3 surprisingly easy ways to improve your next presentation

3 surprisingly easy ways to improve your next presentation

These little known but practical steps can work whether you are presenting to a single person or a group.

1. A better way to point

How did you feel the last time someone pointed their finger at you? Can you remember what your response was?

Well for most people it’s a negative one. Consciously, or not, you tend to feel negative about the person who’s pointing the finger. You become more resistant to being influenced and are less likely to comply with any request.

The reason is that for most of us, it evokes memories (and feelings of those memories) of someone:

• Accusing us of something or telling us off (“Don’t you ever do that again!”)

• Abusing us for some reason (“You lousy, dirty piece of…….”)

• Telling us what to do (“I want you to go to your room right now!”)

• Pointing out one (or more) of our faults (“Can’t you see how useless you are!)

So whenever someone points their finger at you, it ‘feels’ uncomfortable and subconsciously you resist, react negatively or withdraw.

Is it any different when you’re the one up in front of people presenting? No it isn’t. The audience feels the same way when you point a finger at them – for any reason. Whether you are making a point or pointing out something or someone?

In one particular experiment 72 per cent of the attendees rated the speaker that pointed as aggressive and rude. And it also impacted their recall of the material in the presentation.

And you don’t have to be on a stage presenting; it’s the same with a small group, in a meeting or one-on-one.

What’s the right way to point?

A tiny change that makes a big difference.

Any time you would normally point, take your thumb and index finger and touch them together.

The other three fingers open, or curled into your palm like they would be if you were pointing with one finger.

Now point with your thumb and index finger.

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That’s all you have to do.

The research shows that presenters who do this are perceived as focused and thoughtful.

And the automatic negative association does not occur. It just melts away and you are not tarnished with inducing ‘uncomfortable feelings’ in the audience.

The other alternative is to use a two-finger point. This is pointing using your index and middle fingers touching side by side. It’s not nearly as good but much better than pointing with one finger.

Try experimenting with the reactions you get between pointing with a finger and pointing with your thumb and index finger together. Watch closely for the reaction, or lack of reaction. You’re likely to see a noticeable difference.

2. What the audience will remember

A favourite quote of a colleague of mine is: “The faintest words on paper are better than the strongest memory.”

Contrary to what we believe about the strength of our memories, rather than a movie with sound and video, our memories more like a series of snapshots. A jigsaw puzzle of the past that we later fill in the blanks between. As Elizabeth Loftus, one of the pioneer researchers in the field of altered memories, found was that recalling a memory can alter it, as can the context it’s recalled in or the words used by someone else to question what happened.

So what will the audience remember from your presentation?

Read more: A little known influence approach to sidestep resistance

“The faintest words on paper are better than the strongest memory.”

It turns out that after a few days the audience will generally remember little of the specific content. What they will remember are the moments, or snapshots, that invoke an emotional response in them, or are linked to an existing vivid experience – such as fear, laughter or excitement.

There are two areas where you do have some control over the shutter on the audience’s memory camera.

In a presentation there are two areas where you do have some control over the shutter on the audience’s memory camera:

• Anything related to a strong emotional reaction to something in, or around, the content of your presentation.

• The feeling they have at the end of your presentation.

How can you use this?

Aim to create an emotional response at some point in the presentation. Ideally related to the main theme or point you want to get across. A relevant story is a great way to do this – especially one with humour and/or tragedy/loss.

Read more: 10 'pain points' for global Boards - and how to tackle them

For ideas on how to add humour to your presentations David Nihill’s book ‘Do you Talk Funny’ is excellent.

Aristotle identified the three pillars of persuasion - Ethos, Pathos, Logos and it's the Pathos (emotional) pillar that our memories are anchored on. Get them to laugh or get them to cry, but make sure they 'feel' your presentation. Aim to finish with a call to action and to have your audience leave with a strong feeling that supports that call to action.

3. The ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sides of the presentation space

Would you be surprised to know that the Italian word for left (sinistra) has the same Latin language roots as sinister? (Cue scary music).

And it’s a little known fact that the word we use for being able to use both hands, ambidextrous, means having two right hands.

Oh, and leaders often have a ‘right hand man’.

My wife’s twin brother was naturally left-handed – but, as a youngster, he was forced to write with his right hand, because being left-handed was considered ‘bad’.

Read more: Gaining the digital strategy high ground: IT vs. the organisation? Who wins?

Thanks goodness that’s no longer the case and it’s acceptable to be left handed in society today.

But is that true for our unconscious biases? We have such a strong cultural history of associating left with bad and right with good. Would you be surprised to find out that we still have a subconscious aversion to the left?

It also turns out that we tend to associate items and people in our left visual field in a negative way compared to when they are sitting to our right.

How can this help you present more effectively?

When you’re presenting ‘the problem’ or the issue with the current situation, make sure you stand to the audiences left (your right) and explain the problem while standing there.

Then when you present the solution move away from the ‘bad side’ across to the audience’s right (your left) to present your solution.

And anytime in your presentation that you need to refer to something related to:

1. The problem, move back to the audiences left

2. The solution, move to the audience’s right

You’ll make it easier to get the audience to come along with you, you’ll have a purpose for moving on the stage (not just wandering around) and the audience will feel more comfortable with you. It also provides another dimension for structure to your presentation, something that your audience is always looking for (usually subconsciously) to help them understand and recall what you're presenting.

Read more: The art of leading high-performing teams

Dr Kevin Hogan conducted experiments with left versus right and found that it can also help you when sitting at a desk or table when in a meeting or presentation. What he found was that when sitting across the table from someone; sit slightly to their right so that your right eye lines up with their right eye. We tend to have much better feelings for someone when they sit in our right visual field.

So, if you want to be the ‘right hand man’ or woman for a leader it could be a very good idea to make sure you always position yourself on their right. Although I wonder how that will make you feel towards them. More work to do there…

Additional takeaways

The left and right side of the stage also works for ‘past’ and ‘future’ events and ideas.

• When discussing the past move to the audience’s left

“Here’s where we were…”

• When discussing the present move back to the centre to discuss the problems, issues or challenges you have now.

“Here’s where we are now…”

• When discussing the future move to the audience’s right to present your ideas, recommendations or proposal on

“Here’s what we need to do to solve the problem…”

Read more: The challenge of networking and the surprising power of weak ties

Note: the audience’s right is your left. Our natural tendency is to see it from our perspective and get it round the wrong way. Make sure you get this round the right way or it will work against you.

So, to summarise, here’s three practical, easy to implement ideas to add to your influence tool chest:

1. The best way to ‘point’

Touch your index finger to your thumb when you need to point. You won’t get a negative reaction and you will be seen as more engaging and authoritative.

2. What the audience will remember

Not much of the content in general. But they are more likely to remember any content that caused an emotional reaction or connected with an existing emotional experience in their lives. They will also tend to remember the presentation based on the feeling they had at the end of the presentation.

3. Good and bad sides

• Move to the audience’s right for the good things and solutions.

• Move to the audience’s left for the bad things or for the problem.


• Discuss the past standing on the audience’s left,

• Discuss the future standing on their right.

The author would like to credit the work of Dr Kevin Hogan and authors Vince Harris (The Productivity Epiphany) and Fredric Schiffer (Of Two Minds) as references for this article.

Campbell Such is GM IT for Bidvest, a wholesale food distribution business and a top 50 company in NZ. He has a varied career in New Zealand and internationally, working in technology, management and roles in marketing and sales. Reach him at and through his blog.

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