Today, I want to talk about presentation techniques I learned last week during an excellent lunch talk given by a colleague, Tom Margolis. The talk was titled, “Cognitive Communication Coaching for Engineers”. Tom was a high school teacher before he became a software engineer, so he’s in a prime position to speak on this subject.

It turns out that because of how our brains work, people can only carry a certain level of cognitive load. It is as though our hippocampus is a post office. When people get exposed to too many ideas at a time, just like a post office getting too many letters, people tend to drop those ideas on the floor instead of remembering them. Tom’s talk centered around three principles for presenting information in a way that people don’t get overloaded: walk-aways, dolphin maps, and empathy.

I learned about the first principle, walk-aways, under the term “take-aways”. A presentation should be designed so that the audience is expected to remember just a handful of key concepts at most. These concepts are known as “walk-aways”, the ideas the listener should walk away with.

Tom told us that the presenter should focus on the walk-away. Any information that isn’t relevant to the walk-away is fluff and should be discarded. This is not to say that simply stating an idea as fact is sufficient. The presenter needs to present enough data to support their point, in order to provide enough evidence to convince the audience.

I learned from Tom that when you as presenter choose to introduce that extra information, such as an anecdote or an example, it’s important to let the audience know that they are not expected to remember it. After all, it’s not the anecdote you tell that’s the key, it’s the walk-away itself. Hence, the audience can forget the anecdote as long as they remember your point. These three techniques (focus, fluff, and forget) allow the presenter to offer walk-aways in a way that’s easy for the audience to digest.

The next principle is that of a “dolphin map”. Dolphins swim by taking deep breaths and staying underwater for many minutes at a time. However, they surface their blowholes to breathe periodically to release carbon dioxide and to recharge their lungs with oxygen. A presenter should do the same for their audience, so they can release cognitive load and recharge for more.

Tom likened this to a map that a tour guide gives out. Even though the tour won’t get lost with a guide, the map allows the people on the tour to orient themselves and to predict what’s coming. The map relaxes people and allows them to focus on the sights without worrying about details like when the next bathroom break might be.

Tom suggests that presenters frame the details of each topic, whether the topic is the presentation itself or a particular walk-away. He said the details should be sandwiched between an introduction of the topic and a review. The introduction should explain how the topic fits in. The review should mention this fit again and offer the audience an opportunity to “take a breath” and ask questions.

This sandwich concept is a well-known technique, Aristotle was the one that developed the argument casserole recipe of “tell them what you will tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them”. However, Tom took this idea a step further. He used consistent iconography in his presentation so that it was easy for us to look at any slide and tell where we were in the presentation.

The last principle is that of empathy, and it’s the one I found most interesting. Tom talked about the idea that each of us has an internal model of the world. Miscommunication abounds when two people have a different internal model. One person’s model might be rich and detailed, whereas another’s might be sparse and still forming. One may have different steps that come from one’s upbringing, and another’s might have different shapes owing to personal beliefs.

An effective presenter will keep this in mind when crafting their presentation. With each concept along the way, a presenter should communicate their internal model, going as far as to define important words or explaining how it came about. In this way, the presenter offers the audience a way to synchronize their internal model with the presenter’s.

Tom gave the counter-example of “sticky note” communication. Sticky notes often contain shorthand and only make sense to the writer. They work because they assume a particular internal model. When writing a presentation, it’s important to avoid this kind of “sticky note” communication, or you could lose your audience. Presenters should ask themselves at every turn, “can someone misunderstand this?” If so, the presenter can add or clarify information.

Tom also made a distinction between information and education. Information is akin to handing a person a object and saying, “here’s my model”. Education is the process of helping adjust another person’s internal model. This difference comes into play in presentations, especially when planning exercises. Making mistakes with a guide is a good way to learning the process of doing something. It’s not a good way of learning information.

Not only is it frustrating to adjust your internal model over and over again just to find out that you haven’t matched the guide’s model, but science shows that the brain connects ideas but doesn’t disconnect them. The mechanism is a lot like the way ant make scent trails. Correct connections are the ones that are refreshed over and over, whereas the wrong ones fade over time. A guide can help minimize the number of wrong connections that are made, making it easier for the audience to find the right ones.

Tom talked about three techniques for improving presentations: walk-aways, dolphin maps, and empathy. In my next post, I’ll talk about the two keynotes at Mile High Agile 2016, and how these techniques manifested in their presentations.