You Can’t Back Up Your Ears

A recent comment got me thinking about the difference between absorbing information I read and absorbing information I hear.

If you’ve ever read anything more than a couple paragraphs long, you know that moment – you’re reading along, and a sentence triggers a thought, and your brain follows that thought for a few seconds. But your eyes, somehow oblivious to the fact that your brain is ignoring them, continues to scan the next few sentences. Your brain finishes the thought, reengages the eyes, realizes they are halfway down the page, and says “hey – what’d I miss?”.

When hearing a speaker – those exact same moments happen – an interesting statement triggers a thought, which your brain explores, and you miss the next few lines. This is not just you or me, this is everyone – we all slightly (or not so slightly) disconnect our brain from our eyes and ears when we actively think.

If this happens while you are reading, good news – you can just scan back up and pick up where your brain checked out the first time. But in the presentation situation, there is no re-reading – there is no ability to rewind the tape and listen again.

What does this mean for us as presenters?

It means we must remember that our audience is human, and our words will trigger thoughts – and we want that. But it also mean that if we do not want them to miss something important, we need to adjust accordingly.

Specifically, do three things:

1) Repeat the important points. You can do it verbatim – “…this is important, so let me just say that again…”. Or you can make the same point with different words “…let me put that another way….”.

2) Back up the important points in a couple different ways – have a story and an explanation, have a case study and some data, etc. Make sure that if they did miss one part of it, there is another way for them to follow you

3) If the point or idea is somewhat complex, slow down, and maybe even pause after, to give people a few moments to process what you just said.

These may feel odd the first time you do them, but when you see that more people seem to be getting your message, you will realize it’s worth it.


Written by

Eli Murphy