Four Things Every Presenter Needs to Know About People
Adapted from 100 Things Every Presenter Needs to Know About People (New Riders)
By Susan Weinschenk
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People don’t just think. They also feel. Even if the information you
are communicating is primarily facts, dates, and numbers, you
can’t ignore how people will react emotionally, because without
engaging people emotionally, you can’t even get them to listen to
what you are saying. In what follows, you’ll learn how to engage
people emotionally so that they will listen to what you have to say.
People Respond More to Anecdotes than to Data
In my book Neuro Web Design: What Makes Them Click?, I explain that most mental processing occurs unconsciously. People are unaware of this unconscious processing, and
it’s easy to give more weight to information that we’re consciously aware of. It’s easy to
forget that information is coming in and being processed from many sources. It’s easy to
forget that people are processing emotions too.
Let’s say you have to make a presentation to the department heads at work about
your latest conversations with your customers. You interviewed 25 customers and surveyed another 100, and you have lots of important data to share. Your frst thought might
be to present a summary of the data in a numerical/statistical/data-driven format, for
- 75 percent of the customers we interviewed…
- Only 15 percent of the customers responding to the survey indicated…
But this data-driven approach will be less persuasive than anecdotes. You may want
to include the data, but your presentation will be more powerful if you focus on one or
more anecdotes; for example, “Mary M. from San Francisco shared the following story
about how she uses our product…,” and then go on to tell Mary’s story.
Stories Engage People Emotionally
- Anecdotes are a way to sprinkle small stories throughout your presentation.
- Use anecdotes in addition to, or in place of, factual data.
One day many years ago, I found myself in front of a room full of people who did not
want to be there. Their boss had told them they had to attend the seminar I was giving. I
knew that many or most of them thought the seminar was a waste of time, and knowing
that was making me nervous. I decided to be brave and forge ahead. Certainly my great
content would grab their attention, right? I took a deep breath, smiled, and with a strong
voice, I started the session with a big, “Hello, everyone. I’m certainly glad to be here.”
More than half the class wasn’t even looking at me. They were reading their email and
writing to-do lists. One guy was reading the morning newspaper. It was one of those
moments where seconds seem like hours.
I thought to myself in a panic, “What am I going to do?” Then I had an idea. “Let me
tell you a story,” I said. At the word story, everyone’s head jerked up and all eyes were on
me. I told them a story (relevant to them and the subject matter of the seminar), and the
rest of the seminar was a success.
When we hear a story, we give the storyteller all of our attention. A good story communicates information thoroughly and commits the information to memory.
What Is a Story?
If you search for “What is a story” in Google, you will get several sites with various
definitions. Wikipedia says, “A narrative or story is a construct created in a suitable format (written, spoken, poetry, prose, images, song, theatre, or dance) that describes a
sequence of fictional or non-fictional events.”
In some definitions a narrative is always fictional, and in other definitions a narrative
is just another word for a story. Here, I use narrative and story as synonyms. The
definition I’ll use for a story is, “a description of a character or characters and a relating of
what happens to the characters over time (past or future).” The character might be you or
someone you know, or a fictitious person, or an animal. The character could be your car
or your computer.
You Are Already a Storyteller
When you hear the word storyteller, you might think of some overly dramatic person telling a story to children using different voices. But everyone is a storyteller. Think about
your communication with other people throughout a typical day. You wake up in the
morning and tell your family about a dream you had (story). At work you tell a coworker about what happened at the new product’s design meeting the day before (story). At
lunch you tell your friend about a family reunion you have coming up and your plans to
take time off to go (story). After work you speak with your neighbor about the dog you
encountered while you were on your evening walk (story). At dinner you describe to
your family the odd sounds the car made repeatedly while you were driving home from
If you think about it, you will realize that most of the communication in your daily life is
in the form of a story. Yet you rarely stop to think about stories and storytelling. Storytelling is so ubiquitous that you don’t even realize you are doing it.
If someone at work suggested you attend a workshop on how to communicate
clearly at work, you might be interested. But you might scoff if someone suggested that
you attend a workshop on storytelling. It’s interesting how unaware and unappreciative
most people are of the major way they communicate.
According to Gershon
“ A well-told story conveys great quantities of information in relatively few words in a format that is easily assimilated by the listener or viewer.” — Nahum Gershon
I Feel Your Pain
Stories allow your audience to feel what the character in the story feels. When you tell a
story, the brain reacts as though the individual is experiencing the events in the story.
Stories Activate the Brain
Tania Singer’s research on empathy (2004) studied the parts of the brain that react
First, she used fMRI scans to see what parts of the brain were active when the
participants experienced pain. She observed that some parts of the brain processed
where the pain came from and how intense the pain really was; other parts of the brain
separately processed how unpleasant the pain felt and how much the pain bothered the
person feeling it.
Then she asked participants to read stories about people experiencing pain. When
participants read stories about someone in pain, the parts of the brain that process
where the pain comes from and how intense it is were not active, but the other areas
that process how unpleasant the pain is were active.
Use Short Stories with a Point
Now that you are convinced that you should be using more stories, make sure you use
good ones. A good story:
- Is short
- Has a point
- Has a character the audience will care about
- Is relevant to the topic of that section of your presentation
People Are Programmed to Enjoy Surprises
- Use stories throughout your presentation to keep and hold attention and to make an
- Write down or record interesting stories from your work or personal life. You will then
be able to fgure out how to use these stories in various ways.
- You can recycle stories. The same story can be used for diferent presentations and
audiences. Every story has many diferent “morals” or conclusions that can be drawn
- Focus on making stories vivid and real to maximize their potential for emotional
- Make your stories, relevant, short and with a point.
In Neuro Web Design: What Makes Them Click?, I talk about the role of the “old brain”
in scanning the environment for anything that could be dangerous. This also means that
the old brain is looking for anything new or novel.
Craving the Unexpected
Research by Gregory Berns (2001) shows that the human brain not only looks for the
unexpected but actually craves the unexpected.
Berns used a computer-controlled device to squirt either water or fruit juice into
people’s mouths while their brains were being scanned by an fMRI device. Sometimes
the participants could predict when they were going to get a squirt, but other times it
was unpredictable. The researchers thought that they would see activity based on what
people liked. For example, if a participant liked juice, then there would be activity in the
nucleus accumbens, the part of the brain that is active when people experience pleasurable events.
However, that’s not what happened. The nucleus accumbens was most active when
the squirt was unexpected. It was the surprise that showed activity, not the preferred
Nice Surprises vs. Unpleasant Surprises
Not all surprises are equal. If your friends yell “Surprise!” when you come home and turn
on the light because it’s your surprise birthday party, that’s a very diferent kind of surprise than finding a burglar in your home.
Marina Belova (2007) and her team researched whether the brain processes these
two diferent kinds of surprises in diferent locations.
The researchers worked with monkeys and the amygdala, a part of the brain where
emotions are processed. In their research, they recorded the electrical activity of neurons in the amygdala. They used a drink of water (pleasant) versus a puf of air to the
face (which the monkeys do not like).
They found that some neurons responded to the water and others to the puff of air,
but that a specifc neuron did not respond to both.
BuIld In Small Surprises
To keep your audience interested in your presentation, build in small surprises. Examples include the following:
- Demonstrations. (of a product, a Web site, or a principle you are discussing)
- New media. If you’ve been using slides, turn off the slides and show a video
clip, play an audio clip, or just talk to your audience.
- Activities. Stop talking and have the group do an exercise (individually,
together, or in small groups).
- Don’t put everything on your outline. Don’t tell your audience everything you
are going to do and when it will occur. Instead of showing a detailed outline
that shows exactly when an activity is going to occur, use a high-level outline
that doesn’t reveal every aspect of your presentation. This way, they can be
surprised by what happens and when it happens.
People Feel Safe When Things Are Predictable
- Things that are new and novel capture attention.
- Providing something unexpected not only gets attention, but also is actually
- Build in small surprises throughout your presentation.
In the previous section, I said that people like surprises, but you need to balance surprise with predictability. When things are predictable, people feel comfortable and safe.
Your job as the presenter is to balance surprise with predictability. When people know
what to expect, and they know what comes next, they will feel calmer and they will trust
you. If they don’t know what is going on or what happens next, they might get nervous
and become emotionally uncomfortable.
Confidence and Predictability
The more confidence you project to your audience, the higher their tolerance for unpredictability. If you are an inexperienced presenter or if you are giving a presentation that
you’ve never given before, you should build-in plenty of predictability cues for your
audience. As you get more experienced in general—and with that talk in particular—you
can lessen those cues. Predictability cues include:
- Providing a high-level overview in writing (or verbally) at the beginning of your
presentation, describing what you are going to do (or what you are going to
talk about) and in what order.
- Returning to the high-level overview and various points in your talk so people
get a “you are here” experience.
- Telling people what will happen next (“Next I will talk about XYZ, then we’ll
have a discussion about ABC before we take a break.”)
- You must balance surprise with predictability.
- If people don’t know what to expect, they can get nervous.
- If you are new to presenting, or if you are giving a new presentation, build in more
- The more confdent you are, the more unpredictable you can be.