Please Stop Talking, My Brain Is Full

Why is it that your audience seems like their eyes are glazing over?  It's a horrible feeling but you think you might have completely lost your audience. And within seconds we begin to question ourselves? 

  • Am I boring? 
  • Am I not speaking at a level they can understand? 
  • Have I lost touch with my audience? 

And while the answer to any one of these questions might be yes, I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that you aren't boring, you are speaking their language, and you haven't lost touch with your audience. But what you may have done is overloaded their brain!

Cognitive Load

Every person in our audience has a cognitive load. There is only so much that the "working memory" can handle.  Think of it this way, your audience has limited mental resources and without a doubt you are not the only influence on what's going on in their head at the given moment. They walked through the door with lives, with expectation and responsibilities. Without you saying a word they are thinking about something or someone. Their brain is already at work. 

Then you start talking. 

In that moment, and the moments going forward, your audience begins to multi-task. They will continue to "process" what you are saying while constantly asking themselves:

  • Does this apply to me?
  • Is what he's saying important? 
  • Is this something I need to remember? 
  • How does this fit into what she's already said? 

Every time you move on to a new section, new idea, or a new slide, they re-ask these questions. And just like "multi-tasking" we tend to only be able to do one thing at a time. For that split second, you've lost them. Stack a few "multi-tasking moments" together and your audience is slowly falling behind. 

So, how do you keep them with you? 

1. Limit the text on your slides. 

You advance to your next slide and it includes 3 bullets, each consisting of a short sentence. And for that moment, your audience's working memory goes into overdrive. They begin to process everything they see...and guess what, they're not listening. They're reading. 

Make it worse by not saying it exactly as it's written on screen and your audience is left guessing. 

"Wait, what he's saying doesn't match what I'm reading!" And for that moment, your audience tunes out. They gravitate to the written word. 

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Instead, limit the text on your slides. Keep them at a minimum and read them verbatim. Use them as a visual aid to exactly what you're saying. Understand that your audience is using them as a cue to identify what you feel is important. So make sure they do exactly that. 

2. Limit new concepts taught in short presentations.

If your presentation lasts for less than an hour, limit the number of new concepts you are teaching or unpacking during your talk. Build off of common knowledge. Every new concept you teach in your presentation requires your audience to think about how each new item applies. Add too many and it get's confusing. 

This isn't a knowledge dump. You aren't just trying to share a bunch of information. You are actually trying to move someone from where they are to someplace new. You are trying to teach them something, or convince them of something. So stay focused on that. Stay focused on your desired outcome and move towards that outcome. Answer the question, "What do I want them to do as a result of my talk?"  Then use as many already common concepts as you can to move your audience towards that desired outcome. 

3. Speak in a linear fashion. 

Think of each element of your presentation as a building block. Build something. Talk in a straight line. If you tend to bounce around from item to item, your audience is left guessing how what you're saying now applies to what you said 5 minutes ago. 

linear

Use what you've already taught them to build on what your about to teach them. You not only reinforce and give context to that idea, but you also allow your audience the chance to apply what they are learning. 

For example, in this article I wanted you to limit the amount of concepts you were trying to teach in any given presentation before I talked about keeping it linear because it's important that we're working with the appropriate content before you talk about organizing that content. 

Give your presentation subtitles, even if it's only in your own notes. Make sure that every section builds on the previous. And if it doesn't, make sure your audience knows you're going to take a detour, but that you'll be back on track in a moment. They'll appreciate it and trust that you actually are going somewhere with what you're saying. 

Final Thoughts

Be conscious of the fact that no matter how smart your audience is, you've spent more time preparing than they have. It's your responsibility to bring them with you. If you can, let them know what problem you are trying to solve, right from the beginning of your presentation and then work backwards from there. Explain how what you are about to share applies to your topic and build on it. 

Your audience sees you as their guide, so do your job and take them on a journey.