Avoiding Death by Powerpoint, the Neuro Way


Conference-goers know that at any given meeting, they will be subjected to a range of presentations – some interesting, others, well, not so interesting. Conference organizers don’t like to offer a podium to inept or boring presenters, of course – bad performances will drive away the paying customers. The approach conference organizers usually employ is to poll the audience about each presentation, asking about the content, the quality of the presentation, and so on. This is done after the fact, but at least low-scoring presenters can be crossed off the list for the next conference. Of course, this constant polling (often by paper questionnaires) is tedious and annoying for the conference attendees.

In a departure from old-fashioned paper, the Association of National Advertisers and Innerscope Research conducted an experiment at their recent Creativity Conference. Some audience members were wired up to capture biometric readings – changes in heart rate, breathing, skin sweat, and motion. These measures were captured from a lightweight band around the wearer’s lower rib cage, so the monitored individuals didn’t stand out in the crowd and likely forgot they were being monitored.

According to the Innerscope’s analysis, James Moorhead, Old Spice Brand Manager for Procter & Gamble, and Mark D’Arcy, President and Chief Creative Officer for Time Warner, delivered the most engaging presentations overall at the ANA conference.

I’m not sure that these biometric measures (which don’t include EEG or fMRI brain scans) can distinguish between the types of engagement – a speaker who says something controversial, or even obviously false, might produce a higher level of engagement too. On the other hand, I would expect that even such simple metrics can separate speakers who hold the attention of the audience from those that cause listeners to tune out.

A Different Approach

While wiring up audience members was a clever way to demonstrate the use of biometrics to a group of national advertisers, I don’t expect this approach to go mainstream with conference organizers. But, using biometrics or more sophisticated neuromarketing tools like EEG or fMRI, one could readily compare two versions of a speech, or two speakers delivering the same presentation. By taping the presentations, the studies could be conducted in a lab environment. If a speaker found engagement levels dropping, say, as she presented historic data supporting her main point, she could streamline or even eliminate that part of her speech. Topics that produced high levels of engagement could be further developed in the speech.

I wouldn’t be surprised at all to learn that this approach to speech optimization has already been done for political candidates. Particularly for a “stump speech” that will be repeated again and again, the cost of such a study might be justified. (Of course, for a repeated speech, having a skilled observer simply watch the audience reaction would yield data that might be just as good.)

Sales pitches might be similarly optimized, though most sales processes aren’t totally standardized and individual reactions will no doubt vary.

I know that when I do a neuromarketing keynote or smaller presentation, I’m constantly trying to gauge the audience reaction. That helps me steer the presentation to keep engagement high, but of course one can only observe so much while actually presenting. (If I see many audience members scribbling notes, I know I’m on the right track. But it’s certainly possible to have a high degree of engagement where no note-taking is required.)

As a speaker, I’d love to get real-time, quantitative feedback on audience engagement. I don’t think we’re quite at the point where the speaker could peek at a little dial showing the state of the audience (even those folks in back that you can’t see), but we can dream. And, in the meantime, I definitely see “trial run” speech optimization using neuromarketing technology as a viable technique today.

  1. gregorylent says

    good for getting metrics, i suppose …. but all audiences are already wired up, evaluating all things in real time …. consciousness is doing it.

  2. Dan Zarrella says

    Have you seen the research I did into this from a contagious/social-media point of view:

  3. Roger Dooley says

    That’s great data, Dan. Love the fact that each suggestion is backed up by the stats.


  4. Pablo Edwards says

    I am a big fan of simple power point. Throw a few pictures up and some numbers, stats, or quotes… outside of that stories can get you through and connect well with the audience.

  5. Wes M says

    Hey, nice article!

    One way to monitor this is the *manual way* i.e. observing the audience. However doing that while presenting is deadly. It will make you totally off the present moment and most likely ruin the presentation. (tried that lol).

    However a friend of yours can do that for you (adept in body language) and the send you notes via some messaging app or something to give you better feedback.

    I learned that *trick* from DJs. Good DJs can read the crowd very well and they developed almost intuition on how the people react on different music attributes (rhythm, pattern, singing, chorus and etc.)
    However DJ’s don’t usually need that much focus as a presenter.

    Hope it helps 🙂

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