Two weeks ago I had the privilege of hosting John Zimmer the European Champion of public speaking during his visit to Toastmasters Finland Summer Party. The weekend was filled with great discussions about hockey (although I am more of a basketball guy:) , music, leadership, entrepreneurship, family and of course speaking and presenting. My first recap of these conversations and learnings can be found here.
In his keynote presentation John “preached” about having a very simple message in your speech, because at the end of the day people in general cannot remember much of what has been said in a speech. A Toastmasters speech is a bit special in the sense that it runs like a train from the beginning to the end for seven minutes and the audience has no chance to rewind and go back to something that has been said earlier.
But does the same hold true for business presentations where you do not have so strict limitations and you have more liberties with the use of visual support? And where does this demand for simplifying everything arise?
I think that this Quora article about the limitations of the human short-term memory provides an interesting view to this question. BTW, brain physiology is good source to look for answers because it more or less applies to everyone in the same way.
Every bit of information that is delivered in a speech or a presentation needs to pass through short-term memory before it is given a meaning and context by the working memory. Here the short-term memory becomes a bottleneck as it can hold only 5-9 things for a duration of 30 seconds.
The short-term memory can hold only 5-9 things for a duration of 30 seconds.
You could think that 5-9 things would be just enough for a presentation with 3-6 key messages, but the bad news is that the memory space of 5-9 things is never fully dedicated to your presentation content. There will always be distractions (today’s shopping list, the email that my boss sent before the meeting, hey someone retweeted me in Twitter) that remind about the life that happens outside the meeting room and the presentation.
The work of the working memory (the one that gives new information meaning and context) can however be sped up by framing the new information with something that is familiar for the whole audience. For example this relationship of short term memory and long-term memory could be illustrated as a library: short-term memory is the desk where the customers return books, working memory is the librarian that organizes the books in shelves (long-term memory). The librarian can best keep the returning desk clean if 1. the rate of returned books is low enough and/or 2. the books have some indicator of the right shelf place.
So what you can learn from this is that brain physiology and especially the limitations of the short-term memory offer a good explanation for the demand for simplicity in a presentation or a speech. Although a business presentation may not have the same external limitations as a Toastmasters speech, it does face the same limitations of the human brain. Therefore you should consider these questions before going into your next presentation:
Have you defined a clear key message for your presentation? If the audience should remember only one thing from your presentation what would it be?
How will you ensure that they don’t get distracted? How will you keep their interest level up and their mind from wandering?
- Will the audience need to learn new concepts in the presentation? How can you frame the new information in a way that it is easier to process?