

If you need your clients to understand something complex--like a multitiered supply-chain diagram--build the slide one part at a time, showing only the part that you're discussing at each point in the presentation.

4. Hone it down to your basic message.

Rather than dumping information on the audience, only provide as much information as is needed to support that message. Cut out all irrelevant details and only include crucial aspects of what you must say to get your message across. Cut to the bone but not into it.

Because human beings are naturally drawn to stories that make sense of a chaotic world, make certain your presentation is a story, with a beginning, middle, and ending. That way, the audience can more easily follow along.

5. Talk to the audience, not at them.

A presentation should be like a conversation between friends or colleagues, not like a soapbox speech, a lecture, or (worst of all) a sermon. Relax and breathe. Use the same tone of voice that you would use in a one-on-one conversation.

Let your eyes meet the eyes of the various members of the group. Tell your story the way you would if you were telling it at a dinner party. Don't fumble with or look down at your notes. Rehearse enough times so that you don't need them.

6. Use a full range of communications options.

Think of your slides not as the presentation but as a visual aid to the presentation, which consists of you communicating with the audience. At the end of the presentation, you want the members of the audience to feel that they understand you, not the presentation.

With this in mind, a personal anecdote or telling example is often much more effective for making an important point than anything that you can display on a screen.

7. Build in breaks so the audience can come up for air.

If a presentation is longer than a few minutes, you should build in breaks that give the audience time to digest what you've already said. A break might consist of a cartoon, a video clip, a raise-your-hand poll.  Breaking up the rhythm helps aid retention.

Again, getting the audience to do something active (rather than just listening passively) accesses different parts of the human brain and increases retention. More important, getting the audience to take an action (any action!) builds momentum for next steps.

8. Prep the audience for questions.

The last thing you want, when you say "Are there any questions?" is dead silence. To make sure that you have a productive Q&A, anticipate questions that might come up--and leave those bits out of your presentation.

What if the audience doesn't oblige and just sits there? Don't panic. If you stand quietly for 20 seconds with an expectant expression, social pressure will inevitably produce the first question, and others will follow.