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by Mark Kretschmar

All fundamental presentation training has you start with an Introduction (tell them what you’re going to tell them), a Body (tell them), and a Conclusion (tell them what you told them). This rule is not as damaging as some previous rules we’ve already toppled – it’s just a little simplistic. You likely learned this rule in your high school or college Freshman speech class. The rule is founded in the flawed Typical Presentation Paradigm – a presentation is a transfer of information. If your presentation is constructed simply as a transfer of information and the body is nothing more than a sequence of serial facts or data points, then using Intro, Body, Conclusion will definitely make it better, but listing serial data points has limited power to engage and create change. Let’s take it to a new level and use the Presentation Prime Directive instead – Make your audience think, feel, or do something that accomplishes the presentation’s objective.

 Penetrating the Human Mind

If your audience is going to think, feel, or do something, you have to access their mind and emotions. Unlike a computer, the human brain is not designed to process a stream of facts and data. That’s why memorization of multiplication tables (or any other “dataset”) is hard. That sort of data is literally “meaningless”; the product of 6 and 7 is 42 – while an essential fact, it has no unique meaning to one’s life and experience (unless you’re a galactic hitchhiker). The brain stores and recalls meanings, not data. Meanings are created in “working memory” through the interaction of several factors beyond data/information. If you don’t include the other factors, you leave meaning to chance and lose the opportunity to have influence.

 Working Memory Is The Door

All of our conscious thought and awareness takes place in working memory. It is the only way to access a person’s mind. It has very limited capacity for serial facts (about four “chunks”). Yet it has an ingenious structure for combining stimulus into a single “episode” loaded with meaning. According to the Baddeley model of working memory (somewhat simplified here), the Central Executive combines Visual Data with Language (written or spoken) in the Episodic Buffer. It creates episodes and gives them meaning based on prior experience (past episodes) and a little instinct. Episodes are what get stored in memory, not “facts” disembodied from a larger meaning. Episodes are then linked together by common factors, themes, images, and language.

 Visual Information and Data

Even raw data like multiplication tables goes through this process. Do you remember your teacher in the class where you memorized your multiplication tables? I do. Mrs. McNutt’s 5th grade class. I sat in the row along the windows behind Mike Glasco. Every day for weeks we would spend 20 minutes writing out multiplication tables from one to ten. Now, when I’m forced to do multiplication in my head, if I pay attention, I notice that in my mind I can still see that paper covered in rows and columns of multipliers written with a fat-leaded pencil as well as the room, Mrs. McNutt and my friend Mike. My mind remembers the entire episode – that’s the way it works.

As a student of the Bible, I remember the content of many passages but it’s difficult to remember the book, chapter, verse reference. The content itself is linked to other episodes in my mind by theme and experience and therefore has a landing place in my long-term memory, but the chapter/verse reference is just serial data without intrinsic meaning. I have to exert extra effort or find a way to create meaning from the numbers if I’m to remember them. But what I always remember is where the content is on the page – left page, second column, near the bottom. That’s the visual aspect of the episode which working memory always associates with the content and is an intrinsic part of the episode stored in long-term memory.

 Working Memory Wants Visuals

Episodes require visual content. The brain will grab whatever visual content is there. That’s why I remember the Bible page location and where my fifth-grade desk was – that’s all the visual content available for the episode. To be effective in a presentation, include explicitly related visuals whether graphic representations (metaphors) of the data or images showing the results of action vs. inaction, or charts showing significant magnitude of difference. You must create an entire episode in the moment with language and visuals; then connect your episode with your audience’s existing episodes to weave a story with meaning – a meaning that moves them to think, feel, or do what you need to achieve your desired presentation outcome.

 Isn’t That A Story?

Our cognitive perception of messages from a speaker is a result of the formation of an episode in working memory. But “making meaning” only occurs when that episode is linked with previous episodes. Once that is done, we have assigned meaning to the episode and linked it with all related previous episodes. That is the path to long-term memory and a change in what one thinks, feels, and does. What do you call a series of episodes linked together? A story. Your presentation must integrate into your audience member’s ongoing story – the easiest way to do that is make sure the story is about them.

 A Personal Journey

Take your audience on a journey starting at what they currently think, feel, and do. Create an episode(s) that shows them with language and visuals, what’s happening now – before they act on your presentation’s content. This is what my friend Pete Machalek of Sage Presence calls the “not so happy beginning.” Then create another episode, with language and visuals, to show them what it looks like when they think, feel, or do what you’re advocating. Now you’re working in sync with the process of working memory. It’s easy for your audience to engage, remember and respond. Spewing serial facts (typical presentation) makes working memory struggle to find a home for your content and you lose your audience and your opportunity.

 Intro, Body, Conclusion

You can still tell them what you’re going to tell them if it flows organically from your presentation. It primes working memory to allocate and differentiate space for the upcoming episodes. You can still tell them what you told them. That reinforces the organization of the episodes into their larger stories. But when you tell them, use visuals and language together and weave it into other episodes based on what they care about. You will be more influential when you present.


To increase your value by bringing your communication skills up to match your technical skills, contact Mark at mark@engineerspeak.com or 651-728-0352 and check out the helpful, free content on engineerspeak.com.