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How do you give a memorable presentation? Martijn Wackers has the answer

What do people like Martin Luther King Jr. and Barack Obama have in common? They have mastered the art of public speaking. There are plenty of books on learning this skill, but one aspect of rhetoric remains underexposed in science: how do you make sure the audience remembers your message? Martijn Wackers conducted research into various rhetorical retention techniques and the effect on memory.

'In the past, it was important for a speaker to know a speech well by heart, so the focus in classical rhetoric was on the speaker’s memory,' says Wackers. 'Nowadays, you see that advice books are often about how a speaker can make a message memorable for the audience. But it is unclear how exactly that process works and the theoretical foundations are lacking.'

'How do I give a good presentation?'

To get a better picture of that process, Wackers divided his research into three parts. First of all, he immersed himself in the world of modern advice literature. 'These are the kinds of with titles such as How do I give a good presentation?’ explains Wackers.

Three so-called 'encoding principles' turned out to be the most important: structure, visualisation and elaboration. In the first place, you structure and organise information that belongs together. This is how we store information. The second principle is visualisation - that you form an image of it, or just the fact that you literally see the visualisation. And the elaboration is that you connect to the existing knowledge of the audience. All these techniques sow the seeds for being able to remember the information well.'

But it turned out that much of the information in such advice books is based on personal experience, not on scientific research. 'That is not to say that the advice is worthless. It can be really useful if you are an inexperienced speaker. However, it can become a problem if the advice is contradictory, or if practice shows that speakers actually do quite different things from what is written in the advice books. Then it becomes interesting to see how things actually work.'

From theory to practice

But what do speakers do in practice to ensure that the audience remembers the information? To answer this question, in the second part of his research Wackers analysed presentations and speeches by researchers, politicians and speakers at TED conferences. 'Researchers mainly use structuring techniques, such as announcing that they are about to end. Then you say very simply: "Ladies and gentlemen, I'll finish here." TED speakers stylistically choose a different way to mark the end of their presentation. They don’t specifically name the end of the speech, but say for example: "The last thing I want to give you is...".'

According to Wackers, it is striking that in practice the application of the techniques differs for each presentation situation because this is rarely discussed in advisory books, 'while the context can actually have an impact on the effect of a technique'. His experiments also showed that it helps in informative presentations to announce the end. ‘This leads to the information in the conclusion being better remembered by the audience,' he explains. ‘And if you use a summary, it’s best to use an informative summary, for example by stating the three key points of your story.'

Not a cure-all

However, applying rhetorical techniques is not a cure-all, Wackers emphasises. 'Presentations and speeches are complex situations in which anything can happen. You have many different variables, all of which can have an influence,' he says. 'It also matters, of course, how someone presents themselves. If, for example, the presenter speaks in a monotonous way, the audience may have already lost interest and announcing a closing sentence won’t help to attract their attention. It is not a miracle cure that you can use to make everyone remember what was said. But what we do know is that if you use a technique like this, there’s more chance that people will remember what you said better.'

For novice speakers, Wackers has a number of tips to make a presentation or speech as memorable as possible. 'Know who your audience is and what the setting is in which you are going to speak. If you don't know, or if the audience is mixed, it’s useful in any case to use a good mix of the encoding principles - structure, visualisation and elaboration. If you can do that, you'll be fine.'

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