Fall is officially here and it’s time to put away the pails, shovels and sunscreen and get back to work.  For speakers, it’s one of the busy seasons, and so your speech and delivery better be in tip-top shape, ready for those jaded audiences and their famously shrunken attention spans.  I’ve had several questions lately about how neuroscience can help extend those attention spans and engage those brains better.  So what follows is a quick primer – five insights into the speaker’s world and how to succeed better through an understanding the human mind.

First, get your body language sequence right.  It’s counter-intuitive, but we gesture before we think, consciously.  Or, to put it another way, we gesture to find out what our unconscious minds really want us to do.  So, the proper sequence of gesture and speech is to gesture first, then speak.  The difficulty is that if you’re thinking about your gestures consciously, that will tend to slow them down.  And thus you’ll be likely to gesture after the idea or word you’re relating the gesture to.  And that looks fake.  Audiences don’t pick it up consciously, but unconsciously it looks stilted and insincere.  They’ll be likely to rate you low on authenticity, engagement, and so on.  Always gesture first.

Second, invoke those emotions.  Our brains basically remember everything.  But then they start discarding.  Only memories that are attached to strong emotions (and recalled often) get remembered clearly.  If you want your audience to remember something, you must – must – attach a strong emotion to it.  Facts alone won’t cut it.  You need emotion too.  Wrap a strong story around anything you want your audience to care about and take away.

Third, mix it up.  If you really, really want an audience to remember something, let them experience what you’re telling them in several different ways.  Tell a story, a joke, get them to ask questions or share with their neighbors, throw a beach ball at them, make them catch it and tell you what you just said – anything within reason to change up your approach and come at the audience with several different kinds of engagement.  And no, slides don’t count.  There’s no compelling evidence that slides help retention.

Fourth, help your audience prioritize.  Pity the poor human brain, remembering everything.  Help it along by giving your audience hierarchies of importance, numbers and signals of how essential things are.  Feel free to say, “If you remember only one thing today, make it this. . . .”  The idea is to help all those brains out there in the audience trying to remember everything by saying to them, “here are some things you can forget.”

Finally, end strong by getting your audience to move.  OK, I’ve cheated a bit here; that’s really two ideas.  Audience tend to remember the last thing they hear (if they remember anything) so make sure your closing has something important in it.  But recall point number one – if we move on some idea or thing, we’re likely to think it must be important.  Getting your audience to dance its way out of the auditorium while singing a little ditty about your message might be the cheesiest idea you’ve ever attempted to pull off, but the audience would remember it.

Knowing a few facts about the science of the brain can help you succeed during this busy fall speaking season.  And break a leg!



  1. Dr. Nick Morgan, I like to read and like your posts., but I found this statement strange:

    “… And no, slides don’t count. There’s no compelling evidence that slides help retention…”

    because studies say that 50% of people are visual and so they will feel the impact of a slide and if this happens it will assume that these people will memorize the contents of the slide.

    Also, our unconscious, process 11 million bit per second, being 10 million, visual
    “forr several decades, we have known that visual memory for scenes is very robust (1, 2). In the most dramatic demonstration, Standing (3) showed observers up to 10,000 images for a few seconds each and reported that they could subsequently identify which images they had seen before with 83% accuracy. This memory is far superior to verbal memory (4) and can persist for a week (5). Recent research has extended these findings to show that we have a massive memory for the details of thousands of objects (6). Here, we ask whether the same is true for auditory memory and find that it is no” (from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2667065/ = Auditory recognition memory is inferior to visual recognition memory )

    Dr. Nick Morgan. achei meio estranha essa afirmação:
    “Não há provas convincentes de que os slides ajudam na retenção.”
    , pois estudos dizem que 50% pessoas
    são visuais e assim sendo, elas vão sentir o impacto de um slide e se isso acontece pressupõe que essas pessoas irão memorizar o conteúdo do slide.
    Também, o nosso inconsciente processo 11 milhões de bit por segundo, sendo 10 milhões, visuais
    “Por várias décadas, sabemos que a memória visual para cenas é muito robusta. Na demonstração mais dramática, Standing mostrou aos observadores até 10.000 imagens por alguns segundos cada e relatou que eles poderiam identificar subsequentemente quais imagens haviam visto antes com 83% de precisão. Essa memória é muito superior à memória verbal e pode persistir por uma semana . Pesquisas recentes estenderam essas descobertas para mostrar que temos uma memória massiva para os detalhes de milhares de objetos . Aqui, perguntamos se o mesmo é verdadeiro para a memória auditiva e achamos que não é”, (from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2667065/ = Auditory recognition memory is inferior to visual recognition memory )
    Obrigado por compartilhar seus conhecimentos.
    Desejo-lhe um bom dia

    1. Hi, Elazier —

      I responded to your query earlier, but it somehow got lost, so apologies for the tardy reply. OK, so yes, visual memory is stronger than auditory memory, and yes, at any given time, if — and this is an important if — the visual field is interesting, then we can use up to 10M bps of our 11 bps of unconscious processing time on the visual. But that’s a very different thing than sitting in an audience looking at slides. First of all, people are always more interested in people (visually) than other things. So if you have a human on stage, with slides behind, people are looking at the human first, the slides second. Second, most slides are not truly interesting in a visual sense — they are charts, graphs, and worst of all, words. It’s still rare that someone puts up truly compelling visual images. And then, refer to point 1. And finally, we’re talking about unconscious attention, rather than conscious encoding — two different kinds of learning and memory.

    2. Hello,

      I wanted to just add, that as a neuromarketing strategies and licensed psychotherapist, that visual impact would be the presenter more than the power points. I have never heard anyone leave a conference and say “that one powerpoint was amazing”.. they say “that speaker was amazing”. The power point to me, is dated and the stuff training is made of, to help retain information for note taking, etc., but to captivate someone, emotion will always win.
      Studies are tough; first are they double blind… second, how we infer them is important, and the era in which they were presented and researched, are important. This study was presented in 2009, which means the study itself was probably conducted pre-2008. This is when we knew much less about public speaking and emotional connection.
      However, it does support the idea of gestures being integral to your speaking.

      Michele Paiva

  2. Excellent post, Nick. It’s a great reminder to help audiences with, “If you remember one thing, remember this…” because I often have multiple points in my messages. I want to help my audiences’ brains to process and remember the content. I love the idea to conclude with creative movement! Sometimes when I go to the movies, at the end, there’s a catchy song playing, and I bounce out of the theater singing along. Maybe I’ll do that at the end of my workshops.

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