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Listening to Your Gut – Improving Your Presentation Through Common Sense AND Science!


I’m embarrassed to admit this…  I once hired someone without interviewing her.

So here’s the situation.

I was young.  It was my first duty station in the Navy.  We needed to replace a civilian employee who’d left the department.  We had to hire from the “stopper list” – formally called the Department of Defense Priority Placement Program.  As I understood it, the people on the list had been let go as part of a Department of Defense reduction in force and they had the right to be rehired first before any non-DOD candidate.  With our position being a relatively entry-level administrative employee, we HAD to hire someone on the list.

The base civilian HR department sent over some resumes, and we had to pick from the people they sent over.  My common sense told me that I should interview these people before make a hiring decision.  But I made the mistake of not listening to my common sense and taking advice from someone who had always proven trustworthy in the past.  In fact, this is probably the only time that this person’s advice was off.  I should have known better, but I went against my instincts and selected an employee sight unseen.

The person I hired turned out to be a fine employee…but not a stellar employee.  I always wondered, if I’d interviewed the people, would I have made a different decision?  Would I have ended up with a super star employee instead?

I can’t say that I’ve always listened to what my gut tells me since that time, but when I have, I have made better decisions.

I’ve recently read the book E-Learning and the Science of Instruction:  Proven Guidelines for Consumers and Designers of Multimedia Learning by Ruth Colvin Clark and Richard E. Mayer.  What I adore about this book is it provides evidence-based support for what I feel are common sense approaches to presentations, training and learning.


OK – Yes the Caveat Is that the Book Is Based on Research in Online Learning

As the title implies, the research reported in the book was done in an e-learning environment – not in person training, or a presentation.  But my common sense tells me the principle apply to other forms of communications and learning as well.

Below are some of the points that Clark and Mayer make in their book which I believe we should incorporate in presentations as well.  I’d love to hear your thoughts on if they make sense to you too!


Instead of Presenting Words Alone – Present Words and Visuals the Help the Audience Understand the Content

The traditional approach to presentations, a PowerPoint loaded with words, is less effective than an image and just a few words.  If you want your audience to apply what they’ve learned or you want them to remember what you’ve said, use pictures and only a few words.


For more information on this approach take a look at an overview here.

Also read this post to learn how to make your slides look their best and this post to my absolute favorite way to improve the look of your slides using a design approach called the rule of thirds.  This post will tell you where to find pictures.


Integrate the Words Close to the Graphics in Your Slides

The default views PowerPoint and Keynote places headlines above a picture.  Instead, use pictures that fill the whole screen, then place the words near the picture.  It looks better and research supports that it increases understanding and retention.


People Can’t Listen to You and Read Your Complex Slide

When you display a complex slide of your business process or your quarterly performance report, you’re causing the audience to split their attention.  People can either listen to you or read your slide.  Not both.  With sight being the sense we rely on most, that complex slide will draw us in.  Our brain tries to process the information represented in the words, diagrams and graphs.  In the meantime, we’re missing what you’re saying.

Most of the time, the complex slides are not needed or aren’t even readable by the audience.  If it is important for them to take in the information, try a handout out instead.  Give the information to the audience in advance of the presentation or give them time to read before going into your explanation.

Alternatively, vastly simplify your slide.  Decide what the point is that the data tells or the diagram illustrated.  Focus on representing that information only and delete any extraneous information which detracts from getting across the important point.


Does This Pass Your Gut Check?

There are more points that Clark and Mayer cover in the book.  I’ll cover those in future blog posts.

In the meantime, what are your thoughts?

Do these points pass your common sense meter for presentations?

And if so, is knowing that research backs up your gut enough to make you change your business presentations?

I’d love to hear your thoughts below!