What Can Neuroscience Teach Us About Presenting?

From the Steve Jobs Theater in Cupertino came last week’s product launch presentation about the most recent updates to the Apple family of products. This recurring event dates back to when Jobs himself led the presentations, clad in a pair of jeans and a black turtleneck top. Last week it was a two-hour multi-media event, opening with a great “Mission Impossible”-inspired video sequence, complete with the classic TV show’s memorable theme music.

Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, batted leadoff and emceed. While he’s clearly not a natural speaker like Jobs was, he has worked hard, rehearsed his speech extensively, and the improvement was evident. He has learned to vary his tone and volume, take deep breaths, incorporate seamless gestures, and add energy to his style. In his effort to try to use more of the stage, however, he often falls into the habit of pacing back and forth in front of his slides, a habit that makes him look a bit like a nervous zoo animal in a small cage.

In the wake of this launch, an article from the Inc. Magazine website (by Carmine Gallo) tells us how Apple followed the ten-minute rule inspired by the fundamentals of neuroscience in planning this event, changing from speakers to videos to new speakers in relatively short increments. These fundamentals suggest that a speaker must re-engage an audience at minimum once every ten minutes. The article points out that no single Apple presenter remained on stage for more than ten minutes throughout the program. The article reminds us that “the brain gets bored easily” and warns speakers not to “give your listeners a chance to get bored.”

We agree. This idea of mixing things up and adding variety is an important way to keep your audience engaged and interested. Change your approach, show a video, introduce a new speaker, take questions or otherwise adjust your format often to keep people listening.

But don’t expect these regular changes alone to hold audience attention, particularly if these attempts at re-engagement are boring. Too many changes can make a presentation choppy, uneven, or even inconsistent, and if you watch the entire Apple product launch on September 12, you’ll notice some weak spots. For example, they had NBA Hall-of-Famer Steve Nash as co-presenter for a new basketball training app that he has helped create for the iPhone. It was cool—and even unexpected—to see Nash on stage, but his style was flat and uninspiring.

As a speaker, keep the goal in mind: you’re not looking to simply change your approach, you’re looking to engage your audience. If you’re thinking about implementing the fundamentals of neuroscience into your next series of presentations, be sure not to ignore the fundamentals of public speaking. Here are few do’s and don’ts for you to consider:

Don’t choose speakers just because their position or credentials indicate that they should be invited to speak. Reporters who sit through press conferences often indicate that they disengage when conference planners give everyone a chance to speak regardless of whether they add a valuable perspective to the news topic.

Do use a variety of transitions from segment to segment. Apple used videos and introductions quite well throughout its event.

Do include exciting and surprising perspectives from people with good presentation skills. Avoid the C-suite if they will slow down the program—be open to including customers, front-line employees and others, as long as they know how to hold your audience’s attention.

Don’t speak any longer than you have to. Less is more, and shorter is sweeter. Avoid any tendencies to “kill time.” Remember, Apple has been doing this for years. The media looks forward to it, the stock market watches carefully, news has already been strategically leaked, and the audience is filled with proven Apple fans, of which there are many. They have earned the right to put on a long program. Most companies, however, have not earned that right.

By all means, use variety to keep your audience listening. But don’t forget to pack your program with great speakers who will give them good reasons to re-engage every ten minutes or so. Boring segments will always be boring, no matter how short they are.

 Click here to read the Inc. Magazine article.

Click here to watch the entire Apple 2018 event.

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