Getting your Message to Spread

The goal of any public speaker is to be heard and understood. Your idea, placed into another person’s mind, takes on a new life. If you can get that idea in there the way you want it, it will work for you. The trick is to get your listener to remember your idea, and remember it correctly. So when they pass it on, it is still the same idea.

In previous articles, we looked at overcoming anxiety, being persuasive, and making an impression. By now, you should know how to get up there, give them a great show and knock their socks off.

But there is more to it than putting on a great show. Having the audience on your side is half the battle. It’s not enough for your audience to know what you know. You need them to know it and repeat it.

Sure, they will never tell the story the way you did. But you don’t want them to repeat your speech. You want them to give your speech as if it were their own. But to sell your idea to others, it has to be worth sharing. The story has to be good, and the content has to be nicely packaged. If you can’t have creative control of what they say, you can at least have editorial control.

Most people have a terrible memory. But you can help them. The way you present your information influences the way they retain it. And if you want them to pass it on, they have to remember it. And they have to remember it correctly.

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According to Miller’s Law, without making much of an effort, most people can remember an average of 7 things. 7 digits, 7 names, 7 things on a list. Anything more than that takes an effort. It helps, of course, if the listener finds the subject interesting. Most of us learned in school to apply systems of “rote” do or die memorization techniques. But without a carrot or stick, your audience is either listening, or they ain’t.

The good news is that we are better at remembering than we think. Indeed, there are even things that we never forget. We need to stop thinking of our brains as filing cabinets, and treat them more like the creative, indulgent creatures that they are. Here are three rules to follow that will keep your info in their brains:

Brains like pictures, not words.

Humans are visual creatures. To remember something they have to picture it in their minds. Most people are brought up on television and movies where stories are expressed in a visual language. We remember faces better than names. We respond to symbols and pictures instinctively.

The written word a clumsy device for painting pictures. This is often made worse with PowerPoint and other presentation software. Slides packed with paragraphs, quotes and lists to crush your audience’s spirits. They cannot read and listen at the same time. Either they are reading, in which case they are not listening. Or they are listening, in which case they are not reading.

They are, however, very good at listening while looking at pictures. They have been doing it all of their lives, and they like to do it. That is what your slides are for. Follow these guidelines for creating PowerPoint slides.

  1. Create a slide for each point in your presentation.
  2. Narrow the text in each screen to seven words or less
  3. Choose a keyword or phrase for each screen
  4. Attach an image to each main idea

Your slides are not the show. You are the show. The slides are just there to help your audience remember your show. Slides are memory tags for the information in your presentation. Later, when they are trying to remember what you said, they will follow the images in their mind.

Brains like pictures, not numbers

A screen full of figures on an excel sheet will cause your audience’s brains to freeze up. They can’t be listening and doing math at the same time.

Figures are the best way to talk about math. When it comes to numbers, the human brain is much better at reading than listening. Just not at the same time. Doing calculations in your head while a speaker is talking is next to impossible.

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The trick is to focus on getting to the point, and not wasting time explaining the math. You are presenting findings, not results. They want to know how much, not how many. Tell your audience what the figures represent by presenting them visually in the form of graphs and charts.

They are not hard to make. Chart-generating software and apps will make all the pie-charts you need. But who says math isn’t fun? To be memorable, you need to get creative. By drawing up original graphics with pleasant colours and composition, you put an image in your listener’s brain that they can easily find.

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People don’t remember numbers, they remember stats. They like things represented as more or less. Bigger or smaller. Growing or shrinking. Give them numbers that move and can be compared. The brain will always find room for stuff that paints a picture.

Give your audience a solid picture of your message. And when it comes time to repeat it, they will repeat it exactly as you said it. Give them ambiguity and interpretation, and they will mess it up.

Brains like stories, not lists

For hundreds of thousands of years, our human being ancestors roamed the fertile plains hunting and gathering. They had no use for reading and writing, they had no math or diagrams. No lists. Everything was communicated by stories. Folk legends and mythology were passed down from generation to generation without a single written word. We are those same people.

Early man's version of a PowerPoint presentation

Early man’s version of a PowerPoint presentation

What works on the page does not necessarily work on the stage. Paper is very good at remembering lists and words, that’s why we write things down. The brain is much better at making pictures and morphing ideas. When it comes to saving data, brain files are in picture and sound form. Remembering words and numbers is the job of books.

If you want your audience to remember information, give it to them as a narrative. Tell them how each items on your list was acquired. Describe how each element of your presentation came to be. As a speaker, it is your job to turn it all into a story.

All those generations living on the plains, connecting with our clans through storytelling have had an effect on our evolution. As humans we are helpless to the seductive lure of a story. Stories draw us closer together as people, endear us to the teller, and give us a feeling of belonging. Nobody is immune to this force. Anyone can tell a story, summarize a book or movie, or pass on a juicy piece of gossip. How many can memorize a list of ten things?

You are a storyteller. And with a little practice, planning and organization, you can be a great one.

Practice by getting into the habit of linking items of information into a narrative. This involves putting the data into a personal, chronological context. Tell them what happened, how it happened and what will happen next. Tell them how you experienced it. Tell them how they would also experience it.

Planning involves breaking it down into keywords, catch phrases and simple diagrams. They are a passive audience. You do the math for them, you do the reading for them, they just listen and watch. Don’t interrupt them while they are listening.

Organization means putting it all together in a nicely wrapped, sweet-smelling package. Make sure your story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Decide what kind of story it is going to be. An epic tale that starts at the end and ends at the beginning? A before and after? A three-act play?

The story is not just there to help your audience to remember it. The story is there to help you remember it too. In this form, you won’t need to memorize it, you will just know it. And the more you tell it, the better it will get. They will tell your story as if it were their own. Let them. The more others tell it, the better it will be.

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