Key Messages in Presentations: How to Leave a Lasting Impression
Our brains operate a very efficient information filter. This is essential, because if we were to actually store all the information that comes flooding in daily, there would be no room for the important things. Our brains like to decide for themselves what they consider important.
This independence of mind, though, means that if we want to store something specific, we first have to convince our brains of its importance. There are proven techniques, though, which allow us to do this – and you can also use them when presenting!
Hear Today, Gone Tomorrow?
Every presentation has some kind of intent behind it. Sometimes it’s about conveying certain knowledge, sometimes it’s more about convincing people of an idea or selling something. That intent could be : “This product is the solution for XY!”, “Our method works!” or “This topic is important!”
With a good presentation you can actually get your intent across. However, this may not be much use if your carefully compiled and prepared information just bobs superficially over your audience’s minds, and is not linked to a message with a lasting effect. Without this, no matter how good your presentation is, it’s quickly forgotten, and when push comes to shove the crucial facts have disappeared from your audience’s minds.
It really pays to present information in a way that makes it stick in the mind when creating a PowerPoint presentation. With the three steps we set out below, your presentations will remain in your audience’s memory for a long time.
Step 1: Clarify Your Key Message
Your key message is at the heart of this. Before you think about how to convey something, you need to understand what exactly that something is. What precisely is your key message? What is your intent here?
You don’t necessarily have to have your key message fully developed when you start working on a presentation, but it can make the work a lot easier and save you having to make changes and adjustments later on if you do. In any case, a well-thought-out message should form the basis of your work, because…
…the key message can act as a filter for your content. Anything that does not reinforce and support your message is unnecessary.
…the key message can serve as a solid starting point when creating a presentation. All your arguments, content and graphics should reinforce and build on it. You automatically have an overarching theme holding your presentation together.
…the key message provides clarity. It acts as a signpost, guiding you through the process of creation, and, later, your audience through the presentation.
What Should Your Key Message Look Like?
“I’m lovin it”, “Any Time, Any Place, Anywhere”, “Just Do It” – none of these slogans includes a brand name or even a description of what it’s about.
Yet we only need to hear them and we know immediately what they mean. Why? Because these slogans are short, easy to understand and have been repeated so often that they have become fixed in our minds – automatically bringing along the thought of the corresponding brand. Advertising slogans are different from key messages in presentations, but in some respects they can help guide your thinking.
Even within presentations, your key message should be coherent and memorable; it should be clearly linked to the content and easy to repeat. It should offer the audience added value and get to the heart of the presentation topic. Ideally, it should also contain an emotional component that you can leverage during your presentation. (That sounds a bit tricky – and for good reason; it is!) The good news is that once you’ve got your key message in focus, the next steps become easier.
A Good Key Message…
…should be comprehensive: The key message should summarize the content and link everything else together. In a way, it is the scaffolding for the whole presentation.
…should be meaningful. It must have a core intent; it’s more than a simple, neutral headline. So rather than “This is product X”, you need “Product X can solve so many of your problems”.
…must be understandable, and as catchy as you can make it. The wording needs to be as simple and concise as possible.
…doesn’t have to be too simplified. “As simple as possible” is not too simple. In order to reflect your intent, your key message may also have to cover more complex content. For example, “Product X can solve so many of your problems, but it needs to be applied correctly”.
…should be tailored to the target group and the intent of the presentation. Your key message needs to contain added value; ideally this added value will be new and innovative.
…doesn’t have to limit itself to the material level. If possible, a key message should include an emotional component.
Step 2: Structure Your Presentation Based on Your Key Message – Not the Other Way Around
Unlike in advertising, you can’t repeat your slogan as often as you like over a long period of time when giving a presentation. This makes it all the more important to get your key message over as cleverly as possible and to reinforce it efficiently.
Once you’ve got your key message clearly formulated, you are in a good position to do just that. This is where PowerPoint can help you structure your presentation to convey your key message as strongly as possible.
An Uphill Struggle: The Funnel Structure
Many PowerPoint presentations follows a classic, funnel-like structure. This begins with establishing a broad collection of facts, from which a specific argument is derived. This in turn is supported with examples. The key message comes at the very end of the presentation, as the result and conclusion of the presentation.
In some contexts, such as when presenting scientific procedures, such a structure may be legitimate. In the business world, however, where efficiency and persuasiveness are important, such a structure is generally not the best choice. The audience is impatient to hear what you are actually getting at – and if you’re unlucky, you lost your audience’s attention at the facts.
Going with the Flow: The Pyramid Structure
You can help your PowerPoint presentation no end by following the pyramid model. This takes exactly the opposite approach: the key message is the starting point, strategically reinforced by facts and examples. The advantage is that a good key message arouses interest right from the start and since the goal is already clear, it is much easier for the audience to follow your points.
This way of structuring your presentation has the further advantage that if your audience is in a hurry – and that has been known to happen from time to time in the business world – the time taken to expand upon facts and figures can easily be reduced.
Step 3: Fight Against Being Forgotten!
You’ve already taken two important steps. You have a sharply focused key message and a structure that supports it. But developing a key message and getting it across is not enough: it has to stick.
How to make it stick, though? This is where you can benefit from applying research-based principles to allow your message to find its way into the audience’s long-term memory. So what helps us to remember? Why do some things remain in our memory for a long time? What’s the best way to make your key message stick?
Less is More: Minimalism
The more information our brain is confronted with in one go, the more it sifts out. If your presentation is stuffed full of content, it’s a certainty that a lot will be forgotten – maybe including your most important points! Try to make your presentation as short and concise as possible. Get rid of any unnecessary fluff. Your most important points should stand out clearly in your presentation, and be clearly visible in your slide layout. Don’t leave it to your audience to have to work out what’s important.
More is More: Repetition
Repetition is essential for memorization. Things that we have heard, seen or done several times tend to lodge in our memories. So it’s a good idea to state and reinforce your key message several times during your presentation. A good way is to present it at the beginning, reinforce it in the main part and emphasize it again very clearly at the end. If you ensure that all the information in your presentation is relevant to the message, and link any point back to it, you have a great chance of getting it to stick in your audience’s heads.
Active Not Passive: Participation
In learning research, a distinction is made between active and passive learning. Passive learning includes everything we hear, read or see without having to act ourselves. You can probably already guess what this is all about. As soon as we are actively involved in something, even if only in our thoughts, we learn much more efficiently. So why not get your audience to participate actively? Ask questions (“What are your experiences with this?”). Invite guesses (“What do you think happened next?”). If suitable for your subject, you can even include actual activities (e.g. small experiments, a memory exercise, or drawing something). This increases your audience’s interest and ups their attention level, as well as ensuring that your presentation will be remembered.
Words are Not Enough: Make It Multidimensional
The more connections our brains can make, the easier and longer they remember something. So it pays to put your facts over in as many ways as possible as well as putting them into words. This is where creativity comes in. Use pictures, graphics, animations – whatever is appropriate. Mnemonics and word games (alliterations, rhymes, neologisms, etc.) are a great idea, as they activate the brain more strongly than mere talk, and so stick better.
You can try to evoke certain associations, work with comparisons or, say, incorporate references to well-known films, TV series or whatever seems appropriate. These work as memory aids because the corresponding triggers evoke the memory later.
Objectivity is Not Enough: Get Emotions Involved
Remember the first time you solved an equation in math class? Unlikely. But you remember your first kiss, right? There’s a good reason for that. The former event had no personal meaning to you. It wasn’t emotionally charged (unless you happen to be a very keen mathematician). The latter event was.
Anything that is emotionally charged worms its way easily into our memory. To make use of this in a presentation, you need to link some sort of positive emotion with your content. The way to do this is to weave in stories, pictures or even music. Make sure that the focus remains on the essentials and that your PowerPoint structure does not appear over-designed.
If you can create a connection with your audience on a personal level, this ensures their emotional involvement. How you do this depends on the target group. How could the product or method affect their individual work or life? How does it solve particular problems or offer support? How can it make their world a little better?
Concrete rather than Abstract: Practical Relevance
If you’re of a certain age, you may remember having to cram abstract rules and formulas at school, which you then found tricky to actually apply. Teaching methods have advanced, due to ongoing learning research, and we know that working with examples and allowing the learner to derive the appropriate rules is a much more effective learning method.
The brain not only needs to know, but above all to understand in order to be able to work with what it has learned in the long term. Keep this in mind when making your presentation. Avoid bombarding people with abstract data and facts; aim for concrete and practical examples. This is not to say that data and figures aren’t useful, but that you should always link them to your key message in a way that your audience can understand.
Try to Create a Feel-Good Atmosphere
Ensuring a pleasant, relaxed atmosphere during your presentation may sound insignificant, but it isn’t. Yet again, learning research has proved that stress, tension, restlessness, anger or fear hinder the brain’s receptiveness and creativity.
This is why students often forget a lot of what they’ve learned in the stress of sitting exams. Relaxation and happiness, on the other hand, can have a positive effect on the brain, increasing motivation and retentiveness. It may seem too basic, but a good overall atmosphere can have a decisive influence on how well your message is remembered.
So aim to be as relaxed, open and friendly as possible. Don’t hide your personality or sense of humor (so long as it’s appropriate), and do everything you can to make your audience feel comfortable.
Post Presentation: Follow Up!
Help your audience to remember your presentation! This can be as simple as the classic handout. Make sure that your key message is clearly in the foreground. Striking links, such as a picture that was used in the presentation, can help liven up your handout.
You could also e-mail a summary of your content and/or the presentation slides to the participants. If the presentation was relevant and interesting enough for the audience, chances are that they’ll look at it again.
One last thing that you can do which actually benefits you twice over – ask the audience for feedback (by e-mail, online survey, etc.). This reminds them of your presentation, automatically reinforcing your key message and hopefully increasing their retention of it, and you also get to gather valuable feedback!
Focusing on, reinforcing and repeating your key message is essential to leave a lasting impression.
As you can see, there are practical ways of ensuring that your presentation is not forgotten straight away. Here’s a recap of the three steps:
1. Sharpen and hone your key message.
2. Emphasize and reinforce that message with the presentation structure. Back up the key message with every point or statistical table you use.
3. Apply proven techniques to your PowerPoint presentation to maximize its chances of sticking in your audience’s heads.
In practice, these steps may need time, repetition and quite a bit of fiddling around to master. But it’s worth all effort when you can easily create presentations which are, quite literally, memorable.