Yesterday I talked about 4 environmental distractions which cause people to stop focusing on your presentation.

But it’s also easy to distract your audience by what you say (or don’t say) and by what you show on your PowerPoint slides.

5. What you say (and don’t say)

This is the major cause of people starting to think about something other than what you’re saying. That’s because they’re busy thinking about what you just said. Here’s a whole lot of things that might take them off track:

  • You’ve used jargon or an acronym that they don’t understand – so they’re busy trying to figure out what it means. Meanwhile they’re not listening to you. It’s Ok to use jargon, as long as you explain it – it only takes a few seconds. When we get people on our in-house courses to explain jargon, a colleague (who the presenter assumed would understand) will often pipe up and say “Thank you – I never knew what that meant.”
  • Your explanation of a concept is confusing. While you’re moving onto the next point, they’ll still be trying to understand it. If the rest of your presentation is dependent on an understanding of that concept, they’ll tune out altogether. So take your time with explanations – and use presentation techniques such as metaphors, analogies and explanatory visuals to help.
  • You’ve told a story but it doesn’t obviously relate to your presentation. Some members of the audience will start trying to guess the relationship. It doesn’t matter how great the story is – if it’s not relevant, it doesn’t belong in this presentation. If you’re telling a longer story where the relevancy is not immediately apparent – but will be by the end of the story – let your audience know so that they can sit back and enjoy the story.
  • There’s no structure to your presentation or the structure of your presentation is not apparent to your audience. People like to have a feel for the flow of your presentation. If the flow of your presentation appears random – you’ll lose them as they try to figure out where you’re going with this.

6. Your PowerPoint slides

There’s lots of catalysts for off-track thinking when you add visuals to a presentation. (And that’s on the assumption that you long ago ditched the bullets. Still using bullets? Check out our page on PowerPoint and other resources such as Presentation Zen.) Research in e-learning has shown that any extraneous element – pictures, graphics or sound – reduces learning (Multimedia Learning, E-learning and the Science of Instruction).

  • Reduce visual clutter on the slide. Yes, that includes your corporate logo. If you have to include it, have it on the first slide and the last slide. Tell your Communications Department that the audience will remember it better that way due to the Primacy and Recency effects.
  • Ensure that the colours that you’re using as background and text have sufficient contrast so that people can easily read the text. Test this with a datashow projector because colours can appear quite different when they’re projected compared to your computer screen.
  • It’s not enough to use great images – the images must relate to the point you’re making. If the image is a metaphor for what you’re saying, explain the metaphor. Otherwise, when you click onto the next slide, your audience will be stuck thinking about the last one.
  • Similarly, video clips which are related to your presentation topic, but don’t actually help make your point, will distract people from your main points. In an e-learning research study (Mayer, Heiser and Lonn, 2001), students watched a short narrated animation on lightning formation. For some students the animation contained six ten-second video clips on the effects of lightning. The video clips were related but didn’t help to explain the formation of lightning. Students who didn’t see the  video clips performed much better in subsequent testing ( page 122-3, E-learning and the Science of Instruction, sorry – I tried to find an online reference).
  • Use animation and sound with discretion. Some of these come into the category of hot buttons – they can be maddenly annoying if used indiscriminately. But animation which allows the audience to focus on the right elements of a visual or shows movement relevant to your visual explanation are helpful.
  • John Windsor of the YouBlog has a number of useful posts on distracting visuals:
    What stories do your graphics tell?

    Let’s talk about transitions
    One thing at a time

It’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming that just because you’ve said it, your audience will get it. As we’ve seen there are many ways that you can cause your audience to get distracted and stop focusing on your presentation. Don’t give your audience cause to think of anything other than what you’re saying.

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